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Content Creation for Digital Signage: Some Familiar Tools, Some New Directions

Back in 1988, the late great Tonight Show host Johnny Carson made a joke about a then-current Hollywood writers’ strike: “It’s hard to know what the writers want when they go on strike because the picket signs are blank.”

Blank signage is pointless, of course, so all signs obviously need content. That’s true whether it’s a conventional print sign or dynamic digital signage (DDS). As we saw in last month’s installment of this digital signage series, a certain level of technological proficiency is required to make DDS work and work effectively for customers. But what about content? Where does it come from? What tools are used to create it? How does it get from those tools onto the screen?

It’s not that arcane a process, and much of the common software is familiar to any graphic communications professional. However, the tools for generating and managing content for digital signage are evolving as DDS becomes more prevalent—and the near future may see DDS and the Web itself converge.

Tables of Content

In terms of generating the content itself—text, images, rich media (video, animation, audio)—DDS creators typically use software like the Adobe Creative Suite: Photoshop for image editing, Premiere and After Effects for video and motion graphics editing, and Audition for sound editing. Flash was (and still is, to some extent) used for animation, but Flash has been falling out of favor with the advent of HTML5 and the fact that iOS devices don’t support Flash. Depending upon what other content is required, 3D modeling and rendering software (such as Maxon’s Cinema 4D), may also come into play, for example. And then there’s Maude: the stalwart Microsoft Office applications (Word and especially PowerPoint) which can also be used to generate content for DDS.

High-end graphics and video programs are not for the faint of heart, and can require some level of training to get up to speed. The full version of Photoshop—let alone Premiere—can be daunting upon first launch, so there are newer tools are simpler to learn and more affordable to buy, and yet sacrifice little in the way of functionality. Pixelmator and Acorn take a lot of the arcana out of image editing, and Mac users have long been familiar with iMovie, a user-friendly video editor. But the Creative Suite is still the gold standard for professional graphic arts services providers.

“Adobe Creative Suite is our primary tool,” said Daniel Bartolini, Product Manager for Duggal Media Solutions. Duggal began more than 45 years ago primarily as a photolab and has diversified over the decades to offer a wide variety of small- and large-format imaging and specialty printing services. Specializing in the retail, government, and education markets—as well as public space imagery—the company has been offering dynamic digital signage for more than half a decade. “We create content within whatever the program may be [Premiere, After Effects, Photoshop] and load it into one of the various CMS [content management system] products that we use to manage a client network.”

The CMS is where all the disparate pieces of content—assets—come together. The CMS is essentially a database that holds all the content and publishes it at the appropriate time. The analogy is Wordpress, which is essentially a content management system for blogs and Web pages. It stores assets and publishes them at the appropriate time. For digital signage applications specifically, DigitalSignage.com and Revel offer entry-level, and even free, cloud-based CMS platforms and are an excellent place to start understanding the mechanics of working with DDS content management platforms. Companies like Duggal avail themselves of more robust, scaled-up, enterprise-level CMS platforms, but the principles and basic functionality are the same.

Depending upon the level of sophistication and the client requirements, the CMS can simply be a scheduler—using preset “rules” to determine basic logistics such as what content is displayed at what time—or can serve higher-end functions. “Some of the tools we use allow us to do an initial amount of work, such as create videos and graphics,” said Bartolini, “put it in the CMS, and the CMS is responsible for compositing all of those things on the client’s media player.”

Duggal briefly experimented with an approach that was the DDS equivalent of what we would call Web-to-print: the user went to a Web site and plugged their content into online templates that would then publish to the digital signage network—but there was a major sticking point that will sound familiar to any print services provider: ensuring that the content, such as an image, was at the correct resolution for the screen it was intended for, and ensuring that the image was cropped to the correct aspect ratio. “If working on a video screen is not your standard medium, then there are little things you may not quite grok,” said Bartolini. “‘I didn’t realize I had to use that resolution or use that particular color profile,’” for example.

Tables of Discontent

Some digital signage producers discourage their customers from getting directly involved in creating or editing content running on their digital signage, lest they introduce errors that compromise the quality of the signage. Duggal doesn’t necessarily deter clients from taking a more hands-on approach, but has found that customers don’t really want to. “What we find is that people are very happy to hand the entire content management process over to us,” said Bartolini. Even in those cases where they do allow the customer to go in and tweak things or insert their own images, Duggal prefers to act as an intermediary for quality control purposes, especially when the customer is using programs like PowerPoint. “I’ve seen CMSes that will ingest a PowerPoint file natively, but I have yet to see one do it perfectly,” said Bartolini. “A person using PowerPoint isn’t necessarily going to be thinking about the resolution of the screen. They may create a file at their standard 1024x 768 pixels, but we’re putting it on a screen that’s 1280x720—and then things look weird.” So Duggal takes the native PowerPoint, ensures the resolution and other technical specs match the ultimate destination, and then converts it to a movie file.

If this sounds like what we know as preflighting, that’s because it largely is. The more that things change, the more they stay the same.

Next-Generation Tools

Then again, maybe they don’t.

“The biggest thing that has happened over the past couple of years—and I am very happy this is happening—is that everybody is moving toward Web-standard technologies,” said Bartolini. That is, HTML (specifically HTML5), CSS, and JavaScript are coming to digital sign creation and may in fact start blurring the line between what is a digital sign and what is a Web page. 

“The world of digital signage content management systems and the world of Web-based content management systems—Wordpress or Joomla!—start to look very similar,” said Bartolini, “There are early steps to integrate tools that allow you to easily create Web-standard presentations. I think over the next couple of years that will accelerate.” Duggal has begun using an Apple program called Hype to create interactive Web pages and animations. “Instead of compiling down to Flash, it compiles down to HTML, CSS, and JavaScript,” said Bartolini, “so I can take that animation and I can put it up on a Web site, or I can take it and put it on a digital sign.”

Just like Wordpress—and Web-publishing platforms like Squarespace that go beyond what Wordpress offers—the end user doesn’t need much technical expertise at all.

“I’m an end user, I don’t need to know HTML and CSS, but I want to create a quick advertisement for a sale we are running,” said Bartolini. “I want this to potentially publish to both my Web site and my digital signage platform. As long as I am cognizant of the difference in resolution, in your CMS you click ‘Publish,’ and it goes to both places.”

Cross media: the next generation.

While it’s true that this will open up the digital signage market to many new players that can offer high-quality DDS solutions and deployments with minimal cost and minimal technical savvy, there will always be a need for signage providers whose added value is expertise in effective visual communication, graphic design, and aesthetics. These have always been—and will always be—the constants, regardless of how the medium and delivery technology change.

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