The Digital Signage Insider

Pat Hellberg on the art and science of digital signage content

Published on: 2008-06-13

Bill's Note:

Many of you know Pat Hellberg as the director of Nike's digital signage networks. This week, we're fortunate enough to have him provide a counterpoint to the digital signage content creation articles that we published a few weeks ago. The following is Pat's take on how to create inspiring digital signage content -- and after 19 years at Nike, he obviously has a solid basis for his opinions. Pat recently left Nike to join the ranks of the tiny but growing number of digital signage specialists in the field today. Got a content question or problem? He's your guy. So without further ado, here is Pat Hellberg's official take on making content for digital signage networks. I'll be leaving my feedback in a comment below. I definitely encourage you to do the same.

Man vs. woman.
Democracy vs. tyranny.
Coke vs. Pepsi.
These are among the great struggles of all time.
Lest we not forget, art vs. science.

The renowned philosopher Nietzsche might have been mindful of that very struggle when he wrote:
"What one should learn from artists: how to make things beautiful, attractive and desirable for us, when in themselves, they never are."
By the way, this is the same Nietzsche who coined the phrase that many of us in the digital signage industry lean on in times of great despair:
"That which does not kill us makes us stronger."
Now I'm no Nietzsche. And I'm certainly no scientist. Bill Gerba is a scientist. In a good way. Bill's recent science-based series on making great digital signage content took one view. But there's another.

So to Bill's point, let me offer a counterpoint.

Let me first say I thoroughly enjoyed reading about the power of chunking and coding, the promotion of sans serif as the optimal attention-grabbing font and the dissection of human reactions to color. Who knew that blue reduces the feeling of claustrophobia?

With no bona fide textbooks to guide us through the do's and don'ts of digital signage content creation, we should be beyond grateful that someone with Bill's experience and expertise pulled this together. We need all the help we can get in prompting our customers/shoppers to check out what we're putting on the screens.

But that's not the end of the transaction. Once they've checked it out, that's when we have to hook 'em.

And that's when science needs to hand the baton to art.

For the past l9 years, I've been in the front row, watching some of the smartest kids on the block create one of the strongest brands on the planet, Nike. In the formative days of Nike, research and metrics were never as important as instinct and passion. Science? Oh, it has always lived in Nike product. But in the consumer communications tug-of-war, aspiration has consistently crushed science. Did you ever buy a pair of Air Jordans because of the air or because you could lace up the same shoes as the greatest player of all time?

I have to say that during our years of creating content for the Nike Retail Network, I can't recall a single discussion about fonts, color or contrast. I worked with brilliant graphic and motion designers whose instincts led them to the appealing and to the attractive. That's what artists do. They create content that they know, in their gut, makes things "beautiful, attractive and desirable."

Now I know what you're thinking, and you're right: I'm not oblivious to the realities of our business. Digital signage networks demand large quantities of content. And artists don't work cheap. Big need and big costs. That's an expensive, impractical combination.

However, the potential aesthetic appeal of digital content should not be ignored. Think of your favorite broadcast commercials. You love them, and more importantly, you remember them, because they are funny (creative writing is a vastly underrated form of art), cool, visually/aurally interesting or otherwise experiential. In other words, they appeal to your senses. For those keeping score, that makes it art 1, science nothing.

I just left Nike to go out on my own as a consultant in the digital signage industry, concentrating on content strategy. I hope to help network operators produce long-term, sustainable content plans that don't break the bank. If they need help producing the content, I'll help with that too. I'll probably steal some of Bill's material. It wouldn't be the first time. And I'll combine it with my knowledge of branding, marketing and romancing the product. I won't demand that every 15 second digital signage video look like a work of art. But neither will it resemble a laboratory experiment. It's all in the mix. Art vs. science doesn't have to be a struggle. Given the right proportions of both, the end result can be a proper compromise which can both attract and engage the customer. And that would be beautiful indeed.

What do you think? Is the path to success governed by art, science, or a combination of the two? Where would you draw the line? Leave a comment below and let us know.


+1 # Bill Gerba 2008-06-13 15:49
Like I said, it's hard to argue with results like Pat's, especially since he spent so long at the helm of one of the most progressive in-store marketers out there. However, I think Pat and his team may secretly have been doing more "science" than they thought (and a quick word about that: I'm definitely \\not\\ a scientist. Heck, my bachelor's in Anthropology doesn't even qualify me as a \\social\\ scientist). If you ever read Malcom Gladwell's book \\Blink: The power of thinking without thinking\\, he suggests that we have some special cognitive ability that lets us rapidly make insightful decisions within a few seconds of encountering a problem. He uses examples like art dealers who are immediately able to spot forgeries -- even really good ones -- and longtime tennis pros who can tell if a serve will go in our out before it has been hit. Gladwell speculates that our special cognition is based on some equally special power of observation. In reality, what's really happening is that these people have all built up expertise in their fields after years, and often many decades, of practice. That tennis coach probably knows a serve will be out because he has seen the motion a million times, and is subconsciously picking up on visual cues. This is almost certainly what the designers at Nike experienced too. Years of design work and exposure to "good" creative subconsciously taught them the "right" way to do things. Did Nike's pieces always use sans-serif, or the optimal contrast palette? No, certainly not. But then, their mandate was always "make the store look cool," not necessarily "hock our latest shoe." And besides, the best practices we talked about will certainly be used in conjunction with good aesthetic design -- very few will be willing to settle for ugly creative, even if there's the possibility that it will perform slightly better.
+1 # Franois Reeves 2008-06-16 09:58
Design is everything. Look at the targets first though. Then look at the design for them. Nike's ad campaigns were so well executed. Over and over again. I think Pat's phone should ring quickly and often. I'd be curious to know how age is applied to font sizes and art design... Do ad agencies ever give consideration to that ever growing phenomena of aging population in the Western world? Look at the grey hair heads around you and their spending power...
0 # Eric Dytzel 2008-06-18 14:23
"In the formative days of Nike, research and metrics were never as important as instinct and passion." Instinct and Passion - I think Pat hit the nail on the head. People by on emotion for the most part. Yes I agree there is a lot of research that goes into finding what trips that emotional trigger to get someone to part with their hard earned cash. Now with digital signage clients want metrics. Digital signage is new and as such there really isn't much in the way of measured response........... yet. I think at this point we should take Nike's age old advice and "Just Do It!" Imagine where our world would be if all our choices were made based on research and metrics. I dare say we would not be anywhere near where we are as a society without gut instinct and passion.
0 # Bill Gerba 2008-06-30 15:24
Franois and Eric: Yeah, design, passion, excitement, etc., etc. It's absolutely critical, provided that your goal is experiential. After all, if your content looks terrible, it's not going to do anything to improve the in-store experience, is it? However -- and I have a lot of data backing me up on this -- it comes in second place to visibility, readability and straightforwardness when your goal is to transmit a specific message, and have a viewer understand and (hopefully) remember that message. I still maintain, as I noted in my comment above, that a lot of the "gut" and "instinct" that translates into well-designed content comes from people who already know what "works" in a particular environment and are just subconsciously making lots of decisions that impact the overall quality of the content during the design process.
0 # tawo, jacob 2008-12-04 09:47
i still hold the openinon that the success of a well design signage advert can be term so if the designer is convasant with the environ it social requirements, a combination of which will produce a pice that would be attractive to the onwatcher. other factors not over-rule, Good contents comes from those people who have broad knowledge of other competing products as regarding what products he intends to promote. thus Signage contents development should involve not just the grafics personal but a combination of knowledge in all the sectors of the company that requires direct or indirect infulence on the customer.
0 # Bill Gerba 2008-12-13 13:34
Hi Jacob, I agree, there's no doubt that a good designer can overwhelmingly influence the quality of an ad. Likewise, a bad one is going to have an equal (but negative) effect. My point of contention is simply that good designers inherently "know" a lot of the rules, so on the average they are able to produce spots that perform well, even when they're not consciously paying attention to the "science," as Pat might call it. And I also agree (but didn't touch on) the impact of environmental integration. Having a sign that sticks out isn't always a good thing, even if it might mean getting more eyeballs from passers-by.
0 # tory burch outlet online 2011-12-06 01:56
You clearly know so much about the subject, youve covered so many bases.

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