Informed choice

Interactive digital technology is changing the way retail and public space signage communicates with customers. Paul Murphy has some examples to display

Signage in public and retail spaces was traditionally divided up into the signs that directed you to places, those that told you you’d arrived at where you were heading, and those that told you what’s on special offer that day.

Information and directional signage was sharply divided in its functionality, usage and appearance. Developments in digital display systems, both LEDand LCD-based, technical improvements (larger, clearer, full-colour screens) combined with greater availability at a lower cost have led to less of a division in the roles and a greater cross-over.

Combined with that, the ability to network the displays and to add an interactive website-like backend has resulted in innovative approaches to the signage problem. As Damian Ferrar, Imagination head of multimedia, says, ‘Signs can no longer be thought of as static visual aids that provide a “one size fits all” solution. We still require signs, but they need to relate to our needs and to enable us to see things we may not have seen.’

Harvey Nichols’ recently opened store in Edinburgh takes its look and feel from futuristic technological spaces. Taken with the archetypal Harvey Nichols cool, clean brand values with strong overtones of an elite lifestyle, the new in-store signage solution devised by Four IV combines technology with a clarity of purpose and customer usability.

At the heart of this, is an LED signage system that snakes from floor to floor through the escalator void. The signage system comprises white lights on a transparent white panel, which Four IV managing director Chris Dewar-Dixon describes as being ‘very much on brand’.

‘The advantages of using digital signage in the case of Harvey Nichols is that the placement of the LEDs heightens the visual and theatrical elements of the store, while the movement of the lights themselves grabs the eye,’ says Dewar-Dixon. By positioning the LEDs in a vertical column around the escalators the design team emphasised the upward movement to the less well-visited floors, improving the circulation of customers upwards.

The signage also combines the function of directional signage with more time-sensitive material. For example, the messages evolve through the day on a time basis, with specific offers or around social dates such as Valentine’s Day or Mother’s Day. Updating of information is easily undertaken in-house.

While high costs may currently limit the types of clients employing digital signage solutions, as with all new and successful technologies, cheaper prices will increase the number of applications. ‘As the technology evolves it’ll look less like technology and we’ll interact with it in less obvious ways,’ says Dewar-Dixon. ‘As a way of brands being able to differentiate themselves from their rivals this is a powerful tool,’ he adds.

The Estée Lauder concession in the New York Herald Square Macy’s department store has a display window on 34th Street where they would carry out cosmetic makeovers, but, as James Fine from Canadian company Telecine explains, ‘Hardly anyone stopped to watch for any length of time. What we wanted to do was make makeup into a spectator sport.’

To achieve this Telecine placed four LCD screens in the window where the makeup artists could place video grabs at any time in the session so that passers-by were able to see the ‘before’ state and to capture the feel of the makeover with the aim of drawing people into the store.

A more recent Telecine project, still to be deployed, is an interactive window display for electronics retailer shop Radio Shack in the US. It is designed to alert customers to what’s available inside both before they enter the retail space and while the shop is shut.

As Fine explains, ‘Radio Shack has a diverse range, which can include small products that change often and need explanation. So after opening hours, it was not very interesting to e e look into the window of a Radio Shack store.’

The solution involves a touch-sensitive screen that works through the shop window allowing the window shopper or passer-by to interact with a display of a comic security guard demonstrating Radio Shack. ‘Old, irrelevant or poorly designed content will achieve nothing. It is really just expensive wallpaper,’ says Fine.

London’s Science Museum features touch-screen LCD-based information ‘kiosks’ that combine directional signage and maps with more timely information. One of the key advantages of the system over print is its ability to handle multiple languages, six in the case of the Science Museum, important for any venue that attracts large numbers of foreign visitors.

The initial offering of six kiosks has been updated so that there are now 53 throughout the museum positioned at key visitor decision points such as stairwells. Extensive design work and research was carried out by the museum’s small in-house design team working in conjunction with Johnson Banks. Each kiosk is identifiable by the blue light illuminating it and all kiosks point south so that the orientation is always consistent.

The kiosks’ functionality ranges from interactive elevated plans and maps of the museum’s floors – touching a specific gallery gives you directions to it as well as any associated talks going on and key exhibits in that space – to the kind of information normally associated with a guide book. The ability to direct visitors to more out of the way and less visited areas is an advantage shared with retail users. All the kiosks are updated at the same time across a single network and supported by a user-friendly content management system.

A project looking to the future and combining the informational with the directional is the community arts group Jubilee Arts c/PLEX arts centre in West Bromwich in the West Midlands. Designed by Will Alsop and due to open in 2005 the £38.8m building housing the project will comprise four storeys and 8500m2 of space, which includes galleries, cafés, events spaces, family areas, workspaces, bars and offices. The galleries and events spaces themselves are spread over three floors and linked by a 600m ramp. Digit is developing a purely digital signage solution that will focus on collaboration and visitor usability.

Digit design director Nick Cristea explains, ‘The prospective number of visitors will vary considerably at different times and digital signage will be used to indicate not just their orientation, but also the possibilities for interaction and the duration of that interaction at each point along their journey. Throughout the user’s experience they will be encouraged to contribute to digital installations.’

There are shared objectives between public and retail spaces that digital signage already tackles – clear wayfinding and timely up-to-date information. Looking forward, the ability to use customer interaction as a key differentiator means that the signage of the future will not only look different, but it’ll do more, taking on new roles in customer relations.

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