Going digital

I’m a sign designer, I develop signing and wayfinding strategies for a wide range of environments, including healthcare facilities. To develop a wayfinding strategy; we identify decision-making points, horizontal and vertical circulation routes, entrances and exits for a range of different building users, potential ‘pinch points’, security concerns, health and safety issues. We also look at corporate identity and branding issues, ergonomic factors, legibility issues, compliance with regulations, forward site developments, budgets, opportunities to involve public arts, interior finishes, environmental policies, editorial policies, policies on access, diversification and dozens of other concerns.
    
Once we’ve considered all of this, we come up with a theoretical ‘family’ of signs that will address all the issues and mark the positions onto building plans and a schedule of signs that list the graphic content of each sign.

Choosing the product
Up to this point we have only been dealing with theories and concepts, now we have to realise the designs. Historically, we have two choices; either a bespoke construction or one of the numerous sign systems. There are pros and cons for each type of product.
    
Sign systems usually allow more flexibility to manage cost and content over time and are tried and tested solutions, however, as they are made from a range of standard components there are limits to design flexibility. There are excellent sign systems out there and some truly rubbish ones.
    
With regard to bespoke products, we start with a blank sheet of paper and put together a specification from scratch, this gives us the ultimate in design flexibility, we could use low cost PVC materials or high specification stainless steel. Bespoke solutions tend to be more expensive to manage over time and there is more scope for inconsistencies.
    
We often end up with a hybrid solution with both signing systems and bespoke elements. Regardless of which option we go for, we will have a static display.

Digital signing
For the last few years, people have been predicting the coming of age of digital signing. I don’t mean the endlessly looping digital advertising or point of sale sites that are now common. I mean signs that help people to navigate a building. Signs that help to explain how an organisation fits into a space. Signs that can explain procedures. Signs that you can interrogate and can provide real depth of information. Signs that can offer multiple languages at the touch of a button (on a touch-screen of course). Signs that can display personal mapping. Signs that can connect to the internet. Signs that can display schedules and events. Signs that can be updated remotely. Signs that have audio content.
    
Digital signing will make beautifully crafted bespoke signing or well-engineered signing systems all old hat, if it hasn’t got a plug on it, no one will want to know. However, the digital revolution hasn’t happened yet, it will not happen next year and it may not happen in another five years.
    
Why not? Well firstly, at the moment, digital signs look pretty rubbish. They either look like tellies or a souped-up version of the sort of cash machine you find in 24hr mini-marts. Who wants to fill their buildings with either of these?
    
Secondly, they are very costly. A digital door sign or a directory will cost 10 times more than a conventional sign but the additional functionality is so paltry that it’s simply not worth it. You can display the name of the person who has booked a meeting room on a sign outside the room; big deal.
    
Then there’s the issue of responsibility, digital signing falls uncomfortably between several stools. A digital signing project may involve an organisation’s IT Department, Marketing Department and Facilities Management Department. One of these parties will be the driver of the project and the other two, reluctant followers. This comes into sharp focus once a project is installed and someone needs to be responsible for the maintenance of the hardware and the upkeep of the editorial content. On a more fundamental level, when a building is under construction or a building is being fitted out, it’s not clear which of the trade packages digital signage should fit into. Does it fit on with the electrical package, the IT package or the signing package?

Practical problems
Assuming that a contractor has shoehorned the digital signing into a contract package and that someone on the client team has taken responsibility and the client has swallowed the cost, we then get down to the practicalities.

The principal practical problem is probably connectivity. Each sign will require to be hard wired to a power source and probably a LAN. That’s two cables to be dealt with. If you’re working on a new build or a substantial refurb, the cabling can be hidden in wall voids or partitions, assuming that you’ve juggled the contract packages correctly. If not, you’ll have to put up with the cables or hide them with a bit of conduit. Neither option is particularly attractive.
    
Then there is integration. If the digital signing package has any sort of interactivity or function like a scheduling activity then it will probably have to be integrated into an existing network. People who design and manage IT systems like hermetically sealed networks. They do not tend to embrace someone from the marketing team coming along with a couple of dozen monitors and associated unfamiliar boxes to be integrated into their network.
    
One day of course, all these issues will be resolved. Developments in flexible screen technology will permit digital signs to have more elegant cases or be built into the building structure.
    
Screens of the type used in electronic books, only require power when the screen is refreshed cutting power consumption enormously. This together with initiatives like the University of Missouri’s nuclear batteries, which they claim have a million times more capacity than conventional batteries, will negate the need for hard-wiring for power.
    
Bluetooth will continue to improve making complex wireless connections and technical addressing more reliable. Phones are already being built with 2D barcode receivers that can transmit data directly.
    
Continued hybridisation between GPS satellite industries, telecoms industries and internet service providers will mean that mobile telephone type devices will become real time personal wayfinding devices.
    
Open-source mapping has already loosened the stranglehold held by the OS and gives people the ability to edit, personalise and update maps in real time.
    
One day the potential of digital signing will be fulfilled. In the meantime, I’ll be happy to specify beautifully crafted bespoke signing or well engineered signing systems for my clients.

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