Alberto Scirocco Of Leftchannel On The Wild West Nature Of Digital Signage Creative

July 21, 2021 by Dave Haynes

While the people who wake up in the morning thinking about digital signage fully understand and appreciate the value and importance of great, effective creative, there are lots of end-users who don’t quite get that part of it – and still think of display projects as AV technology exercises.

It’s particularly true with large format display jobs – which are being green-lighted all the time based on lots of discussion around pixel pitch, scale and cost, but almost none about what will be on the display.

Alberto Scirocco is the Founder and Creative Director of the motion and design studio leftchannel, which is technically based in Ohio, but is largely virtual. His office, for example, is on the Italian Riviera. Poor fella.

I had a chat with Scirocco about the Wild West nature of the business, when it comes to design. We had a great conversation about  what makes displays interesting and engaging, and how the good ones have a function.

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Alberto, thanks for joining me. You’re off in Italy!

Alberto Scirocco: Yeah, that’s right. I am in Italy right now. 

Can you tell me the background about leftchannel? 

Alberto Scirocco: We started leftchannel about 20 years ago and at the beginning, we just started as a motion design studio, so a more traditional format at the time. Did a lot of advertising, music videos, film titles, and a lot of our gigs were really artistic execution, and then, in the course of time, through the years, we’ve become more and more involved in actually crafting some of the messages that we’re animating and putting in motion, and it’s been an interesting road, and of course, markets change in a lot of different ways and technologies have changed in lots of different ways, and one of the things that have been interesting for us has been adapting to all the new stuff and we have an experimental nature.

I come from industrial design and fine art, and so I’m always gonna have this foot in both camps of being engineer minded, but also have a real passion for really expressive artistic work, and in the last several years, we have been being more and more focused on really trying to apply strategy to design and making sure that we were doing stuff that’s useful and not just pretty.

This would be more motion, graphic design than video editing? 

Alberto Scirocco: Correct. We end up having to do a lot of production, but generally, our focus is design, and so when we do production it is because it’s part of a piece that we’ll have design and animation within it. 

I’m guessing if you’ve been at this for 20 years, that the demand to do things on screens has grown quite a bit because 20 years ago, digital signage was one of those things where you had to explain what it was. Now, there are so many screens out there and there are so many large format displays where it moves away from just being messaging to experientially engaging stuff where you really have to think about the creative. 

Alberto Scirocco: Yeah, exactly. I think that’s part of what motivated this conversation is exactly the fact that, as you mentioned, signage used to have a very practical, very pragmatic mindset, you think about billboards and advertising and there’s a very clear function of what those things are for. For a while now, screens have appeared in a lot of different places and it’s bringing a lot more functions to the table, a lot more opportunities of what screens can do and some of them are really quite powerful, and so yeah, the demand has grown quite a bit. The nature of the request has grown quite a bit, because like you said, I think when I first started there were jumbotrons, and you were doing pixel animation, stuff that looked like 80s video games on this gigantic screen. So they were very delineated into what they were trying to do. 

But now it’s wide open. You have art installations, you have places that completely define placemaking, completely defined by the screen and the experiences inside. So, it’s a pretty exciting time. I have to say for this type of work. 

You’re doing in Italy. leftchannel, I believe is based in Ohio, but you’re virtual and you work around the globe, right? 

Alberto Scirocco: That’s exactly right. We have people from all over and also when we were very much in Ohio, we still didn’t work in our geographical area. So we’ve always done national, international work just because the nature of the work is unique, and so it’s attracting people from all over. 

In the context of digital signage and large format display, what are some of your projects that people listening might be familiar with?

Alberto Scirocco: I think there were a couple of Times Square videos that are likely to have seen something we did for Disney and Exotica which were very visible and that stuff folds down that category of the more traditional type of work that you would think, but it’s very noticeable, it’s really big and flashy and you’re really competing for eyes, but it was really fun, project because of the fact of combining animation, obviously they’re very illustrative look and then very graphic components and having to support Exotica and the product and advertising. So we love things like that, briefs like this, where there’s lots of complicated stuff that need to come together. That’s stuff that we get really excited about. 

Have you done much in the way of permanent installations, like the creative for permanent ones? 

Alberto Scirocco: Yeah, there’s actually a couple of large corporate pieces we have done for companies, which is also a very exciting and interesting field for us.

Once again, we tend to get involved in a lot of different things, but there was a common thread and the common thread is trying to build something that does something. I know that it doesn’t seem like much, but it was actually the real thought behind it. We really love work that has a functional quality and sometimes even artistic pieces have a very functional quality, right? I refer frequently to the Samsung screen in Korea, which I’m sure you’re familiar with, and it’s interesting because some of that work obviously feels very artistic, but it has a great effect on that area. It defines that place completely. 

So there is a function to it and the function is not always directly advertising, which is actually one of the issues that I have sometimes in industry is how to directly focus on advertising. A lot of this signage is missing some of your opportunity, but yeah, we’ve done some large installations on corporate buildings. And like I said, that’s also a very interesting field sometimes because you’re trying to create something that is doing something for the audience, and so it’s entertaining and interesting, it defines space, it does something for people passing by. It’s still telling a story of a company and there’s lots of different ways that you can do that. Sometimes it’s a very explicit story, but sometimes it’s just a complete composition of impressions as well. 

If I look on your portfolio page on the experiential side, I see did the Sheraton Dallas and Verizon stores and things like that. 

Alberto Scirocco: Yeah. So it’s a very broad spectrum.

The Sheraton was a very fun project. We’re still engaged in the project, we visit to refresh their content from time to time. Very interesting placement of these two structures that are wrapped with screens because being on the doorway, they have this almost like arch triumph feel, right, where they are greeting people on the way in but they’re also are still addressing all the people on the inside, from the bar and restaurant inside the lobby. And so they have a dual function, so it’s really interesting to create work that has that impactful effect on people that come in. But it also has an ambient peaceful environment feeling for the people that are on the inside. So yeah, that’s been an extremely fun project.

We’re actually rolling out a couple of new modules for that in the next couple of months. 

Your managing director, Candy, I was trading emails with her and she was saying how experiential is in something of a Wild West phase. What do you guys mean by that? 

Alberto Scirocco: If you think about advertising, in its infancy, there was a lot of defining what advertising could do and then if you fast forward all the way to today, there is a science to advertising. There’s a lot of things that are just so clearly defined to the point that, unfortunately, there are also expectations on both ends, right? You just know how certain things are gonna look and sound, but it’s because there’s clarity of how people react to things and what works.

And in truth, there’s always creative space in every place. But when something gets very refined and it’s not in infancy anymore after a while, there’s just a little bit less space. But digital signage is really in a sense in its infancy, there are still firsts that are coming out. And people are going at it in a lot of different ways. Sometimes they’re going at it a little backward. So there’s a lot of people that, for example, will look at a space and they’ll say, we need a screen there, and that seems to make sense, because they’re looking at in terms of hardware, “let’s put an opportunity there” but obviously, the screen is just an opportunity. It’s just an empty potential, and when people walk by a screen, they don’t see a screen, they just see what’s on the screen, and so it’s odd how a lot of these installations are basically being done that way, without a real strategy of the necessary hat are we trying to do with this space, what do we want people to see? And then sourcing the technology that supports it. 

I know there are really a lot of situations where people are saying we’re going to put something there and somebody will figure out what goes on. 

Yeah I’ve heard stories. I remember a friend of mine, who’s a creative director for a digital shop in the Toronto area saying he got a call one day from an AV integrator who had put up a big LCD video wall somewhere, and the guy was asking, “Do you have any content we could put on this thing because we’re lighting it up today?” Michael, my friend, was on the other end of the phone, just looking at the phone call going, “What the hell?” 

Alberto Scirocco: That actually happens a lot. You mentioned that and I know it seems crazy and I think to most people listening to this, it might seem like a very odd thing, but it actually happens so much that people contact us and ask us for blank content to have for those situations, just generic stuff to fill screens. So it’s a little bit crazy, right? If you imagine that movie theaters did that, they just put up screens and, speaking of that, I tend to make this kind of comment, when’s the last time you told somebody to go down to the theater to have a great new projector? 

People are very unaware of the technology and technology is transparent to the user. At the same time, I get it because I understand how people, especially coming for real estate, feel like if we had something here, they didn’t want to lose that potential, and because, as I said, this is a little bit far west, because it is a little bit lost. Right now you can go to a number of people to have a conversation about creating an experience. You could be talking to an architect and that kind of makes sense. You could be talking to a company like us, a video company, you can be talking to a hardware manufacturer, you can talk to an integrator. So there are lots of different people you could be interfacing with and obviously, they’re all coming from a different position.

You go to Best Buy to buy a TV, you walk out with a TV. There is an understanding that there’s content out there you’re going to see. Similarly, with subscriptions, the content is a given, and so with the same mindset, you go out, you buy a gigantic screen, maybe it’s just an ultra-widescreen, and all of a sudden there’s really nothing for that thing out there. That has to be made by somebody, and for us, sometimes that’s amusing and entertaining because somebody hands you a very weird form, and then we suddenly have to figure out, who’s here, what is the story, what kind of mindset there and how long ago as well, like we have to visit in reverse trying to figure out what we can make with space, and t, that can be fun for designers, but as you can imagine there was an opportunity in kind of planning things if possible.

You mentioned being somebody who has an affinity for things that have a function to them, do big experiential/engaging displays need to have a point, or is it enough to be wow factor/eye candy? 

Alberto Scirocco: I don’t know that I can make such a blank statement. In my opinion, there’s always a point, that is the point. I’m in Italy right now, which is where I’m from. There’s a lot of art, a lot of public art. There’s also a lot of decorated places. So most buildings are decorated, most gates are decorated. You just grew up with this idea that wherever you lay your eyes, there’s going to be something pretty. Somebody is taking the time to decorate it, and but there’s also a lot of functional spaces out there, especially modern spaces that tend to be very functional.

There’s just a certain sense of what a strip mall looks like, and it’s a very undecorated place, right? There are a lot of very pragmatic places. Certainly, something that is just pretty and the spectacle can really do quite a bit for space and that’s a function, making something beautiful is definitely a function. So when I say function, I don’t mean that automatically it is creating schedules or whatever, but the point that I make is that, if you are trying to make a place interesting, then maybe advertising is not the right thing to do with that space.

And for example, there’s actually an airport that I won’t mention. They went through a

very large renovation and part of the renovation, they put these two gigantic screens and all to do is show advertising and it’s almost like an intentionally designed strategy to make people ignore the two biggest screens on earth because when you think about it, I don’t know, there’s a bigger softball than people in the airport. People are just bored and pretty much everything you’re doing, the airport is waiting. So you’re waiting in line, then you go wait in another line, and if you have nobody in line, you are just simply waiting, and so it’d be pretty easy to entertain those people, but that’s the one thing that we have gotten really good at doing is not looking at advertising, and a hundred percent of retiring programming is really not a good use of that space, and so then it’s a whole lot of people that are wasting a lot of opportunities. 

Is there a monetization model for this sort of thing where it is experiential as visually interesting, but you’re doing something that’s going to pay for this what is still pretty expensive tech? 

Alberto Scirocco: I think there are lots of them, I think there are lots of different ones. If you have a mall and more people are coming, that has value, and so there’s a monetization for the children area in the mall clearly iins the fact that you’re creating traffic, you’re attracting people who can spend time. So there’s really a lot of monetization strategies and for a lot of different situations, and that’s what I mean by function. Those are those situations where you can have that conversation and say, what is it that we want in this case?

I think sometimes people fall into that trap of directly monetizing something and then say we’re just going to sell space. But that’s not automatically something that is going to work. So sometimes you have to be a little bit more strategic about really what do we want out of this space and how is that going to be functional for us? And sometimes, traffic, the quality of the experience of the viewer. You think about theme parks and theme parks are money machines in a lot of different forms, right? People pay at the door to get in and everything in there is expensive, and then they’re just gigantic shops but people are enjoying themselves. And so that’s the point. You’re trading something for something you’ve giving the audience, and you’re charging them for it, and I think everybody’s very comfortable with that. We all don’t mind paying for it. That’s a good win-win, consumers are comfortable with it.  So I think if you make a space worth people’s times and people having a good experience then they’re okay rewarding you, by spending their money on your experience as the product you offer.

So I think that’s really what it comes down to. You’re trying to make sure that it’s a dialogue between two groups, and so you want to give the audience something that fits with their story. So where they are, where they’re trying to do in this specific place, that makes sense for where they are and people are rewarding you.

So when you engage with a new customer or maybe re-engage with an existing one, what’s the process? How do you sit down and set the intention for the project? 

Alberto Scirocco: Yeah, that’s a varied answer because the customers are coming from lots of different places, and so sometimes you have people that come to the table with nothing. They just know that for example, I have a property and they want to embellish it or they want to create something that will give a sense of value or sometime they’ll have a property and the city is asking them to invest in art and that’s it, and they have to invest some percentage. So there are lots of different agendas, but you also have marketing teams and insights who have a very clear sense of what they’re trying to do.

And it varies quite a bit, so it depends on really what people bring to the table. So when people have no real idea what they’re trying to do, we try to take a really broad approach and explore the opprtunity, understand the space, understand the audience of the center, who could be there, who is there, what will be good for them? It’s essentially a design thinking exercise, as you can imagine, it’s just really clearly understanding who we are on our end and meaning us as the client, and so understanding, what they offer, what they can do that is positive and obviously, what they have to gain and then the same, do the same thing for the audience and then try to draw vectors, trying to understand really what’s a place where both groups can overlap in a natural way and it translates into the design.

When you’re producing content for a client, how does the conversation go when you’re talking about the sustainability, the shelf life of the piece? Because I’ve seen lots of work that looks fantastic, but it’s there too long. It becomes stale dated. 

Alberto Scirocco: That’s right, and that also changes greatly because it changes, based on how frequently people go to a place.

Going back to the example of theme parks, sometimes some of those experiences stay for a really long time, because you’re not just going there every day, and so you might experience it twice in the arch of seven-eight years, and so it doesn’t quite get old. But you put something in front of a mass transit terminal, like a subway and the same people now are going over twice a day or two, four times a day, every day, and now it’s quite different, and again that’s what really comes down to what we’re talking about. So really understand the situation, understand the use. And then of course there’s always the component of finance. What makes sense financially? 

So if the frequency is important, then you have to be creative about creating content that has an ability to change frequently, and as you said, that really is an application of the space or the use. They’re all different. But that’s something that definitely figures. We definitely try to be really focused on that as well. How frequently refreshes, how refreshes are going to come together and, is there going to be a need for drastically changing the content, because maybe it is like an array of different pieces, or is there a story that gets to be evolved? We have some corporate clients where we’re busily redoing or modifying the piece every couple of years and which is a fairly long period of time, but it is an evolution of the same story. So it still satisfies the original brief has just new content, new footage, new design/ 

One of the workarounds for the cost of content and the challenge of keeping it refreshed is doing visualized data. There are several pieces out there in the world at airports, in public buildings, and so on. I’m a fan of the set-and-forget types that it’s very efficient and everything else, but I’m starting to wonder more and more about its effectiveness because I just wrote about one at the Sydney Australia Convention Center yesterday, it’s a 96-meter long display, and it’almost looks like a blue screen of death, but it’s not obviously. Code running across the screen. It looks visually interesting. But I wonder sometimes when people are looking at this, do they know what they’re looking at? And does it matter whether they know what they’re looking at?

Alberto Scirocco: But, it’s funny to some degree it doesn’t. Some of those pieces, they’re really much more akin to art and video generative, something that is generative work that is generated by data. In the end, it’s really more for our satisfaction to know that it’s generated by data, but it’s a very plastic piece. It looks like what it looks like and if it’s beautiful and it’s interesting to see, then it’s something you can watch for a period of time, it’s like watching a waterfall. You can pretty much watch it endlessly because it’s just naturally interesting, and so if you’re able to recreate that natural sense of something that has just enough evolution, enough variety, but some qualities that are attractive, so that piece can stand forever, and then when it was generated by data or not, but it’s irrelevant, and it’s very transparent tp most users, it becomes really cool for designers. 

People get really excited sometimes, but it does but is they are really visible. I don’t know if you’re an audiophile, but I’m a bit of a nerd when it comes to this stuff and I love audio stuff, and sometimes you’re looking at an amplifier and that its distortion is so low and but in the end, you’re not really hearing that. You just know it, so it becomes an intellectual appreciation that your body really just ignores.

Is it a little bit like buying a car in the old days, everybody would open the hood and look at the engine and all that, and now I suspect 99% of people never even flip the lid open ‘cause they don’t know what they’re looking at and who cares? 

Alberto Scirocco: Yeah, exactly. It just knowledge. It’s nice to know about the product. It’s nice to know what’s happening behind it, but it doesn’t necessarily affect your experience of it, but it’s interesting. 

It’s interesting work and it’s cool that work is out there. It’s cool that people have found a way to in some way, intellectually you can compare the fact that something moves very naturally, but is still generated by data and so you can say the way that the flow of data kinda ends up being similar to a form of chaos controlled chaos, which is similar to nature. This stuff is all really interesting in theory. In the end, if the piece is beautiful, then it’s beautiful to look at, and then at the same time, as you said, it could also be puzzling but then, a lot of abstract work is, so I think there’s a lot of good in that.

And as it’s right application, like you mentioned, the airport is a good place for a piece of art, especially a piece of art that is constantly evolving. You have the perfect audience, in that case, to sit down and contemplate something that is just transforming, I think that’s really a good application.

You mentioned the Samsung board in Seoul’s Gangnam area. There’s been a lot of stuff on LinkedIn and I guess more broadly on social media about these anamorphic displays. Are you seeing a lot of demand for that from inbound customers? 

Alberto Scirocco: Yeah, we are. There’s definitely conversations that come about it and all these things, it’s always funny.

We were very experimental at the beginning of our careers as a motion design studio. I was very interested in really doing things just to see what you could do with the media, and it wasn’t like a desire to be different. It was just like curiosity about what the software and the medium could do, because it was new.

So we did a video of photo parallax, which is a very trite technique today, but, in 2004, it wasn’t, it was very new and we put it out there and it was a video for a DJ and it was the first video of MTV put on their online presence, and for a couple of years, it was a daily email of somebody asking us to repeat that and then years later, we did something else which was visit combining cell animation with 2d work, with digital work and trying to make, so another thing that also became very popular eventually, and then for a couple of years, it was everybody asking for the same thing, and so that’s how it works. 

Somebody puts a waterfall in the lobby, everybody wants a waterfall in the lobby, and their first waterfall is super cool, it’s a really cool idea and it’s great. The 40th that’s out there, It’s still cool, but it’s not necessary. What basically ends up happening is that you, as an artist, find yourself getting constantly typecast, and when you’re concentrating to break that typecast because what you are trying to say to people is, “I can do a lot of different things, and that was an idea, and I have more ideas”, but it’s easy to shop for a thing that you see then for ones you don’t see, and so I think that’s what happens.  

That screen you mentioned, it’s very successful, it’s very smart. It’s also very simple, and it’s really good, you know what I mean? It’s just a beautiful, fun thing and I love to see it and that’s what you want it to be. You want it to be something that you just said, I’d love to go see that in person, and so now everybody’s thinking, “oh, that’s it, that’s the solution!” 

But you’ll have to break it to them thatthe visual effect really only works from a very specific angle.

Alberto Scirocco: I know. Here is this massive thing that’s visible for a really large surface, but it really only works for one slice of that. But when you are in that slice, it is pretty cool but it’s a very good solution, and I think it’s a great thing and that’s what we were saying earlier about what you brought up about the wild west. It is wide open right now because when we do something that is going to be on a curved surface and everybody’s going to be really stoked about that, and then there’s going to be something else because there is a lot of space for exploration which, as I said, that’s what’s attracting us a lot, it’s another opportunity to try stuff and do new things.

All right, Alberto. That was a great conversation. Just one quick, last question. If people want to know more about your company, where do they find you online? 

Alberto Scirocco: I know we went real deep on that one, but we have lots of work on Vimeo and work and other channels as well. But yeah, people come and check us out. 

All right. I appreciate you giving me some of your time. 

Alberto Scirocco: Thank you so much for having me.

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