From the red and yellow hues of autumn to the snow-dusted branches of winter, U-M’s Nichols Arboretum—affectionately known as the Arb—is a beloved destination for students longing to step outside of their stuffy dorm rooms and venture into nature. However, a “wild adventure” through the Arb is a far cry from the true wilderness with human-made pathways, steps, and signs that provide visitors with information on tree species or advise them to “proceed with caution” on steep terrain. Master of Architecture student Axel Olson couldn’t help but notice the human maintenance that interacts with the Arb’s supposed “natural purity.” With his Architecture Student Research Grant from Taubman College, Olson dove deeper into the topic for his DSI certificate project: “Signs of Life.

Together, the constructed signs represent “a larger ecology at work,” explained Olson during his research colloquium presentation. Neon signs or bright orange construction cones may be alarming to some as they disrupt everything “natural” about nature, but for Olson, the stark contrast of color is eye-catching and accessible, essential for drawing the attention of passersby.

Olson further noticed that the signs around the Arb did not align aesthetically; some were bright and bold while others stuck to the classic Papyrus font with clipart flowers. While Olson didn’t overhaul the entire Arb sign network, he did come up with a sorting system to categorize the signs by the information they contain. Signage falls into the following classifications: interpretive, work in progress, planting, notice, event, and field note designations.

But of course, these signs have to catch a visitor’s eye. The easiest way to stand out in a forest? Bright colors. As DSI Professor Anna Watkins Fisher discusses in her book Safety Orange (2021), orange attracts attention and connotes a sense of urgency. This attention is perhaps exactly the reason Olson chooses safety orange for the sign displays he designed: modular joints created from a 3D printer in his apartment. These orange fasteners are used to attach construction posts in different configurations to hold up the signs. Orange and its inclusion in the environment is not only an aesthetic topic but a timely one. As it demands the gaze of passersby, it creates a stark contrast that forces viewers to consider a reality where the natural colors of the forest are entirely replaced by the “artificial.” The orange components also switch to green ones in the fall to contrast the warmer tones of the forest during that time of year. It’s a responsive color cycle of constructed elements that visually responds to the changing Arb.

Another concept that Olson wanted to explore was the opposite of high visibility—camouflage. How could someone create camouflage material that tricks the eye into seeing something that belongs? The “Signs of Life” project then branched into the creation of texture maps, which combined the familiar with the strange. In this process, Olson took 3D scans of objects in the forest such as a pile of logs and asked a program to digitally “unwrap” the 3D objects to result in a 2D print. “Unwrapped” prints could be used as camouflage tarps, leading Olson to think about “mapping” in an entirely different way, like the enigma of wrapping a 3D object in a 2D cover.

Finally, one of the biggest challenges to maintaining the Arb’s aesthetic is the constant upkeep necessary to preserve the signs against unpredictable Michigan weather. To help with this, designed a website titled “Post Platform” to act as a digital map indicating where all the signs and ground cover are located along the Arb trails. Different symbols correspond to the previously established sign categories, providing a digital map to every “Sign of Life.”

After seeing the Arb through Olson’s eyes, I decided to take another trip to the Arb. Before Olson’s research presentation, I would have argued against highlighting human construction elements in such a peaceful forest. Surely we shouldn’t place construction cones in the middle of the trees? For some, it may be jarring and ruin the escapism experience. However, through interacting with the trails, I was reminded of the inescapable “man-made” nature found around the world. Like Olson’s project demonstrates, it’s not a problem—it’s an invitation to think about our interconnectedness with nature and our duty to protect it. From my grandma’s precisely crafted flower beds to Central Park, human creation attempts to compensate for former habitat destruction. Highly visible “Signs of Life” emphasize the importance of preserving the current landscape, peacefully guiding the U-M community through nature.