Signs of the Times
Issue: Volume: 28 Issue: 7 (July 2005)

Signs of the Times

If you’ve ever been to Las Vegas’s McCarron airport, you can’t have missed the audiovisual theatrics showing on the huge monitors above the baggage claim area advertising the wealth of entertainment options the city has to offer. And even at smaller airports, you’ve no doubt seen the easy-to-read plasma screens displaying more mundane, but perhaps more useful flight information. Though vastly different, both examples serve as traditional applications of digital signage and only hint at a burgeoning new market with which designers should soon become familiar.

Thanks to the decreasing costs of flat-panel displays and increasingly robust IP infrastructures, digital signage is poised to find a lot broader audience today than just the large-scale installations in places like airports. Retail establishments, entertainment venues, and corporate and educational campuses are all examples of spaces where information needs to be disseminated, and they are all targets for new digital signage solutions.

And with the technology maturing, the main need for many businesses exploring digital signage now is finding appropriate, informative, professionally designed content. Specifically, there is a need for content that can be created and updated faster and less expensively than through the normal production cycle of a traditional ad agency. And except for the airport flight information example, effective digital signage content typically mixes static and motion graphics with moving video elements. In other words, it’s the stuff regularly dealt with by design professionals.

Digital signage covers a wide range of technologies and uses, including airports, corporate atria, shopping mall corridors, point-of-sale kiosks, entertainment venues, and educational campuses. Installations can include hundreds of monitors, just a few, or even a single display. Multiple monitors might present the same information, at an airport or a sports arena, or they each might display different information, as in specific areas of an amusement park or entertainment venue.

Not surprising, given that breadth of possibilities, digital signage infrastructures can vary greatly, too. Single-station kiosks or a handful of displays in a retail store might include a simple “black box” MPEG-player appliance, such as Adtec Digital’s Edje or Soloist product lines, Canopus’s MediaEdge 2, ElectroSonic’s Frend, or Focus Enhancements’ FireFly series. These devices upload video and graphical content from a server and play it from a pre-set playlist onto a display. Larger installations often employ dedicated signage storyboarding, scheduling, and distribution software, such as from Mercury Online Solutions, Scala, Philips, or WebPavement.

A few of those tools include design elements, including the positioning of graphics and video windows or text creation, but none is a true content design application. It’s more common for the elements of digital signage content to be created in the applications professionals regularly use, like Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, a non-linear editing system, or an animation tool like Autodesk’s 3ds Max. Most digital signage applications rely on the facility to organize and administer content, create linear playlists or schedules, and move files across a network. Many generate log files to monitor playouts. Some solutions, like WebPavement, are actually subscription services that provide the use of a server, storage, and distribution infrastructure rather than for-sale software.

Digital signage is sprouting up in a variety of public venues-from campuses, point-of-sale kiosks, and shopping malls (shown here) to airports, sporting arenas, and corporate atria.

Still, most digital signage installations include a few basic components: the display monitors, a content source, and typically some way to change or control the timing or schedule of the content. And they all require content. That might include video to attract attention as well as textual information and graphical design elements to provide useful and timely information. Most often it’s some combination of content types created for the specific installation.

Imagine, for example, a signage in-stallation at a clothing retailer. A series of flat panels strategically placed throughout local stores might display repeated presentations of current television advertising. But many shoppers would have already seen that content, so it wouldn’t command much attention without additional messaging. More effective signage might add information on current sales merchandise, style and fashion ideas, store credit card offers, a store floor plan, or even explanations of the current storefront window displays. That combination of content, laid out in a thoughtful and professional manner, is ideally suited to the skills of a graphics and video artist.

Content designer Blue Pony Digital of Fort Wayne, Indiana, sees enormous potential in new digital signage markets and is already forming business relationships with clients as diverse as a regional car dealership, houses of worship, and a national clothing retailer. Admittedly, those types of direct client relationships might be new to designers who are used to working through an agency, but Blue Pony’s Nathan Grepke sees them as the most efficient and mutually productive approach to digital signage.

“Advertising-particularly television advertising-has been around for a long time, but it’s an expensive process,” Grepke says. “Digital signage has to be quick, to the point, and constantly changing. That’s why a direct relationship with the design team makes so much sense.”

Blue Pony Digital has also been working with major digital signage and display distributor ActiveLight to create examples of custom content that can show potential retail and business users what digital signage solutions might mean for them.

In the long term, Grepke acknowledges that working with those tools is probably a logical next step for Blue Pony as the market takes shape. For now, with plenty of interest in the technology, but few tangible examples of custom content ideas, digital signage represents a new opportunity that’s almost perfectly tailored to graphic and video designers.

Jeff Sauer
is a contributing editor of Computer Graphics World and director of the Digital Video Group,
an independent research and testing organization for digital media. He can be reached at