“In a busy setting, do animation and sound in particular distract viewers from absorbing your messages, or do they help to draw attention? How much is too much?”
When it comes to using animation in busy environments, I believe that animation and sound may become ineffective rather than distracting. Consider the principles of contrast often used in publication and design. In photography, for example, if objects in the frame of view are all of similar size and/or color, it is more difficult to pick out a single one. This is why the task of “finding Waldo” is so challenging at times. When designing content for busy environments, matching busy with busy may simply cause your message to blend in with the surrounding environment.
As an operator, you may have a small digital signage network comprised of one or two signs competing for attention in a large high-traffic area filled with other digital signs controlled by other operators. In such situations, a case could be made for slower content animation to create a contrast with the competition. Varying or building the pace of content may also draw attention if it presents a contrast.
Installation quality and creativity also can provide contrast. Signage that leverages multiple displays in non-traditional configurations and orientations will stand out in an environment that looks like “a bunch of TVs hung on the wall.”
If you are the operator of a larger network of digital signs within a hectic environment, you may want to draw attention to specific types of signage such as wayfinding kiosks, flight and bus schedule information or donor walls. Using animation and sound in certain types of digital signage may detract from the intended purpose or negate it altogether. Adding advertising elements with high “production” value to a flight information display may distract the people who are trying to use it for its intended purpose.
Again, effective design and installation along with appropriate content for the application are important. Interactive wayfinding, for example, should look and be placed in ways that provide contrast with the surrounding environment and in the proper context with the intended use. Interactive wayfinding displays could hang on walls and be virtually indistinguishable from other signage in the building. Adding further camouflage, the desire to “maximize value” for wayfinding when not actively in use, the wayfinding application could be designed to show regular signage content until someone walks up and touches a menu bar at the bottom to bring up a building map. In such cases, the lack of contrast and attempting to gain value by multi-purposing may have passers-by doing just that, passing by without even realizing there is interactive wayfinding present in the building.
When working with digital signage, especially in busy environments, it is about creating a proper and appropriate contrast to the environment and other signage, whether that signage is other forms of signage within your network or a competing network while also keeping in mind the intended purpose of each sign. If we imagine we’re playing a game of “Where’s Waldo” with every passerby, it is up to us to know what we want people to find and make it as easy for them to find and use as possible.