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Quick, Clear, Concise: Communicating Effectively

Recently I read an article that discussed digital signage at the San Jose State University library. The concerns raised by librarian Laurel Eby are very valid, especially if you don’t have any background in graphic design. Questions about content, slide duration, number of slides, and even branding are big questions that can impact how effectively your message gets across.

Many, many jokes have been made about how short our attention spans are lately. (Ooh, look – a kitty!) But when you’re designing things that are meant to get – and, hopefully, keep – a person’s attention, there is a seed of truth behind the joke…and you can’t ignore it. Because if you ignore that, then your patrons will ignore you.

When I studied television production, we were told about the “elevator pitch”. If you’re not familiar, imagine you’re in an elevator with a famous director – let’s say Steven Spielberg. You just so happen to have The Best Idea Ever for a movie (about a plucky young librarian who blogs in her spare time?) but you only have until he gets off the elevator to thoroughly describe your story. You have to talk, and you have to talk fast. What do you tell him?

Now translate that into some digital signage. Your patrons are just as busy as Mr. Spielberg and have just as much time to listen to your spiel about your next library event (so basically, none). You’ve got to reach out to them, and you have to do it fast. How do you go about it?

You can take another tip from the television world when you figure out how to answer that question: You’ve got to make it clear, you’ve got to make it quick, and you’ve got to make it concise. Here’s how:

Make it quick: Okay, so we’ve got to get the patrons’ attention. Since we can’t stand on corners yelling about our events, we need to think about what gets our attention – and the answer is imagery. Use vivid, fun colors and, if possible, include a photo (or two) of your event. Make it something that forces people to look – don’t use blurry, dull photos and keep clip art to a minimum.

Make it clear: So now we’ve got the patron, what are we going to tell them? Simply slapping an event name and a date on your signage will generate more questions than answers. Elaborate where you need to – we’re meeting in Room A of the B Branch Library. Give a one-sentence description of the event with active language. Most importantly, make sure your text is as legible as your idea: there are a lot of beautiful script typefaces out there, but if your patrons can’t read them, they’re not worth the pixels they’re made out of.

Make it concise: Journalists operate with these questions: Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How. Answer at least three of those questions (typically what, where, and when) and you’re golden. Remember your one-sentence description? That’s all you get. You can maybe squeeze a second one in there if you’re determined. But Keep It Simple, Silly. There’s a reason that acronym exists.

Here’s an example of a digital sign I made for our “Talk Like a Pirate Day”. It gives just enough information to tell what’s going on, yet it still invites the patron to come ask about it if they have more time.

An example of a digital sign advertising a "Talk like a Pirate Day" event at our library. It shows an example of quick, clear, and concise design.
Our “Talk Like a Pirate Day” signage. All the stamps and fonts were found for free online.

Is this hard? You bet it is. You don’t have to go all-out Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce for your new story-time signage, but you don’t have to make it “Jeopardy!”-dull either. It takes a lot of practice and you’ll learn a lot from your mistakes. Look at other digital ads – the rotating banners on many library pages are an excellent example of what you could do with digital signage. Keep your eyes open for design inspiration, digital and analog, and your ears open for patron feedback. Even if you couldn’t PowerPoint your way out of a paper bag, you can design effective digital signage.

So tell Mr. Spielberg about your awesome new storytime. Who knows – he might make an awesome movie out of it!

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