Why Does My Digital Signage Look Dreadful?

March 16, 2018 by guest author, Kenneth Brinkmann

Guest Post: Debbie DeWitt, Visix 

You’ve spent quite a bit of time and money choosing and implementing a comprehensive digital signage solution for your organization. Yet it doesn’t seem to be working: people aren’t following your calls to action, you notice no one looks at the screens when you do a walkthrough audit, and people can’t seem to remember any messages they’ve seen when you survey them.

Debbie DeWitt

It could be that the screens are badly placed, or that your playlists are too long, or too short. It might be that the messages are poorly worded or unclear. But it also could be that your digital signage messages, quite simply, look bad.

Digital signage is a visual medium, first and foremost. You’re usually trying to snag someone’s attention while they’re doing something else – walking through a space, waiting for an elevator, or sitting in a break room or cafeteria having lunch. If your messages look terrible, people will just get on with what they’re doing and ignore what you are trying to tell them. You have to grab their attention immediately, overcome what is known as audience indifference and, as the Young & Rubicam ad agency put it back in the 1930s “enliven (their) mind to receive a sales message”.

The sad truth is that a lot of people think that graphic design is easy. That’s true with today’s software tools – but good design is a skill. Plus, when designing messages for display on digital signs, you spend a long time looking at them and so get used to them, and you have a sense of ownership – all of which can blind you to the design’s faults. (Everybody thinks their baby is beautiful.) After spending half an hour looking at your white text on a yellow background, it starts to look okay. But for someone passing by your screen, it’s nearly impossible to read. It just becomes visual noise that gets tuned out and ignored.

There are really two steps to getting people’s attention. The first is a quick grab – wow, that’s looks cool/interesting/colorful/attractive/delicious/funny/odd/etc. The second is to get that image to stick in people’s minds so that, as they move through your facility throughout the day, they remember the message and want to learn more. They might even hang around a screen, waiting for that attention-grabbing image to come around again. And there’s also word of mouth: person A tells person B about this interesting message they saw on the digital sign, so Person B looks out for it. But without that initial hook, no one is ever going to notice the message in the first place.

The digital signage medium is a very specific one, and every message needs to be designed with that medium’s strengths and weaknesses in mind. You have two, maybe three, seconds to get someone’s attention and then another five to seven seconds to relay your information and get them to follow your call to action. And then a new message replaces that one, and the whole cycle starts over again; it might take two or three minutes before that particular message shows up again in the playlist. That’s a completely different kind of thing than a magazine ad, or a poster or a flyer. It’s fast and dynamic, and always changing. Think of it like billboards on highways – you have to attract and engage a moving target.

In fact, you can learn a lot about what to avoid when crafting digital messages by looking at bad signage in the real world.  As you go to work in the mornings, think about which billboard ads and ads around town stick out in your mind, and then on the next commute, try to notice the other ones – those that were forgotten. Why are they forgettable? How are they different from memorable ones? You’re not trying to prove a negative, those less successful signs have content on them, but instead you’re looking for what qualities those ads lack.

Sure, some of this is a little bit subjective – like the guy that says, “I don’t know art, but I know what I like.” You might naturally be drawn to images of animals or lifestyle pics or certain colors. But what you will probably discover is that certain ads remain in your memory, regardless of what they’re promoting or what imagery they use.

There’s been a lot written about best design practices for digital signage, but you can also learn good lessons from bad examples as well. So, in the spirit of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s quote: “By seeking and blundering we learn,” here are some common mistakes people make when designing messages for digital signage:

Too Much

It’s an easy mistake to overload your screen, so that it either looks like a big mess to the eye, or there’s no way a person can read and understand everything before the next message in the playlist comes along. In either case, your audience is going to simply ignore the message since they can’t gain anything from it.

You want to reduce the cognitive load on your audience, so they can get the info quickly and cleanly. You have to put yourself into the mindset of a person walking past the screen. Less is often more in digital signage design.

Too Little

Wordiness can be a problem, but so can too little information or forgetting to include the steps people need to take your call to action (for example, mentioning that there’s an event without including how to get reservations or tickets).

You also want to have exactly the right amount of information for your audience to follow your call to action. Because time in the digital age is currency, it has value. Website load times are measured in fractions of a second and videos over 60 seconds long get very few views all the way to the end, so the temptation to make messages short and fast may cause you to leave out essential info.

However, a digital signage message that has a captivating picture and an interesting title, but no other information, is going to frustrate your audience and reduce the efficiency of your messages overall. For example, imagine there’s a message of a student sitting outdoors under a tree basking in the sunshine on a university’s screens, which looks great and draws attention, and the message just says Need a break? You’ve got options here at Pimento University. “Well, yes I do need a break,” thinks the student seeing the message, “but what options? Sitting under a tree? Outdoor activities? I want more information and yet I have no idea how to get it.” That’s a useless message.

Too Confusing

You can also have unclear information on the screen, so the person seeing it has to stop and decipher it in order to understand the message. Think of some of the (in)famous parking signs in Los Angeles and New York that require quite a bit of time and energy to work out. You need to make sure your wording is clear and concise. Maybe you are really proud of the way you’ve turned your text into a clever pun, but if the audience needs to stop and try to figure out what you’re trying to say, you’ve lost them.

Try to avoid hyphenating words at the end of a line. It’s cleaner and easier to read if you move the whole word down to the next line. As for orphans (the last word on a phrase or sentence all by itself on the last line), try to avoid them as well unless you want that last word to stand out.

If you’re using icons, make sure they make intuitive sense, or have a word or two indicating what they mean. If you use more than one icon in messages, make sure they are sufficiently different from one another. And try to use a somewhat cohesive design style with all of them, so they look like they are part of the same organization and brand.

Too Similar
You want to have good variety in your messages – not just the content but the look as well. Some organizations decide on two brand colors, and then all the messages follow only those narrow guidelines. The result is a bland wash of visual information. When every message looks the same, none of them stand out and they just fade into the background. Or maybe the content creator read somewhere that video and animations capture attention, so every message has those elements. Again, it becomes routine and easily ignorable. You need to mix it up and keep the audience on their toes. Novelty actually helps the brain to process and retain information.

Sadly, we are getting used to seeing errors everywhere – in social media posts, television news, on websites, and certainly anywhere interns are heavily used. Spelling and punctuation mistakes detract from the authority and trustworthiness of your message. Why should people care about your message when you can’t even be bothered to spell things correctly? This includes typos – there’s no excuse for them if you proofread your content before publishing. Sometimes a misspelling or typo can result make a message unintentionally funny or send the wrong message.

Bad Visuals
You need to use high-res images in your digital signage messages. Not just the pictures, but even things like logos. Grabbing a tiny image file and then blowing it up bigger results in exploded and pixelated visuals that are hard to read. They also look cheap and unprofessional. The same goes for compressed images and image formats.

If you’re using photos, it’s certainly possible to increase the resolution of a picture by loading into image editing software, and then increasing the size by 10%, and then doing that again. But remember that you are asking you computer to add visual information to the image, information that isn’t actually there, and so this method produces uneven results at best. Better is to have high quality images to begin with – it’s always easier to scale a picture down.

Get your aspect ratios right. Stretched or smooshed images look comical and unprofessional.

And stay away from clip art unless you’re going to take the time to really alter it and jazz it up. These are usually low-res images people have seen many times before. Again, you’re sending the wrong message – that you can’t be bothered to go out and get a nice picture somewhere. So why should the audience care about what you have to say?

Bad Fonts
Comic Sans has been labeled a crime by many designers – don’t use it unless you are a primary school. Papyrus and other novelty fonts also tend to downgrade designs. In fact, fonts that mimic handwriting are just not good for digital signage unless used very sparingly. And don’t use more than two different fonts in the same message or it’s confusing to the eye. Sans serif work best on digital signs since they are viewed at a distance. And size matters. Fonts that are too small are hard to read and will get ignored.

Be sure to use good contrast between your text and background colors so that looking at the message onscreen feels restful to the eye. You want to maximize appeal and ease of reading.

It might be alright to have text moving across the message in an animation but do this sparingly and make sure it floats slowly across the screen. Moving text is hard to read, especially if your audience is already in motion.

Not Changing Hats
You have to go out and look at your messages “in their natural habitat”. Things that seemed like good ideas when creating the messages might not actually be quite so fantastic on the screen once you consider its surroundings and your audience’s viewing patterns. It’s very easy to not see the forest for the trees, as the saying goes.

And always be tweaking and improving what you put out there. There’s no such thing as a digital signage deployment that is completely finished and can just run on automatic. Dynamic is the important word to remember.

  1. This appears to be a must-read information if you are going for the digital signage.Thank you for that!.

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