The Art Of The Electronic Message Display

Editor’s Note: At MPOW we are ramping up to use a prominently positioned video display near our entrance for promotion. I realized I had no idea how to approach it. It seems so many academic libraries are using electronic display monitors to promote the library. I was wondering if there were best practices? So I put out a call for help and advice – and the academic librarians came through – big time. One response, from Wil Hutton, the Visual Communication Specialist at Penn State University’s main campus library, was so well thought out and informative that I wanted it to have broader exposure. So I asked Wil if he’d prepare it as a guest post for ACRLog – and I’m pleased that he did – so that we can share it with you. Many thanks to Wil for his contribution to ACRLog – and the wonderful gallery of screenshots from his library’s monitors that he organized for all of us.

So, you want to put up some video display screens in your library to announce coming events and advertise services. Or perhaps you’ve been tasked with making this happen. Two questions arise: how do you create an attractive, effective display system without the expense of a turnkey, proprietary electronic signage solution; and how do you manage the system once installed?

At Penn State, in 2006, we found ourselves in possession of three 42-inch plasma displays—just enough, as it happened, to cover our main library’s three entrances. Unfortunately, getting them mounted and wired proved so costly that there was virtually nothing left for additional hardware and software. So we used what we already had—we connected each screen to an obsolescing PC, and connected those PCs to our local area network. PowerPoint, for which we have a site license, became our delivery system: one copy on each PC, and one on my Mac, as it fell to me to design and maintain the screens’ content. I edit the slideshow on my desktop and upload it to a directory on our server; from there, a piece of open-source software pushes the file out to the three PCs. A relatively inexpensive NewsPoint plug-in then adds dynamic content to several slides—real-time library instruction schedules and an RSS news headline feed.

We have three basic types of content: perishable—current news, exhibits, events; seasonal/repeatable—calendar-based services, holiday messages; and evergreen—people, facilities, collections, services available any time.

Within that framework, content categories include: Welcome messages, News and Events (including that RSS news feed); Alerts; Exhibits; Collections; Facilities; Services; and People (a faculty/staff spotlight featuring a different library employee each month).

In nearly all cases, content on the screens is tied to identical (though often more detailed) content in another medium. For example, our multilingual welcome screen and various evergreen service promos also appear on the screen savers of our public-use PCS; and all alerts and promotional messages appear also in print.

Some recommendations:

1. Think holistically—People are more likely to remember your message after they’ve seen it three times, so put it out there often and make sure all your versions match visually. Central to our program’s success has been our coordinated approach. Communication packages encompass a range of print and digital media: posters, flyers, postcards, newspaper ads, magazine ads, e-flyers, banners, and display-screen images. When designing these materials I maintain a consistent visual grammar—images, color schemes, type treatments, etc.—throughout so that the electronic and printed materials complement each other.

To facilitate this, I’ve found it best to override PowerPoint’s inherent design constraints by loading full-screen images with all the type and graphic elements included into the slideshow file, relying on the software only to set slide timings and transitions.

2. Think “supplementary” —Remember, unless you have a multi-pane display system that allows selected information to be kept constantly visible, most of your messages will be out of sight most of the time. Don’t expect your electronic displays to replace conventional signage.

3. Simplify and shorten—Consider screen content a “teaser”; keep text to a bare minimum. Our default slide duration is 7 seconds. In practice, we find that patrons rarely stop and read the screens. More typically, they’ll glance in passing, and that’s why we coordinate the look of our print and electronic images—to encourage patrons to stop and read our printed pieces, having previously glimpsed the same visuals on the screens.

When longer messages can’t be avoided, rather than stretching out the slide duration I’ll stretch the message across two or more slides. Sometimes I keep the background constant and have only the text change, similar to a PowerPoint build. At other times, to add visual interest while giving a simple message extra screen time, I’ve used multiple slides to create a rudimentary animation. Here the message remains static while the background moves. Once, for an exhibition featuring historic photographs, I used Photoshop to create a series of background images in which a contemporary street scene match-dissolves into the same view from a 1920s photo.

4. Darker=greener—White space is economical on a print piece, since dark backgrounds use more ink or toner, whereas on a plasma display the more pixels you light up, the more energy you use, and the faster the screen wears out (LED screens employ a different imaging system and use power at a relatively constant rate). Think white (and lively colors) on black.

To see representative samples of our content, minus the slide timings and transitions, please visit our online display gallery. Though we’ll probably move to a purpose-built solution at some future point, our experience to date shows that with the right approach, a quick-and-dirty startup doesn’t need to look that way.

10 thoughts on “The Art Of The Electronic Message Display”

  1. We recently added a video screen near the entrance to our library, too, and have been experimenting with how best to use it. These are great tips — thanks Wil!

  2. The tips and examples are both great, but I have one question–if you don’t use Powerpoint to design the slides, what do you use, and how much does it cost?

  3. From Wil H @ Libby – I use Adobe Creative Suite; specifically, CS3 Design premium which was, as I recall, about $500 a seat (educational pricing) when last we brought it. Like PPT, we already owned it; we use it for virtually everything my office produces. There are cheaper versions available. I use just two components for 99% of the work–some slides start out in Photoshop, but nearly all end up in InDesign. I export the InDesign spreads as JPEGs, which I then insert into PPT.
    Wil Hutton

  4. I’ve been resisting adding one of these in the library. They’re sprouting all over campus, like busy billboards. I sometimes just want to take it easy in a place where nothing is flashing messages at me, demanding that I do something else.

    We do have a whiteboard just outside the library, though, where students write whatever they want. Some of it is announcements and encouragements to attend events, some of it is joking around, some of it is completely mysterious or expressions of existential angst. All of it is low tech.

  5. For a smaller library facility, I wouldn’t necessary advise going with a wall mounted display monitor. You might do just as well to not have one at all or perhaps just a small monitor announcing current library/campus events. It doesn’t have to be a distraction. I should mention that it can also be a way to encourage student participation – just like your whiteboard. We invite our students to post information about their events (fundraisers, ski trips, when they bring speakers to campus) and it is really well received by the students for that. This post also did not talk about a dual purpose monitor – one that displays messages and has a live TV feed. That may strike you as even more distracting Barbara, but it does become useful when important world news is breaking, when the President has an important press conference, or even a critical soccer match. Again, it can be used to keep students informed and in the library.

  6. You may want to consider placing the display somewhere other than the entrance. An entrance is a space which people are used to moving through, not lingering at. When I think of where to put a display, I try to come up with places where people are a “captive” audience – in line at a circ desk? – in line for some coffee? – near an elevator? Your message is probably not compelling enough for people to slow down and look at it, but if they’re bound to a physical location for a minute, you might get their attention.

  7. You could even do a VERY low budget version of this by creating jpgs from power point slides (or other presentation tools), and displaying them via an electronic picture frame.

  8. We did successfully get a Twitter feed to display during the Libraries Open House at Penn State. A great way to get student comments or live library information on the display!

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