Friday, May 09, 2008

Put a little green goodness in the digital signage world

In the film L.A. Story, Steve Martin plays a television weatherman whose life is chaos but finds truth when, backed by a haunting Enya score, an electronic billboard on the LA Freeway speaks to him, quoting Shakespeare and giving cryptic messages about the meaning of life. One of the film’s main ironies is the way the digital billboard offers more emotional comfort than any of the actual humans in Los Angeles.

Since the film came out in 1991, it’s not as though digital signage has had more great movie roles or even good celebrity press (though you can decide for yourself whether or not you'd like to see a future like that portrayed in Minority Report). While there are certainly people outside the industry who see great things for digital signage, hype and love of technology is not going to be enough to sustain the industry, in particular because it is such a public product. Here in Pittsburgh, recent debate about a proposed electronic billboard in our downtown area mobilized community groups against the project not because they objected on aesthetic grounds, but because neither the corporation proposing the sign nor the city government consulted the neighborhood about whether it fit with local development goals. Add in the fact that proper licensing and bureaucratic procedures weren’t followed, and you have a public relations mess.

There’s a lot to be said for making digital signage more congruent with community needs. And since sustainable, ecologically-sound design is on the rise, it seems pretty natural to suggest that the digital signage industry might want to align itself with the good and the green now. Here’s a laundry list of possibilities:

Energy consumption: Present energy-saving possibilities up front, before consumers ask for it: Take advantage of newer LED technologies that adjust screen brightness to day and night conditions. Use newer components designed for longer lifer and lower energy consumption, some of which are free of heating and ventilation costs. Consider a backup power system to reduce impact on existing power networks. (Solar-powered systems are already in greater use outside the United States.)

Low impact design: Consider simple design elements to “green” the impact of the digital sign: LED configurations can be tilted to reduce upward light pollution. Signs that “fit” the environment are often seen as community enhancements rather than detractions. Marketing teams could work more overtly with architects, builders, and city planners who have LEED certification or experience with environmental design.

New technologies: For example, there are new greener light tape systems that provide accent or backlighting for POP displays. Using encapsulated phosphors to produce light without generating heat requires only a tiny amount of power and minimal operating costs. Other energy efficient backlighting systems are on their way to production.

Green components: The tech industry is starting to heed consumer’s concerns about the manufacturing process, too: Although the components of digital signage are surprisingly less hazardous than most technology, consumers don’t know this. Creating within-industry standards and fact sheets about the carbon footprint of digital signage might be worth the up-front research. In terms of the computer elements, it is possible to build digital signs with components free of problematic elements like mercury, lead, and cadmium. (we see this in Apple’s move to more eco-friendly digital screens and the new Eco-TV). Even hard drives are going green. The industry has yet to examine the full feasibility of incorporating recycled components (metals, vinyl, rigid plastics, and inks) into commonly used sign materials.

Community relations: Although organizations like the OAAA have been involved in public relations for years, more can be said about how digital signage enhances community safety, provides information, and disseminates news. Digital signs already provide law enforcement aid, disaster or emergency information, and new traffic routing. But there are more possibilities: Bus station shelters as kiosks with digital billboards can provide up-to-date info on bus arrival, traffic, and news. Making contributions to environmental and community causes also helps offset the carbon footprint of new digital signs and enhances the customer’s reputation. Promoting and engaging in environmental and educational projects fosters the industry’s image as a whole. Consider the informational kiosks explaining the Everglades Reclamation Project to local students and residents, giving them up-to-date and ongoing information about how the environmental project will affect their lives:

Industry self-monitoring: The OAAA has developed a set of environmental standards for all types of outdoor signage, which is a great start, but the digital signage community could do more on its own: carbon footprint monitoring (including comparative data on the carbon footprint of alternative advertising methods, such as paper products, copy machines, and flyers), promotion of green manufacturing and production approaches, and even an LEED-type seal of approval are three possibilities.

I'm just scratching the surface of what's possible right now, let alone a few years into the future when electronic ink and other new technologies make electronic signs even greener. But the industry isn't doing itself any favors when it comes to capitalizing on going green. We have some great -- and unique -- advantages at our disposal. Let's use them!

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great post! I really like the focus here. I think this needs to be something we're all conscious about going forward.