What's Your Sign?

Ever since the first prehistoric humans traced their hands on the cave wall we have been inundated with signage. Some are ritualistic, some mercantile, some guide you to where you’re going, and some suggest where you want to be. From the immediately recognizable Golden Arches to delightfully cryptic Google doodle, signs get the message across cleanly, clearly, and up until recently, statically. But that has changed with the advent of digital signs.

What started in the ’70s as pre-recorded closed-circuit TV, digital signage made a showy, and expensive, debut in places like Times Square and Las Vegas. Today, low-cost equipment and high-speed Internet means that digital signage is everywhere from restaurants to highway billboards to retail outlets. But what role can it play on a college campus?

Safety is the first idea that comes to mind. Digital signage can play an important part in emergency notification. Compliance with the Clery Act demands that students, faculty, and staff be notified in a timely fashion in the case of an emergency. While a school has many options on how to get that message across, from high-tech text messages to low-tech bullhorns, digital signage has grown into a viable option. Case in point: in 2009 Campus Safety Magazine published a survey of how schools were handling their mass notification systems. At that time, 20 percent of the schools presently employed digital display signage. But when asked which new/upgraded mass notification system do they plan on deploying in the next year, digital signage’s number jumped to 30.5 percent.

Cost and ease of use must have played a role in the jump. “Just two years ago, the software alone for a digital sign system ran about $10,000. Then you had to purchase the media player on top of that,” says Gene Ornstead, director of product marketing, ViewSonic. Add to that number the PC needed to design the message and the actual screens to display it. Ornstead also admits that the older systems were complicated. “Now you can get a whole system of media players and accompanying software that is easy to use for around $1,500.”

You still have to have the computer to design the message and the screens to display it, however. “10 to 15 percent of the initial investment is the software, the rest of the budget goes to hardware: PCs, networks, and screens,” says Oscar Elizaga, senior vice president, Scala, whose company makes the software that drives digital signage. “As time passes, the price of that hardware and software is going down while the power capabilities go up.” This allows schools to do more with less.

More than just an added safety measure, digital signs are the next big thing in informing, advertising, wayfinding, and entertaining on college campuses. “Think about a big campus with sign kiosks dotting the perimeter,” says Andre Floyd, product marketing manager, digital signage, Sony Electronics. “The kiosk would have paper maps, building indexes, and information about upcoming events. Someone would have to design, print, deliver, and maintain all of that information. Digital signage takes all of that away.”

Signs would still be produced, but instead of sending proofs to the printer, the material would be uploaded and sent digitally to a display screen. “One single person anywhere in the world can manage the information,” continues Floyd. “And the screens can be divided up to show a variety of information from news and weather tickers to advertisements to event information.”

How are schools using this technology today? In spring 2010, Western University’s College of Pharmacy, in Pomona, CA, wanted a better way to inform students of current activities and upcoming club events, while also publicizing and welcoming guest speakers. The College’s previous efforts to disseminate messages via email and printed fliers didn’t seem to get the job done. The College turned to state-of-the-art digital signage.

The College invested in a high-definition 52-in. ePoster from ViewSonic, installing it front and center in its building’s lobby. The results were immediate. “With the eye-catching ePoster right in the lobby, students really can’t miss the information now,” says Frances Kolarz, Blackboard administrator at Western U. “Today, the College uses the 
ePoster to publicize all its events and welcome guest speakers, which offers a nice personalization. The students are excited about the ePoster because they can create announcements quite easily and send them to our director of student services, who uploads the images right to the ePoster.”

Kolarz is impressed with the products ease of use. “What’s nice about the program is that users can go in and be pretty creative with their announcements and images,” she adds. “The software is very user-friendly, which makes it easy for people who aren’t graphic designers to create attractive signage.”

Steve Kosh, marketing and communications manager, Mohawk Student Association, Mohawk College in Hamilton, Ontario, agrees that digital signage is an important part of his department’s programming. “We know our demographic, and frankly digital signage is expected,” he states. “The college’s full name is Mohawk College of Applied Art and Technology. We need to be current.”

Kosh got that opportunity when his organization planned on redesigning their 40-year-old student center. “We had no budget for digital signage in the restaurant,” remembers Kosh. “We were going to use static printed menu boards, but they just wouldn’t live up to the rest of the restaurant. You can’t change things on the fly, and nothing about them says ‘technical school.’”

Using the pitch that digital signs would be more ecologically friendly, Kosh convinced the student center to use digital menu boards, then got the okay for a 10-ft. by 7-ft. video wall as well. “The entire project cost $150,000, with $75,000 going to Scala to license the software.” The rest of the budget went to computers, servers, installation, and infrastructure.

“The response has been great,” raves Kosh. “The product is easy to use and customize. We have different feeds displaying in our three different restaurants.” Content includes menus, upcoming events, and pictures from past pub nights. What you won’t see is advertising. “Mohawk College sells advertising on their screens, but we are part of the student union and are funded entirely by fees,” Kosh explains. “Selling ads on these screens seems like double dipping to me.”

Yet advertising is what these screens do well. “We sold a lot of 42-in. displays to a number of college bookstores last quarter,” remembers ViewSonics’s Ornstead. “The schools are using them for merchandising and advertising their goods and services.”

“You could sell sponsorship space to say Pepsi or Nike,” says Sony Electronics’ Floyd, “and you can divide the screen up into zones so multiple messages can play at once. You could also time the messages so that a specific message comes on at a very specific time, say a Coke ad that plays just as class lets out. There is no end to the amount of information you can put on these signs.”

Ornstead concedes that in some areas a static, standard printed sign might fare better. “In a high-traffic area, a fixed image with a clear message would be more impactful. But in an area where people dwell for a while, video really catches attention.”

“Content should always drive the medium,” agrees Scala’s Elizaga. “The decision of how to get your message across should not be based on the technology. First you have to ask what the message is, why you are conveying it, and who the audience is.”

As with any technology, the future possibilities of digital signage seem endless. “Interactivity is the next big thing for digital signs,” says Elizaga. “Touch screens, buttons, interfacing with smart devices, and QR codes are all ways to engage viewers with your message. And the more people engage with your message, the stronger that message will be.”

Elizaga also marvels at the ways to personalize and interface data. “One of our clients is a quick-serve restaurant and they have an interface with the kitchen,” he explains. “If there is some food item that the kitchen wants to push, they can create a message that displays at the point of sale. Plus there are opportunities to up-sell and cross-sell.”

In the end, digital signs are just plain whiz-bang cool. And promise to just get cooler. “In five years they will be everywhere,” predicts Mohawk College’s Kosh. “I’m meeting with a vendor that wants to put digital signs behind the bathroom mirror so when you’re washing your hands you will see a message. Signs need to keep evolving, otherwise they end up as just another picture on the wall.”

“I’m really excited for the opportunities glasses-free 3D will bring,” says Floyd.

So are we.