Technology (Innovations for Education)

The Writing on the Wall

campus signs

PHOTO COURTESY OF GREG ELLIS / WEST VIRGINIA UNIVERSITY

Colleges ask a lot from their signage programs. Wayfinding may be job one, but signs, particularly digital signs, can inform, entertain and alert as well, all while reinforcing the campus or department brand. As the cost of digital signage goes down, campus planners may be tempted to use them everywhere. Three experts discuss why that may or may not be a great idea.

Spencer Graham, Manager of InfoStations, professional technologist
West Virginia University, Morgantown, WV

Spencer Graham’s school started with just 10 digital signs but now has 150 with plans to add more. “Static signage has its place,” he asserts, “but with digital we can come to market so much faster.”

He’s referencing the two to four months it takes to design, approve, print and mail a message that would sit in a traditional static sign housing. Digital, he asserts, can be updated quickly and messages can be customized. “The message playing at the College of Engineering will be different than the message at the business school.”

Every sign would show generic information — weather, athletic events, arts calendars and the like — but would loop place-specific material as well. “It comes in handy when a guest speaker is coming but people forgot to publicize the event,” Graham explains. “We can get publicity up and running in a matter of minutes.”

Graham can also push emergency messages to digital signs but will only do so sparingly. “We don’t want to be the little boy crying ‘wolf,’” he explains, saying he wouldn’t push a traffic event through or something that happens in the wee hours of the night. When the call is made to push an emergency message through, the information makes it onto the signs in under 10 seconds. The screen will show a pulsing red background and text will give explicit instructions on what to do next. For more information students should rely on the campus website or check police Twitter feeds. “We have 45,000 people on campus every day. The digital sign, along with text and email alerts, will give basic information.”

Graham sees two areas of expansion for digital signs on campus. The first is the Wall of Honor. “I predicted that when we lit up our first Wall of Honor every dean in every college would want one.” It makes sense. Why have a lobby or corridor filled with costly and static brass plaques when you can honor donors digitally? The touchscreen sign lets viewers interact with limitless video and audio.

The other big demand is for digital wayfinding. However, Graham cautions that this can be a double-edged sword. “Everyone wants wayfinding at every entrance and elevator stop, but it takes a lot of work to make sure the database works right,” he says. For instance, one database may list a room as 401, but another may call it C401. A third may use C-401. This lack of continuity can cause an error which reflects poorly on the institution. “If you’re going to do this do it right,” Graham insists. “My department provides professional-looking deployment but it’s up to the user to maintain the data.”

Richard Berliner, principal
Berliner Architects, Culver City, CA

“Kids today have the expectation that information will be presented in a digital format,” says architect Richard Berliner. To that end he sees digital signage employed throughout campuses for expected uses like projecting schedules and activities and unexpected ones like sharing student work. “This technology lends itself to maker- or project-based work,” he explains, saying that it replaces the messy bulletin board.

Digital signage can also create a more communal atmosphere. “It brings activities off of the cell phone and on to the bigger screen,” he says, calling it an exciting opportunity for expression and a way to combat isolation. “It ties into the pedagogy. Instead of one overhead screen how about projecting on an entire wall? It can be the best way to foster collaboration and communication.”

Berliner acknowledges that there is a ceiling to how far this technology goes on campus. For instance, entire building façades can now be billboards; but that is not appropriate on a college campus. “Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should. Digital is subservient to the overall mission.”

To keep messaging coherent, Berliner suggests a campus gatekeeper to clear and approve text and design. This person should edit for message, style and font choice to keep the college’s brand strong. “It shouldn’t be a free-for-all!”

Tyler Gilbert, design director Pat Miller, VP, Marketing& Project Management
Fravert Services, Birmingham, AL

When clients come to Fravert for a signage program they are usually pretty amped up about digital options. Tyler Gilbert asks them to take a breath and think about the obstacles along with the benefits. “They cost money to maintain and the display itself has to be more durable,” he says. Gilbert also points to the need to have someone on campus to manage both hardware and software. “If you don’t have someone on site you could get outside management — for a fee.”

While Gilbert agrees that the diminishing cost of digital is driving interest, he stresses that the technology is still not “cheap. A small interactive, say a 19- or 20-inch screen, costs about $3,500 to $4,000.” Because of this expense, he recommends using the technology judiciously. “Anywhere where there are layers of information to dig into would be a good place for an interactive, digital sign.”

He also points to the personal digital sign already sitting in everyone’s pocket. “Information can be easily pushed to our mobile devices,” he says. “The physical sign is more of a rallying point.” For that reason, he sees the technology mostly useful in student centers or other, non-department-specific locations.

Digital displays can also be used to set the tone and mood of an interior. A display wall dedicated to landscapes can help soothe and relax occupants, for example; change the art if you want to pump the crowd up. “These are big-ticket items for stadiums,” says Pat Miller, VP, Marketing & Project Management, Fravert.

Both Gilbert and Miller agree that for basic wayfinding, traditional static signage works best. “You want to keep people moving, not have them congregate around a sign,” says Miller.

This article originally appeared in the February 2017 issue of College Planning & Management.

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