The Velvet Principle

Signage Vs Signs Vs Digital Display

How long until we use digital screens to communicate static wayfinding information?

Published on Wednesday 16 May 2018

In conversations about what we do for a living, at the mention of the word wayfinding we are either met with incomprehension or a more knowing ‘aah… signage’.  To the former we take great delight in another opportunity to educate. The latter - disappointment at yet another example of our discipline being reduced to a collective term that covers any form of information display – advertising, promotional, interpretive, warning and of course navigation and orientation.

At the risk of becoming a bore – there is more to wayfinding than signs. It involves a strategic analysis of a place to identify where interventions are needed to help with navigation and orientation.  Such interventions may or equally may not be signs. But this post isn’t really about the communication issues with this particular design discipline.

Given the prevailing prejudice, attending the Retail Digital Signage Expo at the beginning of May, we were looking forward to seeing some interesting uses of digital display technology in wayfinding. Sadly they proved to be in short supply. There were stands a plenty with screens displaying advertising, marketing, point of sale content and menus.

What was evident is how fast display technology has been evolving. The quality and sharpness has come on in leaps and bounds, improving the legibility of smaller scale text; the screens are getting thinner making them easier to integrate into signs. We’re now seeing a degree of flexibility in shape and size (as long as it’s a square or rectangle) and the ability to bend screens into curves. All the while robustness has been steadily improving and the price decreasing.  

These developments are all pointing towards a time when the cost benefit of using digital screens to communicate relatively stable information, such as retailer lists on shopping centres totems, will be on a par with that of keeping static content up to date. The ability to update a change of retailer from a central console and for it to immediately populate every sign is a future we’re looking forward to.

Yes we’re fully aware that interactive digital directories have been around in shopping centres for many years. Here we’re talking about using digital screens to communicate static content.

The majority of applications on show tended to be linked directly to driving sales, or in the case of advertising screens, generating revenue. Obviously it will be a little easier to measure the impact and justify the investment for these uses. The lack of wayfinding examples suggests the business case for substituting digital screens for print in static information is not there yet.  Or perhaps is yet to be explored? In which case we’d be very interested in working with anyone who would like to investigate it further.

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Interactive digital screens are a well established communication channel in many public environments