How to use sight, sound to craft pleasing digital signage

Claude Debussy said, “Beauty must appeal to the senses, must provide us with immediate enjoyment, must impress us or insinuate itself into us without any effort on our part.” Our senses tell us what is real and what is not, and we rely on them for information about the world around us. They also trigger emotional responses in us.

We know the five physical senses — sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell. Digital signage mainly focuses on sight, which makes sense since over 80 percent of the information we take in comes to us through our eyes. But what about the other 20 percent? Can our other senses be leveraged in a way that creates a lasting impression and is emotionally satisfying to an audience? Here are some tips on how to create immersive experiences to engage your audience:


The first thing is to create beautiful content — if it’s appealing, people will stop to look at your screens. Motion draws the eye, which is why video is so effective on digital signs. Information like weather, date and time, news feeds and local traffic also grab attention.

Some organizations try to ramp up the visuals with larger displays, like 4K high-def and video walls. These can add a wow factor and, when used correctly, can be quite breathtaking. In addition to video or streaming feeds, cinemagraphs are becoming popular on the web and can be easily incorporated into digital signs. These are still images with a single moving element (for example, woman sitting in a field at sunset with the blades of grass slowly blowing in the breeze).

Yet visuals should be secondary to the actual information being conveyed. If too much visual information is presented at once, digital signage messages become clunky, and can be irritating to look at or even confusing. Plus, the more text there is for your audience to read in a message, the longer that message needs to be on screen. Which means it can take a long time for a particular message to cycle back through your playlist.

Designers and content creators might want to take inspiration from the phenomenon of pecha kucha. This is a patented presentation format created in Tokyo that uses 20 PowerPoint slides which display for 20 seconds each, resulting in a dense but concise presentation of information. The idea is to have a compelling visual with few words, and to let the presenter give a richer explanation.

Although a digital signage message should only be displayed for 7-10 seconds, we can apply the same methods. Use beautiful imagery with an attention-grabbing title, and then use a call to action to route people to more information.

Try to design your messages with an image that conveys at least half of what you are trying to say – let the image carry some of the information content. So, a typical digital signage message might be something like this: “Sign up for the 401K program today. Go to HR or email [email protected] to get started,” and also shows a picture of a smiling employee (who, we assume, has followed the instructions and is now very happy). But what if the message is a picture of a smiling person handing another smiling person a form that says 401K on it, and the text just gives the email address and maybe a QR code to a website with more information? It’s the exact same information, but presented with the image carrying more of the meaning.


We get around 10 percent of our information using our hearing, but think about how important it is to comprehension. A little audio to attract attention, if used correctly, can enhance digital signage impact.

Whether or not you use audio depends on the content and the environment the digital sign is in. If the space is a noisy one, a crowded lobby, for example, then audio is probably just going to add to the chaos. And if the space is a quiet one, like a library or meeting room, then again audio would be unwelcome and intrusive. However, there are plenty of other areas where audio can add value to your visual communications.

If your digital signs show a streaming newscast, it’s always better to have the sound on — otherwise people are left watching a talking head without knowing what’s being discussed. If you can’t use sound to go with your newscast, be sure to show closed captioning so people can follow the story. In this case, show the stream full screen (going back to visual), so the eye doesn’t get confused.

Music can evoke emotions in people (we all know about calming ambient music being piped in to hospitals and airports), as well as draw their attention and reinforce your brand. A study by Mood/Sacem shows that 76 percent of customers in financial institutions felt time passed more quickly when music was playing in the background, and 56 percent felt more comfortable discussing confidential information when there was ambient music playing.

Even a short moment of sound can add value to a message. Let’s say you have a message about “Adopt a Pet Day” that shows a photo of a kitten playing with string as the reinforcing visual component. A quick audio clip of a kitten softly meowing is sure to make people look around when they hear it, and then they’ll notice and read your message. Or a message about opening hours could have a quick clip of a creaky door opening to get attention.

Some holidays lend themselves to particular sounds — sleigh bells for Christmas, a spooky ghost moan for Halloween, clinking glasses and party noises for New Year’s, fireworks for Independence Day, etc. This is a way to have some fun and interject some new life into annual announcements.

Just be sure to use audio sparingly. If every message includes a sound, nothing will stand out. Audio should be an extra for your message – don’t rely on the sound to carry the burden of information. If your message doesn’t also work with the sound off, then you are relying too much on audio.

Language is also an important part of the human experience. Perhaps your organization has messages in multiple languages. You could use a Spanish-language message on the screen such as a quick “Hola” sound clip. This is especially useful for multilingual interactive screens and kiosks — any language supported on the screen can also have a short welcome message in that language.

Most sounds we like fall into the 300-3,000 Hz range (which is also the range of the human voice), while sounds we find unpleasant are often in the high-frequency 2,000-5,000 Hz range. A study at Newcastle University found that the most pleasant sounds for humans are:

  • applause.
  • a baby laughing.
  • thunder.
  • water flowing.
  • a crackling fire.
  • rain.
  • a champagne cork popping.
  • a vibrating cell phone.
  • certain sports sounds, like a baseball cracking on a bat, a basketball going through a hoop and a golf ball dropping into a hole.
  • walking on snow.
  • food cooking (especially a steak on a grill).

Just a short audio moment in some messages (not all, and never two together) can add a lot to your messages and get more people paying attention to your digital signs.

Stay tuned next time on how to use scent and touch in digital signage.