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Developing the Garden's Big Idea

By Elaine McGinn, Director of Planning and Exhibits

The Garden is here to help you ENJOY the beauty of the desert and CARE about it.

Several years ago the Garden recognized that a strategic approach was needed regarding how visitors experience and connect to the Garden. While major physical renovations and additions have been made over the last 15 years, we had not engaged in formal interpretive master planning since the late 1990s.

The Garden’s strategic master plan has an overarching theme: to make new and stronger connections between people and plants. Realizing that an increased understanding of our relationship with visitors would lead to improved communication and education, we developed a course of action that would accomplish that goal.

In 2013, Desert Botanical Garden applied for and received a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) to create a new interpretive master plan (IMP). The primary goal was to find new and innovative ways to communicate the Garden’s underlying purpose through messages that are focused, clear, and consistent. Two years of a consultant-led process has resulted in success—we now have a clearly defined statement of the one Big Idea that all segments of Desert Botanical Garden can convey to visitors.

Funding from the IMLS grant allowed us to hire two leading interpretive consultants, Judy Rand of Rand and Associates, an award winning interpretation expert, and Jeff Hayward of People, Places & Design Research (PPDR), one of the top five experts in the U.S. in audience research. We invited members of the community to participate as advisors, including a botanist, a conservationist, an educational theorist, an ethnobotanist, and science museum and communications specialists.

Rand and Hayward led this team through an intensive two-year planning process to assess the Garden’s current interpretation, develop new ways to improve the visitor experience, and publish a living document to guide us in achieving the goal of understanding visitors’ needs and interests.

Identifying and Testing Assumptions
The Interpretive Master Plan work began in November 2013. The IMP team of Garden staff and community advisors held the first two-day workshop with Rand and Hayward to establish clear outcomes for the IMP process. We each shared what we believed the Garden is about and how we want to articulate key messages. In this initial phase of the project, we shared assumptions about the visitor (e.g., life cycle types, attendance patterns, etc.), hopes and goals for the IMP process, what we know and don’t know about target audiences and their interpretive experiences, and a preliminary vision of outcomes for the planning process.

We believed that the Desert Botanical Garden already provides a high quality, memorable visitor experience. We did not want to change the Garden, but sought to maximize its connections with visitors. The desired outcome of the IMP process was that interpretation and communication will provide:

  • A common sense of identity and purpose across all aspects of the Garden.
  • An improved understanding of diverse audiences.
  • A focus for the development of all education and interpretive elements and programs.
  • A guide for plant acquisition and display designs in support of communication goals.
  • A method for evaluating the outcomes of visitor interactions with the Garden.
  • A documented practice to share with other gardens and natural history collections.

The next activity, led by PPDR, was to conduct audience research to test the assumptions. To do this, Hayward developed a comprehensive survey that staff and volunteers used to interview visitors directly. Over a period of three-and-a-half-months, 502 visitors were interviewed. Survey data illuminated who is visiting, why they come, how we can improve their experience, and what they think about (or how they perceive) the Garden.

Generating and Selecting a Big Idea
At a subsequent workshop, the IMP team generated and assessed preliminary options for an overarching interpretive message about what the Garden is as a cultural institution. We ranked and prioritized theme options, and selected nine options for investigation. Hayward developed a second survey that was used to interview more than 600 visitors. It focused on their interests in nine themes that we called hot topics.
They were:

  • The future of water in the Southwest.
  • The Garden is here to help you enjoy the beauty of the desert and care about it.
  • Conservation and sustainable living.
  • Desert dwellers—plants, animals, and people living in this land of extremes.
  • How the Sonoran Desert is special and unique.
  • The desert at night.
  • The desert is fragile and how you can help preserve it.
  • Gardening in a desert climate.
  • Plants used by people for food and drink.

Analysis of the survey revealed that of these nine themes, two elicited the highest interest: The future of water in the Southwest and The Garden is here to help you enjoy the beauty of the desert and care about it. These two themes rated most highly with all of the visitor segments, including older adults, younger adults, families with children, first-time visitors, and repeat visitors. According to Hayward and Rand, that was a very strong finding and warranted strong consideration by the team as the overarching key message. The remaining seven themes scored even and high in their visitor interest rating, therefore, no theme was eliminated for further interpretive development.

In addition to asking visitors about their interest in a particular theme, the survey included questions that explored their perceptions of existing interpretation. The analysis revealed that visitors do not currently get a single, clear, Big Idea of what the Garden is all about, or what important idea we are trying to convey. In interview after interview, visitors struggled to articulate a main message or important idea at the Garden. This corroborated our desire for a unifying Big Idea that staff and volunteers could share as a consistent message that promotes cohesiveness across all aspects of Garden operations.

The team decided to further develop the theme of The Garden is here to help you enjoy the beauty of the desert and care about it, as its Big Idea. Weighing this theme against the IMP goals, we determined that the remaining eight topics could fall under the umbrella of this theme. Subsequent audience research revealed visitors’ high interest in the potential Big Idea theme, allowing us to move to the next stage in the iterative process: using research findings to inspire creative interpretive planning.

Using Research Findings Brings Real Results for Interpretation
During year two of the interpretive master planning process, we implemented this new knowledge about developing visitor-centered experiences by conducting two comprehensive interpretive experiments with visitors.

Part of the planning for Desert Terrace Garden and the Jan and Tom Lewis Desert Portal included developing improved visitor orientation to the Garden in these spaces. While the physical structure of the Desert Terrace Garden and the Desert Portal are clearly defined, the visitor entry experience and conceptual messages about the Garden were not as clear. This situation suggested the potential value of an experiment to assess and learn about visitors’ perceptions of their entry experience.


Recognizing that the entry experience is essentially about orientation, Hayward and Rand developed a series of experiments to test different entry experiences with visitors, each one followed by its own audience survey. Through a process of conducting the entry experiments with a range of examples of interpretive content at different locations, beginning at the Admissions area and ending at the Desert Portal, we were able to assess the effectiveness of various prototype interpretation messages.

The results of the entry experience experiment were positive in helping staff not only to understand visitors’ needs and expectations for orientation to the Garden, but also in understanding the enormous value of this visitor-centered interpretive development process. Over the years, there has been much debate about visitor orientation; the findings from the experiment helped to broaden consensus among stakeholders.

Second Experiment Benefits Planning for the New Horticulture Center
The second interpretive experiment presented itself in the planning for the new Horticulture Center (opening in March 2017). Included were ideas for developing behind-the-scenes, guided interpretive tours for visitors and for interpretative signs about the horticulture, research, and conservation work being done there. With the leadership of Rand and Hayward, the team narrowed down the objectives for this experiment to finding the answers to these two questions:

  1. Do visitors want to know why we do versus how we do horticulture?
  2. Will visitors want a tour of the Horticulture Center?

Hayward translated these objectives into researchable questions about interest in a behind-the-scenes tour, estimating the extent of interest, and what types of visitors are most interested. The level of interest in horticulture-focused experiences was tested as how we care for plants versus conservation-focused experiences as why we care for plants. Knowing how visitors perceive the how and why will help inform the content of future interpretive signs and behind-the-scenes tour development for the new Horticulture Center.

Using analysis of data from the experiment, we learned that there is a strong interest from local visitors in gardening and connecting to what goes on behind the scenes. We also learned that visitors from other places are more interested in the horticultural aspects of how we care for plants. These results allowed us to begin implementing the visitorcentered approach to interpretive development early in the planning process.

A New Guide for All Interpretation
The analysis of visitors’ experiences generated a perspective that is uniquely about the Desert Botanical Garden. We now have scientific data about who our audience is by residence, age, socioeconomic status, group composition, interests, why they visit, and motivations to visit. We also know that the overall visitor experience was rated highly and that our audience has a broad receptivity to interpretation.

Published in October 2015, the interpretive master plan will guide how and what we will interpret throughout all areas of the Garden. It includes an interpretive planning philosophy, as well as objectives that guide decision making and strategies for message development and communication with visitors based on interpretation goals and audience research. Through the process of developing the IMP, we have gained a far better understanding of our audiences, while developing consensus among staff and volunteers about key messages to convey.

The IMP has become the foundation of a means for Garden stakeholders to bring together many different thoughts about providing an exceptional visitor experience. We now have standards to guide the tone and means of communication; an interpretive framework to organize, rank, and track messages; guidelines for decision making; and recommendations for specific interpretive strategies across all modes of visitor experience. If visitors are better informed and feel welcome, they will be motivated to engage in the learning opportunities presented by interpretation. Future strategic planning will support the IMP with a commitment to realizing the vision of our visitor-centered, conservation-minded, scientific institution that celebrates one of the world’s most extraordinary environments, the Sonoran Desert. The Garden seeks to create experiences that help visitors have stronger connections with nature, understand the relationship between plants and people, and inspire them to take action to conserve the natural world.

Desert Botanical Garden has begun a new era of communicating with its visitors. We are deeply appreciative of the support for the development of the interpretive master plan from the Institute of Museum and Library Services as well as the participation of Garden visitors who took time to respond to our surveys.