Interior Wayfinding: Electronic vs. Traditional Signs

Pros and cons for digital direction systems

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Electronic digital wayfinding signs can grab the attention of a building’s visitor, but are they the most efficient, cost-effective way to get that visitor from point A to point B?

“With wayfinding, the foundational goal is to get the individual to the destination in the most effective path possible,” says Charles Kelly Jr., president and owner of Clarke Systems in Allentown, Pennsylvania., a wholesale provider of interchangeable static wayfinding systems for more than 35 years.

Wayfinding, a term in use for three-plus decades, evolved into the digital world nearly a decade ago when liquid-crystal display monitors arose in popularity and became more affordable. The signs carry a higher initial price point but allow for more flexibility in updating data and providing a multiuser experience, though the uses have not been completely determined.

Digital vs. traditional signs

When it comes to interior wayfinding, digital and static signs have their advantages and disadvantages, from cost to usage.

“The biggest comparison is that one is static and the other is dynamic and ever-changing,” Kelly says. “There is a cost to the dynamic that is greater than the static.”

Digital and static signs cost virtually the same in the exterior use of physical materials, but vary in interior components and operations.

Both types of signs primarily are made out of aluminum, plastic and wood and, in some cases, manmade materials like avonite and nevamar. Other metals can include stainless steel, zinc and brass, and the wood can vary from hardwood to plywood covered in laminate.

Wood has a high presentation factor for the content of the sign, while plastic is less costly, says Jason Hutty, marketing director of Janus Displays, a St. Petersburg, Florida, company that makes digital signage systems for large complexes that include hospitals, military bases and college campuses.

“Steel, especially, is expensive and very heavy, so it’s not that great for architectural signage,” Hutty says.

Beyond the material, digital signs carry a higher cost than static signs due to the screens, interior components and cost to operate, either from the use of electricity for wired connections or Internet connectivity for wireless connections. Building and property managers log into a computer to make changes to the sign’s content, using a media controller-a compressed computer that runs the operating system and is connected to the main server-and content management software that is able to communicate between the sign and their location.

“Digital signage definitely costs more upfront in most cases, simply because of the electronics involved,” Hutty says.

Vista System offers a printed or static sign that employs the use of paper within the aluminum sign that is inexpensive to install and replace, says Alon Bar, general manager of Vista System International. The paper takes on the illusion of more expensive material from the curved look that results from its placement between a high-quality lens and the frame, he said, adding that because paper is used, the signs are limited to the indoors.

“You won’t believe it’s paper inside,” Bar says. “That’s the biggest advantage is you can change the entire look or make an adjustment by printing on a piece of paper.”

Meeting customer needs

Determining which option to use beyond cost is based both on customer needs and the situation, Kelly says. Digital is preferable for changing information throughout the day, since the changes can be programmed and don’t have to be physically carried out, he says.

“The changes could happen in a few seconds,” Kelly says.

Organizations and businesses that have multiple locations can alter the signs’ content with a few clicks, Kelly says. Alternatively, static signs have mounted messages that have to be manually replaced each time on materials such as vinyl graphic or paper inserts, he says.

Printed plaques have to be remade and printed with the changes, ideal for offices with few and infrequent alterations in the directories and tenant lists, Hutty says. Plaques made out of rubber or plastic with inserts can have the changes slid right into the directory, he says.

“Digital is great for a long waiting time,” Kelly says. “Digital is great for a high volume of traffic, a limited amount of space for the signage and a lot of detail. Static is economical, versatile … and simple to install.”

Digital signs work well for rooms in a hospital or hospitality facility that have several events throughout the day or for building directories that need frequent updates or name changes, such as in malls and medical facilities, Hutty says. The directories also can become spaces for advertising during off-hours if the building is used for multiple purposes, such as office locations during the day and then marketing a restaurant in the lobby, he says.

“There’s efficiency there that doesn’t exist when you’re manually updating the signs, Hutty says.

Businesses and organizations that employ digital signs will see a return on investment if the content needs to be frequently changed and multiple signs need the changes, Hutty says. The savings are in labor costs and on the costs of updating the inserts, he says.

“If the information doesn’t need to change, you’re better off getting a printed sign,” Hutty says.

Where static signs work best

Installing digital signs in certain locations and for certain uses can be excessive, such as for a door sign or space number or in a stairwell, Kelly says.

“It’s going to come down to budgets. It’s going to come down to the amount of information,” Kelly saysd. “There’s also going to be the end users’ personal request. Everything starts off with what the customer wants.”

Other areas where static signs work well include emergency exists and restrooms, Hutty says.

Static signs generally are optimal for areas where key intersections and end point locations do not change, Chris Keefe, vice-president of products for Four Winds Interactive says.

“Digital signage and static signage should be implemented as a part of an overall wayfinding strategy,” Keefe says. “Digital should be the preferred choice of entry locations, key intersections and areas with high dwell time. This will allow users to interact with the signage and get targeted wayfinding information, while also getting the best user experience possible.”

Alternatively, static signage is better suited for areas of a property where information is not changing, Keefe says.

“Users need to quickly identify a point of reference,” he says.

Digital signs have a few disadvantages, such as lacking compliance with the American with Disabilities Act and not conforming to some building codes. Static signs, which are more compliant, can provide tactile graphics and meet other guidelines of the ADA.

“Both have value,” Kelly says. “It is not to say that one replaces the other. They work well together in a complementary fashion in a complete wayfinding solution.”

Digital signs have unexplored uses and opportunities, such as the futuristic use of directing visitors based on how they move through a building, Bar says.

“Digital signage has a lot of unexplored opportunities versus traditional signage, which is explored and set up,” Bar says. “You can do way more in digital world, but you need to create it.”


Shelley Widhalm

Shelley Widhalm is a freelance writer and editor and founder of Shell's Ink Services, a writing and editing service based in Loveland, Colorado. She has more than 15 years of experience in communications and holds a master's degree in English from Colorado State University. She can be reached at shellsinkservices.com or [email protected]

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