In transmit

Tony Howard looks at how technology is affecting the design of digital signage

Designers love new technology: the newest materials and the latest gadgets, just to show off to clients. Of course, there are some designers who will use new technology simply to mask a lack of new design ideas. There are many more who will implement a new technology without any real understanding of what it can and can’t do.

Digital signing is one area where the technology is running ahead of any real design experience. It looks so easy – place an electronic screen in front of the customer and turn on the information. And one thing electronic screens do well is display a lot of information. The question is, just how much information do we really need?

Take a look at any main railway station or airport. Scores of passengers staring intently at information screens and indicator boards, desperately trying to pick out the one bit of information that is crucial to their own particular journey. If these displays were doing a good job, the passengers would only need a quick glance.

Part of the problem is in the way the information is presented, the hierarchy and complexity of messages, the language and the amount of text.

We think that electronic displays must be good because they can display so much information in such a variety of ways. But what we seem to have forgotten is that video monitors and plasma screens were never really designed to display text. They were designed for full-screen moving images, to be viewed in relatively close proximity and mostly indoors. Using them to display static text, at a distance, in wide-open environments with high levels of ambient light is a poor use of technology.

Video displays have a constantly scanning image and relatively low levels of internal illumination. This results in poor contrast values, making text difficult to define. The problem gets worse with increased viewing distance, and making the text bigger doesn’t always compensate. Designing a font specifically for this type of screen might help, as would research into colour combinations to achieve greater contrast.

Liquid crystal display-based video displays generally use higher resolution screens and polarising filters can help boost contrast values. Unfortunately, the internal illumination on these screens is still inadequate for viewing at a distance, especially in daylight.

One technology that won’t seem to go away is the LED ‘dot matrix’ display. Although much derided, these displays were at least designed precisely for what they did. Using high brightness light-emitting diodes they displayed lines of text that could be updated relatively quickly. Unfortunately, the resolution of the original ‘dot matrix’ devices was so crude that the upper case letterforms that were used were almost unreadable.

More modern versions now use a higher resolution ‘matrix’ arrangement and improvements in LED technology are providing brighter and multi-colour displays. There are even some variations of hybrid ‘fonts’ using caps and lowercase letterforms that are easier to read. Sadly, operators using dot matrix displays are still obsessed with scrolling vast amounts of information making it almost impossible to remember the original message.

The signing display technology currently attracting most attention is large format LCD display modules. Unlike LCD video screens, these modules comprise a matrix of large liquid crystal cells. Similar to an LED dot matrix, they offer better resolution, better letterforms, and because they use a combination of internal illumination and reflected light, they provide reasonably high levels of contrast.

All that the large format LCD screens need now is a legible typeface, designed specifically around the cell matrix layout. But even with this design input, just like any other electronic signing system, they will inevitably suffer at the hands of irresponsible operators. Font sizes will be decreased to cram in more information and long scrolling lines of text will ensure that the signs become incomprehensible. Regardless of who specified the technology, designers need to get involved with the layout of information.

The approach should be the same as with traditional static signing. Messages should be clear, logical and use the minimum amount of text, supported (where appropriate) with pictograms and symbols. Text size should be large enough to be legible at the maximum viewing distance using upper and lower case letters in a plain sans serif font; adjusted in ‘weight’ and colour to achieve the optimum visual contrast.

To focus designers’ minds even more, the Disability Discrimination Act will require a higher standard from all public signing before the deadline of October 2004. Legibility and text size are going to be very important although the flexibility of electronic signs should offer some advantages in this area. To its credit, the Department for Transport has been fairly quick off the mark and has published guidelines for all signing requirements as well as the minimum ‘electronic’ text size relative to viewing distance. The guidelines don’t explore the various qualities of different electronic signing technologies, but do provide an excellent starting point. (www.dft.gov.uk).

To date, most electronic signing has taken the form of information screens, destination and arrival boards or time and service indicators, mostly for the transport sector. With the continuing fall in display technology prices, it won’t be long before general directional signing and location signs are also electronic. The ability to update directional signs to cope with changes in pedestrian flow or for emergency situations, will be a big advantage.

New display technology is not going to solve the common problem of presenting contradictory information and creating a sense of mistrust in users. Nor does it look likely to improve the overall quality of signing. There are many designers who will point to the latest developments in electronic paper or Organic Light Emitting Diodes or new digital projection technology. There are some that will claim that mobile phones or PDAs are the answer, with GPS and localised wireless technology sending tailored directions and information direct to the hand-held device. Digital signs will be successful when they look exactly like high quality illuminated signs do today. They will be thinner, brighter, clearer, easier to make, cheaper and totally flexible with regard to message display. They will be even more successful if designers forget about the technology and concentrate on controlling the content.

Tony Howard is a director at Roundel

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