Mark Woolmer

How to get the best from your Interpretation Contracts


I had just landed my dream Interpretation job! A small, local heritage project had secured Lottery funding. The project’s ‘interpretive outcomes’ were a simple website, a set of panels and a leaflet. The project’s steering committee (made up of ‘project partners’) had just appointed a project officer. This person had a relevant degree and just enough interpretation experience (i.e. a course module) to know that it was not their area of expertise. So, this was why I’d been brought in as a copywriter to work with the web and graphic designers on the project’s interpretation.

The project partners had an initial discussion about the interpretation with the project officer and a list of content requirements was drawn up. The steering committee then delegated the job of coordinating the production of the various interpretive components to the project officer. They also gave the project officer the authority to sign the work off.

This meant that I and the web, leaflet and panel designers only had to communicate with one person, who had a clear understanding of what the project partners required. Any queries arising from early draft stages were resolved, if necessary, by the project officer consulting the relevant project partner(s). But the ‘fine tuning’ of later drafts was dealt with by the project officer alone.

Eventually, after a series of draft stages – each a refinement of the one before it – the work was signed off by the project officer and the panel and leaflet artwork sent to the printer in plenty of time for the project launch.

Then I woke up!

So it really had been a ‘dream job’ after all!

Here’s why this ‘perfect’ scenario really only exists in dreams.

In my experience, project partners are usually not very good at delegating. In fact, project partners often continue to have a say in what happens at every stage of production. It’s probably only human nature to want some control /involvement when you have put a lot of effort into securing project funds, but this can make the contractors’ lives quite complicated and difficult (often increasingly so with each successive draft). This is especially the case when project partners don’t agree! (And what happens then?!)

OK, I’m just going to have to come right out and say it: DESIGN BY COMMITTEE DOESN’T WORK! Furthermore, the project officer is quite likely to know more about interpretation than any of the project partners, and, in turn, the interpretation contractors are quite likely to know more about interpretation than the project officer. Otherwise, why have these experts been brought in to do the work?

I like to see the process by which interpretive media are produced as a sort of ‘creative funnel’. With each successive draft or stage, the contractor works with the client to narrow down the options to get closer to the final product. This means that each stage builds on the last and incorporates successive refinements. Each refinement represents a decision; but because copywriters and designers don’t often ‘show their workings’ it isn’t always clear just how much thought and effort has gone into what may – to the untrained eye – appear to be a tiny little insignificant tweak!

Behind every line of text and every image there is a whole chain of ‘invisible decisions’ – some of which will have to be made all over again if alterations are made by the client. For example, critical (yet subtle) layout decisions to fit around a certain image shape; or skilled text editing to achieve a tight word count target. Or, a copywriter may have agonised for ages over an alternative phrase to replace a technical word – only to have it changed back to the original by the client!

Perhaps designers – and even copywriters – should sometimes ‘show their workings’ and include the occasional note to explain to the client why they have decided to do something a certain way. Even though it may not be what the client originally thought they wanted!

Which leads me to…

Not surprisingly, clients often can’t visualise as well as their ‘creative contractors’ – resulting in what I call the “I don’t know what I want until I see something I don’t want” syndrome!

It may seem like just asking to have all those exciting, initial ideas shot down in flames, but I’m afraid an early draft essentially exists to have holes picked in it by the client/project partners – to give them some sort of starting point. As already discussed, picking a hole in a later draft can lead to a disastrous ‘domino’ effect: the design elements have by then become so intertwined that making a small change can create a sort of chain reaction, perhaps even forcing a complete re-think! Similarly, client/project partner text alterations (i.e. more than just grammar and typo corrections) at a very late stage – perhaps even after ‘final’ proof-reading – are often made very hurriedly. That’s when mistakes can really get missed!

So, try to reach a consensus with early drafts – and then (probably more difficult) get project partners to agree to stick to it!

Of course, as drafts are produced and refinements are made, a certain amount of to-ing and fro-ing between designers/copywriters and clients is inevitable. But, to avoid resentment, contractors really need to be clear at the outset how much of this to-ing and fro-ing is included in the price – and how much will be charged extra!

Which leads me to…

When I started my first real interpretation job, I was sent on a course with the snappy title ‘Contracts and Contract Management for Works and Services in Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty’. It was probably the most useful course I ever did in all my time working for local authorities!

There were a lot of PowerPoint slides about procurement and Standing Orders and legal stuff. And most of the contract examples used were actually more appropriate to the sort of works and services that rangers and Rights of Way officers would get involved with. However, the thing that stuck with me was that all good contract management depends upon GOOD COMMUNICATION – and the trainers drummed into us the importance of a CLEAR BRIEF.

Over the years I’ve managed many ‘creative contractors’ and, since I went freelance, I’ve been one myself. So I’ve looked at contracts from both sides – the project officer/client and the contractor.

As an interpretation officer, I was usually dealing with illustrators, graphic designers, web designers, video makers and photographers. But on odd occasions, I required other services to promote or explain some landscape feature.

The local agricultural show was looming, so the education officer and I devised a game for our AONB stand. Its purpose was to explain that ‘unimproved’ grassland grows more wildflowers than ‘improved’ grassland – and is therefore better for bees and other insects. In the relative comfort of the office, we thought: what better way to promote our game than dress up as giant insects?

My colleague’s ladybird costume was to be a modified Humpty Dumpty, but my costume had to be specially made by the fancy dress shop. I had envisaged a fairly ‘forgiving’, simple yellow and black striped tabard of fur fabric, under which I could wear whatever I liked. Unfortunately, in my excitement about becoming a bee, I had forgotten all that good advice about a ‘clear brief’.

We collected the costumes the day before the show. To my horror, the fancy dress shop lady had really gone to town! I found myself completely encased in a bulbous leotard, with close fitting, elasticated holes in the thick fur fabric – just big enough to shove my legs (in black tights) through. My colleagues fell about as I spluttered “But… it’s got a… GUSSET!”

In forgetting the ‘contract brief’, I had ended up with a giant pair of… yellow and black striped, furry briefs! Horizontal stripes are not ‘slimming’ at the best of times. So, no need to ask if my bum looked big in it. I knew it did. And, being June, it was very hot in that fur fabric. Very hot indeed!

Back in 2002, when I did that Contract Management course, smart devices hadn’t been invented. (Or if they had, someone was keeping very quiet about it.) Though smartphones now mean that many clients and contractors can be contacted by email at any time of day – and this may speed the process up somewhat – there is another side to them. And it’s not just that you may make yourself unpopular if you send an email asking someone to decide between Book Antiqua and Garamond at 11pm!

The ‘curse of the smartphone’ (well, the one most relevant to this article) is this. Imagine a client trying to check copy on a screen measuring only a few inches across – in a lurching, crowded rush hour tube.

But, rather than trying to un-invent smartphones, may I suggest the following precautionary measures:

Contractors – Send any text you want to be read carefully (e.g. copy or detailed questions) as a Word document and not in the body of an email. That way, it’s more likely to be read on a full-size screen. But make sure that it’s clear from the email that you have attached a document to it!

Clients – Mark as ‘unread’ anything that you initially open on your smart device that needs attention to detail. Then look at it again later on a full-size screen.

Finally, whether you are client or contractor, KEEP ALL YOUR EMAILS! Don’t delete any correspondence about a project until the work has been signed-off and paid for!

When working as a local authority interpretation officer, I often found myself in the role of ‘facilitator’: helping a community or local tourism project group to produce promotional or interpretive material. This meant I had to liaise with both the group and their design contractors – so I was piggy in the middle!

I’m sorry to say that I did once have a dispute with one such project partner and had to remind them of the respective tasks we’d agreed to. I was only able to do this because I’d kept all my emails, both to and from this individual.

I recall a particularly trying telephone conversation with that project partner. He was patronising me mercilessly and trying to wriggle out of doing his agreed tasks. I had been restraining myself because, although I was only acting as a ‘go-between’, this project partner was also in some respects my ‘client’. But I finally lost it and ended the discussion rather unprofessionally by bellowing “And DON’T call me sweetheart!” before slamming the receiver down. (I got called ‘sweetheart’ by colleagues quite a lot after that!)

Hence the title of this article – just in case you were wondering!

So, is the client/ customer always right?

Well, yes… and no…

A last word about last words:

Interpretation professionals – For the sake of your sanity, always make sure to have the last word. But sometimes be prepared to have it in your head!


About the Author – Janina Holubecki

“My first degree was in Graphic Design and Photography. After an MA in Heritage Studies, I became Education Officer at Hackney City Farm and then Interpretation Officer for two Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty in succession. Since 2008, when I went freelance, major contracts have included website and panel text for Lincolnshire Coastal Country Park and a book about the restoration of St Pancras Chambers Hotel. I have been a full member of the Association for Heritage Interpretation since 2003.”

Mark Woolmer

Mark Woolmer

With a strong background in art and design, Mark is passionate about the capacity for excellent design as a communication tool, leading the Fitzpatrick Woolmer company and focusing on strategy, business development and continual improvement.

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