Fort Vancouver Has a Great Visitor Map (and a Lousy One, Too)

The simplest things impress me when I visit historic sites, like a good visitor map.  They’re hard to find so when I spot one, I’m thrilled.

I recently visited Fort Vancouver National Site in Vancouver, Washington, across the Columbia River from Portland, Oregon. In the Visitor Center, they provide a visitor map printed on 11 x 17″ paper that’s gathered in pads of 50 sheets. I’ve always loved these tear-off maps because they’re always neat and generously sized, and in this particular case, also well designed. Even though it’s simply printed with black ink on white paper, the designer carefully used tinting, serif and sans serif faces in different sizes, varied line weights, and symbols to help visitors easily find their way around this very large site. Most important, information that is not important to visitors is omitted. On the back side are descriptions for all the major landmarks as well as phone numbers and website addresses. I’ve provided a scan of the map, but the original is much clearer.

Same site, two maps. On the left, a detail from the tear-off map provided at the Visitor Center. On the right, the same detail from the map provided on the web site.

Strangely, the map on the Fort Vancouver website is different from the one they provide at the Visitor Center but it’s a great comparison to learn what NOT to do. It’s deceptively clear but in practice incredibly confusing. What are those red and green lines?  They distinguish the boundaries of the Historic Site in a thick green line from the Historic Reserve in a thin red line. Who cares? It’s easily confused for a road. Get rid of it!  Compare the names of places. Visitors are more likely to visit the Marshall House rather than NPS Administration so make it easier for them to find it by enlarging the type. By rendering names in the same typeface in the same weight, the visual hierarchy is flattened and requires more effort to sort out.  And the map neglects to answer the visitor’s most important question—how do I get in? where is the entrance? It’s gone and visitors are left to figure out how to enter by tracing the roadway spaghetti around the site.

If you’re creating a map, you have a great example to share with your graphic designer. But also be sure to look at it from the visitor’s perspective and test out prototypes with them.  You’re probably too familiar with the site to notice what’s missing or confusing.