Visual marketing in a visual age

Dynamic signs draw customers in, inform passersby


By the time the Mount Baker Theatre re-opens in December, it will have a new digital marquee that will allow the theater to show video and text, said Executive Director Brad Burdick.


Just months before the Mount Baker Theatre closed for renovation in March, the 18-foot-wide marquee sign out front had a “catastrophic failure,” as Executive Director Brad Burdick put it.

The LED sign simply stopped working, which turned out to be fortuitous. The sign was slated to be replaced back in 1992, but the theater didn’t have the funds to do so. Now the sign project fits in seamlessly with the second phase of major renovations slated to be completed by early December.

Plus, sign technology has advanced beyond what was first envisioned 16 years ago.

“The sign will certainly be better than it ever was,” Burdick said. “It’s going to be a lot easier to read than signs in the past.”

The new LEDs in these signs are available in full color and can be seen from a wider angle, about 140 degrees, said Ray George, owner of The Sign Post, which is installing the new message center. For the theater, that means people won’t have to stand directly in front of the sign to see it, which was the case for the old sign.

“You’ll be able to see the sign from a block on either side,” Burdick said, adding that the sign will also be able to show video.

In an era that has become accustomed to television and the Internet, visual marketing is becoming increasingly important for businesses. And simple technological advances, such as being able to see a theater sign better, can play a big part in designing effective marketing, George said.

“It’s a changing time,” he said.


The visual era

Ten years ago, most signs used simple lightbulbs or neon to draw attention. The illusion of movement could be created, but only to a limited extent, said Jacob Tilton, a regional representative for the sign manufacturer Time-O-Matic.

Now, full-color LEDs and modern computers are reshaping signs the way Flash animation changed Internet advertising.

As with any new technology, though, change often happens slowly, and the newer, more dynamic signs have had their share of doubters.

“There have been concerns about driver distraction and aesthetics,” Tilton said.

Certain studies, though, show that dynamic signs are good at abating highway hypnosis and can help keep drivers alert.

Some communities may also have an aversion to the flashy new signs for pure aesthetic reasons, George said. But for business owners, the effectiveness of electronic message centers speaks for itself.

“For businesses to survive, you need signage,” George said, “and these signs allow companies to reach out to more customers.”

An example Tilton brings up is the neon-lined city of Las Vegas, Nev. He admits it’s a bit on the extreme side, but it drives home the point that signs work well, and great signs work even better.

“People say they don’t want the aesthetics of Las Vegas, but they would love to have at least 1 percent of the revenue of The Strip,” he said.

The beauty of these new signs, Tilton said, is that they don’t have to be flashy to be effective. For the Mount Baker Theatre, that is especially important.

“With a historic facility it’s very important to update it without changing it,” Burdick said of the theater. “We want to make sure this maintains the look of a theater, not a glitzy casino or a used car sale.”


Creating a dynamic storefront

Visual marketing is also becoming increasingly important on a much smaller scale, from storefronts to interior displays, said Sheri Hovde of Creosity, located in Birch Bay.

The newest advancement for storefronts is a digital projection screen. These are basically pieces of plastic onto which you can project a video or advertisement. This allows businesses to create dynamic window displays that catch people’s eyes.

“It stops passersby because they want to find out how it works,” Hovde said. “Pretty soon this technology will be the standard for advertising.”

Creosity carries several variations of the plastic panels that are designed to work in varying light conditions. Unlike projecting an image onto a white screen, these screens make it possible to view an image in direct sunlight or even on both sides of the screen.

“Being in the Pacific Northwest, we tend to build our buildings facing west. For those windows, we have a pane that can be seen in direct sunlight,” Hovde said.

These screens can also be cut into any conceivable shape — round, soda-bottle shaped, triangular — which make the display look less like a television and thus more eye-catching, Hovde said.

Chris Landrum, who co-founded Creosity with Hovde, said this technology represents a distinct shift in visual marketing, from long spiels to quick and catchy attention-grabbers.

“Just look at commercials — they have gone from one-and-a-half minute segments down to 10-second bursts,” Landrum said. “Businesses are trying to capture the attention of the consumer and visual marketing creates the dynamics of color and motion. This increases the efficiency of their marketing.”


Toss the cardboard cutouts

Once a sign or storefront display has drawn a customer inside, it is important to keep product displays highly visible, Landrum said.

To do this, Landrum recommends a 36-inch LCD screen similar to a computer monitor, but designed for better viewing. This type of visual marketing can be as simple as showing product photos — or for a restaurant, menu items — and is much more effective than the old cardboard cutout, he said.

For the not-so-tech-savvy, Creosity includes software with the screens that allows users to quickly build displays.

“Drag and drop — it’s that simple,” Hovde said. “We’re able to display information as fast as you can hit enter.”


So what will come next?

Will clothing retailers be able to snap photos of passersby and show them how cute they look in that new skirt, which is conveniently on sale this week?

Sign technology is already far enough along that size is not a factor, said Tilton of Time-O-Matic. The company can build signs as small as a one-by-one foot square to as large as a billboard.

Thus, Landrum and Hovde predict that interactive media will be the next big thing. Research is already being done on thermopane glass that will allow projected images to respond like a giant touch screen.

Who knows where our eyes will take us from there?

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