Visual appeal: How the characteristics of photographs can affect science communication in Chinese national parks
As places that conserve iconic natural heritage, national parks are appropriate destinations for people to engage with and reconnect to nature. Within such parks, the interpretation of the natural science stories behind them is a helpful means to enrich human experience and increase the public’s understanding of the natural attractions. Given that effective interpretation includes not only cognitive outcomes but also affective outcomes, photography, as a widely-used tool for documenting science stories and evoking emotions, may help to enhance interpretation. When using a photograph to communicate science stories, it is important to recognise that its efficacy may be affected by its visual characteristics (i.e. subject and visual quality). However, the literature review within this thesis found that to date there is no empirical study on how such visual characteristics influence the effectiveness of photographs for communicating natural science stories. This thesis was conducted within the context of interpreting natural attractions within national parks. It focused on how photographs with different visual characteristics influence their effectiveness for interpretation from a science communication perspective. Quantitative and qualitative data were collected from May 2017 to October 2018. As the first phase of the research, a survey of the preferences of tourists for a selection of photographs of the natural attractions within the Xixi National Wetland Park (XNWP) in China was designed to identify how the visual characteristics of the photographs influence the preferences of tourists for these photographs. Based on the above results, I then examined the specific role of a few visual attributes of a wildlife photograph in its perceived attractiveness. Next, I focused on the value of photographs with different visual qualities for two widely-used interpretive products: (i) interpretive signage as one of the most common interpretive approaches used in national parks, and (ii) WeChat (i.e. WeChat Public Account articles) as China’s most popular online social media application. Tourists’ general attitudes towards the importance of photographs for interpretive signage and their responses to the existing interpretive signage within the XNWP were examined firstly as the basis of the subsequent experiment. Next, using three manipulated signs, I identified the specific contributions of nature photographs for enhancing the effectiveness of the interpretive signage for the purpose of science communication. Lastly, given that interpretive WeChat articles were considered as a potentially powerful tool for interpreting science, a supportive online survey was developed to test the efficacy of nature photographs in WeChat online interpretive articles on natural sciences. The results of the first section confirmed the relationship between the visual appeal of photographs and the preferences of participants. For the majority of participants, the photograph’s visual quality (i.e. aesthetics) was the most important characteristic that determined its perceived attractiveness; those photographs of high visual quality and with a sharp and colourful subject could successfully attract tourists’ attention. The subject of a photograph also significantly affected the preferences of observers, which showed an interest-dependent pattern. Using photographs of birds as examples, the participants who were interested in birds tended to be attracted to the photographs of birds rather than those of other subjects. In particular, those bird enthusiasts who have specific knowledge of birds paid more attention to the bird subjects. The survey on the effectiveness of the existing interpretive signage within the XNWP found that the majority of participants could indeed be attracted to interpretive signage with an appealing photograph. However, the photographs on the existing signage had varied visual qualities, which seemed to affect reading engagement and understanding. Results of the field experiment with manipulated interpretive signage showed that an appealing photograph (determined by its high visual quality) on the signage significantly increased the following affective and cognitive effectiveness of interpretation: (i) visitor’s intention to read the signage; (ii) reading engagement; (iii) comprehension and (iv) recall of the information on the signage. Similarly, the survey of WeChat popular science articles noted the perceived visual quality of the photographs used in such articles was related to users’ intention to read the article and to their overall engagement. In summary, this thesis identifies the existing limitations and issues of using photographs as visual elements to interpret natural sciences. Examining widely-used interpretive products (i.e. signage and WeChat) within two Chinese national parks, this thesis offers empirical evidence for the benefits of using high-quality photographs to communicate science. Specifically, it confirms that the use of photographs in interpretive products may not necessarily improve the effectiveness of interpretation, i.e. the visual characteristics of the nature photographs play an important role in the effectiveness of interpretation. Only those photographs with a high visual quality or sharp/colourful subjects are appreciated by observers and as a result enhance affective and cognitive outcomes. This thesis answers the question: what types of photographs are more effective for science communication and how do appealing photographs improve the effectiveness of communication? The results are important both for the selection of photographs within the interpretive product design process and for the evaluation of the effectiveness of such interpretation. This thesis, therefore, has global implications for improving the efficacy of photographs to communicate science, particularly for interpreting natural science stories within national parks.
Advisor: Davis, Lloyd Spencer; Carr, Anna
Degree Name: Doctor of Philosophy
Degree Discipline: Centre for Science Communication
Publisher: University of Otago
Keywords: national park; photograph; interpretation; science communication; signage; WeChat; visual appeal; aesthetics
Research Type: Thesis