February 15, 2019 by Cindy Davis

Digital Content is the Medium to Engage and Inspire
ESI Design Statue of Liberty Virtual Flythrough

From lobbies of corporate enterprises to halls of museums to façades of buildings, incorporating dynamic digital experiences can be complex undertakings. Experience designers walk us through the process of working with key stakeholders, establishing appropriate audience experiences and creating inspiring designs.

As digital canvases become ubiquitous fixtures in corporate lobbies and on the walls of public institutions, content planning and execution have taken on new dimensions. The digital display medium has evolved beyond showing a loop of static images to providing a platform for storytelling that is engaging, immersive and experiential.

Understanding the scope of a digital signage content strategy is daunting for many building owner representatives, facilities managers, architectural design firms, internal marketing and other teams. In our conversations with these stakeholders, we’ve found most were unaware that specialty experiential digital content design firms exist or how to begin. And not all experiential design firms work in the digital realm.

“This is a new area and people aren't as familiar with how to engage with this kind of design, or who should be guiding the designers,” says Mary Franck, Senior Interaction Designer of ESI Design.

The Teams

Whether an organization embarks on content creation using internal resources or hires an external experiential content design team, Franck recommends engaging with a large range of stakeholders to ensure that all needs are addressed. “We see our work as being an expression of a company's vision and identity, so it's really important to understand from the beginning the vision of the company now and into the future,” says Franck. “What does the client want to say about themselves to their employees, their clients, and to others who visit the space?”

Stakeholders could include brand teams, public relations, media and content production, communications and human resources, people from the operations side, IT, and events. “We also try to engage with people at the C-suite level,” adds Franck.

Experience designers often engage with clients during the initial phase of planning a new headquarters or moving into a new building. “That allows us to align with the architectural design cycle from the beginning,” says Franck. “Often our first points of contact are the real estate team and the architects. It's really important for us to engage with these stakeholders so we're helping to articulate the company’s vision and getting buy-in from all.”

Ryan Howard, Principal of Storied Systems, advises that an internal project manager be appointed by the client. “It's not about executing. It's about program management,” says Howard. “It's about becoming a unified voice, an advocate to bridge the internal and external, and being responsible for driving the project forward.”

Pairing a client-side technologist with the external experience design team is critical. “You need someone who understands all of the networks at a high level, who understands AV architectures, best practices, and standards within the organization,” adds Howard. This is a key relationship for getting approvals.

“My job is to come in and help a client navigate whatever technological space is required from an experiential or narrative standpoint,” says Howard. It doesn’t matter if there’s an LED specified or not. “In the end, I'd be quite happy with a bunch of beautifully made furniture pieces. My [objective] is that we arrive at the right experience.”

Understanding the Intent

An integrated and interdisciplinary team will be able to determine the right-size hardware and software technologies for a space to enable evergreen and dynamic content. However, the creative drives the storytelling. “We also bring in writers, strategists, visual designers and content designers,” says ESI Design’s Franck. “We're able to communicate with the clients and find the right stories for them to tell in the right spaces.”

ESI Design currently works on a project with the Statue of Liberty Museum, which lends itself to telling specific stories. Visitors begin their tour with an immersive experience that takes them on a fly-through inside the monument with an overview of Lady Liberty’s story and how the world has changed around her.

Each application and environment tells a different story. “I think that starts to get at these different physical typologies that we work with and also the different social contexts they show up in,” says Franck.

It’s critical to strike a balance when engaging different audiences. The entry of a building can be the face of a company, a portal into the retail environment or the corporate office. “It's about making a big impression, creating something that's iconic and place-making,” says Franck. “In a lobby you need to create an experience that feels unique and personal, but also it's about being a little bit impressive and aspirational.”

When designing for a workplace in an employee-facing area, Franck says, “that's much more about culture and engaging people who are there day after day. It's a very different strategy than engaging people who might be there for the first time.”

Content Creation: The Bigger Picture

Some companies request set it-and forget-it content that runs a continuous short loop, but increasingly content designers present more engaging and immersive installations that are kept fresh.

Take the U.S. Bank Tower, the tallest building in Los Angeles. Its tenants include global law and insurance firms. “It’s a very corporate environment,” says Helen Higbee, Creative Sales Director of StandardVision, the firm engaged to produce content for the 126’x17’ curved LED video wall that spans the width of the lobby and can be seen from the street.

The seventieth floor of the Tower is the OUE Skyspace observation deck, which is open to the public. “You have to take into account the total audience that's going to see the screen,” says Higbee. “The content has to be something that's non-contentious, but still visually arresting.” Digital content should reflect a cultural conversation.

StandardVision curates ongoing digital programming with visual and conceptual interpretations covering a wide range of themes for the U.S. Bank Tower. In addition to being massive in size, the screen boasts 8K resolution, which poses a challenge because very little content is shot in native 8K. The work of cinematographer Armand Dijcks transforms the high-resolution still photography of ocean waves by Ray Collins into a series of powerful rolling waves. “It looks very monumental, and it plays to the shape of the screen,” says Higbee. “You want imagery that gives people a bit of awe when they see it. Especially when it's that big.”

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Courtesy StandardVision

Several factors come into play when determining the length of time the content is shown, and how fast it moves across the screen. “People will linger in a lobby longer, so you can play around with timing a lot more,” says Sinziana Velicescu, creative producer at StandardVision. In the case of the U.S. Bank Tower, the content also has a significant presence from the street. “Everything we put on screen we want to make sure that if you were to be driving by, or even spending one-minute walking through that lobby, you’ll be really amazed by what you see,” adds Velicescu.

The content loop at the U.S. Bank Tower is 15 to 20 minutes long, with 25 percent of the content refreshed quarterly. “Some of the abstract pieces can run longer because they are generative,” says Higbee. In addition, StandardVision will occasionally integrate topical messaging such as when the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams went to the Super Bowl, or when the building won an award for renovations, or to the fires in California. “We tie it in so you’re not watching this beautiful content, then suddenly there’s a message,” adds Higbee.

There are different considerations when designing content to be displayed outside versus inside. The 6,264 sq. ft., semi-transparent display that drapes a section of the Wilshire Grand Center is primarily used for advertising but also integrates live action, animation and generative imagery. “Because it's an outdoor screen we put shorter pieces of [conceptual] content on there that are faster moving,” says Velicescu.

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Courtesy StandardVision

On an even grander scale, the City of Dreams resort and casino in Macau is made up of three buildings with transparent veils of LED lighting covering the entire façade of each. “It's actually one giant video playing across all three,” says Velicescu. “If you look at it close-up, it's just ambient lighting. Then if you step away, you can see fish swimming across all three buildings.”

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Courtesy StandardVision

Dynamic Experiences

“We often use generative visual design,” says ESI Design’s Franck. “It's so important to us to make dynamic experiences. We think that's central to experience in itself.” Generative media encompasses a wide range of techniques and technologies, but in essence refers to content that uses algorithms to grow and change randomly over time.

“A couple of ways we use it would be data-driven media and creating content that's templated,” says Franck. “We're able to make these very artful templates that allow the client to continue adding new content in a way that fits seamlessly with the rest of our visual design, but allows them to add announcements or updates.”

ESI Design used templated generative media in the 900 North Michigan Shops in Chicago, where a 190’ long media ceiling is visible from all seven floors of the mall’s atrium. “The design of the ceiling looks like a skylight or sometimes a window into another space,” says Franck. The designs change from kaleidoscopic images to a blue sky with birds flying above. “We made templates for the client to work with the retailers, so elements within that design could be changed out for the new shoe or the new jewelry design of the season,” Franck adds. That flexibility allows the content to remain up to date but still be artful and fit the rest of the visual design.

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Credit: Caleb Tkach

“We program the content so it has seasonality or where it's responding to the rhythm of the week,” says Franck. ESI Design is able to build scheduled content that reflects a busy Monday morning or a calmer Friday afternoon. “We are able to schedule that variability without making hundreds of pieces of content,” she says.

Combining data and generative media takes the experience to a new level at the installation ESI Design created at eBay Main Street in San Jose.

“With eBay we've brought a client’s dataset into the space and made it part of a brand expression,” says Franck. 

A mind-boggling number of items populate eBay’s website. Rather than using that data to show how impressive the company is, ESI Design utilized data visualization to express eBay's playfulness. “We make it feel like part of eBay's culture and to help it express eBay's identity,” explains Franck. Round icons bubble up effervescently and move around screens, creating data visualization. As employees approach an animation it will respond to their presence. Through interactive touchscreens they can drill down to find more information. “There's a sense of immediacy that makes it feel more meaningful,” adds Franck.

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Credit: Erynn Patrick

The goal was to visually reinforce the brand values, which are the sense of accessibility and delight. “It really accomplished these two things,” concludes Franck.

Experiential Convergence

It wasn’t long ago that digital signage comprised standalone screens displaying static content. Then they became networked with the ability to change content dynamically. Today we’re talking about creating immersive, data-rich, impactful experiences with automated generative media that happens to be delivered on a screen. It’s an exciting and dynamically visual time.

About Cindy Davis

Cindy Davis has been immersed in technology since dismantling her transistor radio while in grade school. For more than 20 years, she has developed and delivered content for the industry's top print and online publications as well as at live events and trade shows. Davis enjoys exploring the ethos of experiential spaces as well as diving deep into the complex topics that shape the AV/IT industry. In 2012, the TechDecisions brand of content sites she developed for EH Publishing was named one of “10 Great Business Media Websites” by B2B Media Business magazine. A lifelong New Englander, Davis makes time for coastal hikes with her husband, Gary, and their Vizsla rescue, Dixie, sailing on one of Gloucester’s great schooners, and sampling local IPAs.