Commentary & Analysis
The ABCs of DDS: A Digital Signage Primer
Dynamic digital signage (DDS) is being touted as a hot opportunity for sign shops and other wide-format service providers. But where does one start? And how can digital complement print signage?
By Richard Romano
Published: September 10, 2014
If you have been out in the world for any length of time, you may have noticed the proliferation of more and more digital displays. As big-screen LCDs have dropped dramatically in price, they have turned up more and more places, either playing TV content such as in a doctor or dentist’s waiting room, or as dynamic digital signage (DDS).
As we have reported from the past two International Sign Association (ISA) Sign Expo shows, DDS is one of the hottest topics in signage—and, indeed, in wide-format imaging. At the upcoming Graph Expo, ISA is again co-sponsoring the Wide-Format Pavilion, and digital signage will play a conspicuous role.
Digital signage is nothing truly new, but has traditionally been the purview of A/V professionals rather than traditional sign shops. What this has meant is that the emphasis has been on the technical aspects of DDS and not necessarily on the aesthetics. Since the mid-2000s, more traditional sign shops have been moving into DDS and seeing an opportunity in offering it alongside traditional signage. FastSigns franchisees have been among the early adopters, and corporate HQ offers its franchisees a variety of resources for creating and selling DDS systems to customers.
One of the big fears of DDS is that the new service will cannibalize the old services, that shops will lose print work to non-print media. And to an extent, this is true. However, if a shop’s customer is eager to install digital signage, they’re going to. If the shop doesn’t offer it as a complement or supplement to printed signage or other materials, the customer will simply go to someone who does. So if the business is going to get cannibalized, you may at least be the one doing the cannibalizing.
“If customers are asking for digital signage and you’re going to take a hard stance and not do it, you’re losing a potential customer to someone else,” said Justin Ryan, author of a new book Digital Signage Power, a detailed overview of the technology and marketing opportunities of DDS. “There are so many different opportunities for a sign business in many different verticals, why not fill that gap? You don’t want to close the door on something that could lead to a recurring revenue stream.”
As DDS appears on more and more people’s radars, questions abound. So let’s take a quick look at the components of digital signage.
The most conspicuous part of DDS is the display itself, commonly an LCD, LED, or plasma screen similar to the one you probably have in your home. I say “similar,” but while all displays may look the same, the consumer-level display you pick up in Best Buy will not be adequate for signage applications; they’re simply not designed for the length of uptime that signage requires or the amount of heat that can be generated when a display is left on for very long periods of time. If the signage is intended for outdoor use, it will need to be rugged enough to survive the weather. And, in fact, you may very well void your warranty if you use a consumer-level display for commercial purposes. Thus, you need a commercial grade display. They’re pricier, of course, but not prohibitively so. Many of the same manufacturers that make and sell consumer TVs also make commercial displays. Samsung in particular has a high reputation among DDS developers.
Advanced DDS systems can tile multiple displays, much like wide-format prints can be tiled to create a much larger overall image. And even a single display can be divided into “zones,” so that different parts of the screen can be displaying different content—think of this as a sophisticated approach to the picture-in-picture feature you may have on your home TV set.
The media player is the device that, as the name indicates, stores the content and pipes it to the display. A good analogy is a DVD player which, in some older DDS solutions, was the actual media player. The content is stored on a DVD and the content is sent from the player to the display. DVDs have become passé for DDS for the basic reason that they are static media. Once you burn content to a DVD, it can’t be changed. Since the advantage of dynamic signage is that it’s, well, dynamic, a DVD has become impractical. So there are other devices that are attached to the display.
A media player is similar to a computer—and in fact you can use a PC as a media player. (You can even use a variety of mobile devices as media players, as well.) Content is loaded onto the media player via a computer, and a high-end media player can provide metrics, such as how many times a particular sign or ad (if it is used for, say, a billboard) was displayed.
The third major component of DDS is software that manages the content itself. Signage software is where your assets are stored and scheduled. The analogy is iTunes, where you drop and drag songs or movies into playlists and arrange the order in which you want them to be played. One additional feature of signage software is that it lets you schedule the content. So if you are a restaurant using your digital signage for menus, you will want the breakfast menu to be displayed until 11:00 a.m., then switch to the lunch menu until 5:00 p.m., when it’s time for the dinner menu. And so on. Scheduling can also be more granular than that, and content can even be swapped out on-the-fly. The emblematic example is, if it starts raining, you advertise umbrellas. For digital advertising such as billboards, DDS can also facilitate daypart advertising, or having different ads, or even different advertisers, display different messages at different times. A company can charge more for outdoor DDS advertising during rush hours than for off-peak times, for example.
Tables of Content
Where does the content come from? Signage content can be any of the old familiar file types—JPEG, PDF, PowerPoint, and rich media like the various video (.mov, .m4v) and audio (.mp3) formats. Some DDS systems will also play animation formats like Flash, and the newest support HTML5 for animation and other effects. Today’s DDS systems can also stream Internet content, such as YouTube or other online video, Twitter or other social media feeds, the weather, stock market tickers, and more.
The key to content is to not just throw a bunch of images and videos into a playlist and let it fly. We’ve all seen PowerPoint presentations created by people with minimal design skills: colors clash dramatically or appear to have been beamed in from the 1970s, busy backgrounds make text unreadable, images are resized out of proportion, Comic Sans is used, etc. Digital signage should be no different than printed signage in terms of aesthetics—color schemes, typeface choices, image quality, and so forth.
This latter point is really where the opportunity for print providers lies. When it comes right down to it, anyone can throw a display on a wall and pipe content to it. Being able to create, design, and develop content that aesthetically blends into the environment for which it is intended, that is consistent with other signage and branding, and that effectively communicates what the customer wants to communicate are skills that graphic communications professionals—printers and designers—can bring to the table.
Maintenance and Support
One major difference between DDS and static signage—aside from the technology—is how changes to the signage content are handled. Should DDS providers make the systems accessible to the customer so they can make any small tweaks (correct a typo, change a price, etc.) or even larger-scale changes (create a whole new menu, add new video or photos, etc.)? As any Web designer can tell you, making small tweaks is often nuisance work. It takes time, but not so much that they can bill for it.
In the world of DDS, there is no clear trend. Some providers are perfectly happy to give as much control over the content to the customer as the customer is comfortable handling (which may not be much at all). Others try to keep the customers’ hands off the content for quality control reasons.
Then there is tech support. What happens if the sign isn’t functioning, or any of the six trillion things that can go wrong with digital systems? Who is responsible? As a result, DDS providers often sell some kind of maintenance plan as part of the DDS contract. This is different from the usual task-based arrangement we are used to in the printing industry, where we just print it and that’s the end of it. DDS can be more like a service.
Sign In a Box
Like any technology, DDS is becoming simpler to create and implement, almost becoming plug-and-play. Caldera was one of the first to market with a complete DDS system. The company’s Variable Display is a combination of media player hardware and content management software that can drive virtually any type of monitor and supports a variety of file types. Earlier this year, Roland DGA released its own “digital sign in a box” system called DisplayStudio that includes the media player, software, and a display, with a number of sizes available (there is also an option sans display, if the customer already has one).
There are also all-in-one displays emerging—that is, a display has a media player and even the software itself built in. The advantages of this approach are complete integration of all the various components, as well as the ability to reduce the number of vendors you have to work with. It can also save money in the long run.
DDS Bridges the Gap
It’s tempting to either be frightened of digital signage or to just ignore it. But print providers, especially those that offer print or other physical signage, do so at their peril.
“It’s really not that different than the signage that they’re already experts in,” said Ryan. “There’s new technology, there are more computers involved, but I’ve always found that designing a beautiful sign—the type, the graphics, the layout, the colors—that’s what’s difficult. That’s what requires the artistic eye and the training.
“As long as sign companies can already do that, transferring that over to digital signage is not that difficult.”