Students in Derek Witucki’s Typography class are redesigning signs like this one at Reflection Riding Arboretum and Nature Center.

What do you get when graphic design students blend topics like typography, backgrounds and colors with barn owls, red wolves and black vultures?

A semester-long experiential learning project.

As part of a community partnership opportunity, lecturer Derek Witucki’s  students are closing in on the finish line with a project designing wayfinding and exhibit signage for Reflection Riding Arboretum and Nature Center, a nonprofit botanical garden and historical site located near Lookout Mountain.

“This has been a great learning experience for them,” said Witucki, a lecturer in graphic design at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. “What makes this experiential course so valuable is that it does mirror what’s going to happen in a real job.”

Reflection Riding has a 317-acre arboretum, 15 miles of trails, live animals and a treehouse. It also has signage containing information, but signs have been damaged due to weather, the sun’s ultraviolet rays, limbs falling off trees and regular wear-and-tear.

“As part of the graphic design program, we reach out to a number of different organizations every year, and Reflection Riding had these opportunities with environmental graphics and wayfinding, which is outside the prototypical design education,” Witucki said. “It presented some excellent opportunities for the students to do some new things and learn some new things, skills that would be very useful in the profession.”

The nature facility wanted to modernize the signage. For example, the arboretum has signs on trees with scientific terminology that most people don’t understand. One current marker proudly displays the words “liquidambar styraciflua” and “altingiaceae,” fancy words for a sweetgum tree and a small family of flowering plants.

His project, Witucki said, deals with what is referred to as environmental graphics, or putting graphic design typography into the real world. The class was tasked with creating an interactive experience that was interesting for adults and children with an emphasis on creating photo opportunities that could be captured for social media.

“That’s wayfinding systems; that’s signage; it’s exhibitions and other kinds of educational installations,” Witucki said.

“And a related thing to that is interaction or participatory design, which are those cool things that get kids involved. It can be as simple as a sign with the ruler that says, here’s how high and how far a bobcat can jump. It gets the kids engaged, gets them to try it out.”

The 13 students in Witucki’s class also had to deal with the realities of a COVID semester, splitting into two groups with alternating in-person days and collaborating via Zoom. Every junior in the bachelor’s in fine arts program has a professional practices course like this, explained student Mollie Johnson.

“It’s teaching you how to work with clients and work as a team, collaboratively, which is something that most of us haven’t done—especially on this scale,” said Johnson.  “Working on a team of 13 designers with our professor guiding us along the way—and working with a client—is something entirely new for probably all of us.

“It’s been interesting, especially breaking up across two classes and dividing the cohort in half. That’s been an extra hoop to jump through, but I think it’s taught us all to work collaboratively in a way that we haven’t before. Compromise, leadership, a lot of different things along the way.”

Student Sydney Daugherty initially thought the course would focus on rebuilding a brand, something closer aligned to advertising. It was refreshing to literally rebrand a brand, she said.

“It’s not rebranding in a sense that they’re restarting. They would like to liven up a little bit with new color schemes, new materials for their signs, things like that,” Daugherty said.

Both students said much of what is interesting about the project is that Reflection Riding isn’t interested in the types of details you can find in an online encyclopedia but in the specific stories that can be told about their wildlife inhabitants.

“One of the things I heard a lot from Reflection Riding is that they want people to learn interesting facts that, when you leave the facility, you’ll remember,” Daugherty said. “For example, I can’t tell you what the barn owl eats, but I can tell you that it has this heart-shaped face.

“And the barred owl screams like a person. People have called 911 saying that there is a lady screaming in their barn when it turns out to be this type of owl. So for the signs we’re creating, they are focused on the very interesting, gross, out-of-this-world facts about these animals.”


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Chuck Wasserstrom is an executive staff writer in the UTC Office of Communications and Marketing.

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