From modest video walls to gargantuan LED mega-spectaculars, well-executed creative is a critical component of any digital signage experience. There are certainly important display hardware metrics like pixel pitch and brightness, but it’s really the content that tends to elicit the WOW response display owners and operators crave.
Few things in the audio-visual industry are more rewarding than seeing your work connect people to powerful digital experiences.
We are proud to support the work of talented content creators in the digital signage space. Please enjoy this edition of Creator Q&A with SNA Displays in which we highlight Render Impact, an award-winning multimedia design studio that specializes in high-impact content for digital displays.
During the meet-and-greet, Todd Rickenbach and Jake Berg from Render Impact discussed the importance of letting planned content shape the design process of the LED display, with examples from their own portfolio. The presentation stressed that putting creative content at the forefront is essential to creating the kind of experience that stays with the viewer long after they walk away from the display.
Todd Rickenbach, Render Impact’s general manager, graciously agreed to answer some questions about his team’s approach to digital content creation. Rickenbach has more than 15 years of experience in the digital display industry. He has been involved in every aspect of the content creation process and has managed hundreds of projects for Render Impact’s clients and partners.
Background and Influences
What do you consider your specialty in terms of content generation? Is there a specific type of art direction you enjoy taking more than others?
At our core, we’re process artists. Every client has unique technical needs and creative wants.
Those technical needs bring us a multitude of canvases such as lobby video walls, multi-screen synced displays, corner screens, large outdoor spectaculars, column wraps, ceiling screens, circular pillar displays, 16k+ volume studios, projection-mapped physical surfaces, plus every format in between and beyond. Understanding a variety of formats is essential to understanding how to successfully execute a new format in this rapidly expanding medium of digital signage using LED.
The creative wants of a client vary greatly and can even change on a dime. That’s just the nature of a high-cost artform where many teams contribute to the final product. It’s essential that we are able to explore a variety of styles, from classic to contemporary to emerging.
As process artists, we approach each project as something completely new that’s never been made before while we lean on our past experiences to inspire and guide us.
What are some of your artistic influences?
Your readers are going to hate our lack of specificity, but… everything? We stay up to date on industry trends. Social media is an incredible asset to see what’s out there, what’s emerging. Shout-out to Refik [Anadol] for getting digital signage some artistic recognition with his MoMA installation.
We mine techniques from classic cinema and classic animation. There’s a lot to learn from classic, effects-heavy filmmakers like Spielberg, Zemeckis, and Cameron. The techniques developed and refined by Disney, Warner Brothers Animation, Fleischer Studios, UPA, and many other old-school animation studios are just as relevant to digital signage as they were to theatrical animated shorts.
Step outside of moving pictures and we draw value from the wealth of classical painters, sculptures, the performing arts, and artists of all mediums. Also, nature never ceases to amaze and inspire us.
If a client gave you no guidelines for content, what would you create?
The Unabridged Complete Works of William Shakespeare in the style of Mary Blair with 3D particles on the MSG Sphere. And a budget north of $4 billion.
What message do you want people to hear about digital art/content creation?
The first painting was 45,500 years ago. The first motion picture was in 1888. The first demonstration of TV was in 1927. The first digital image was in 1957. Resolution was 176 x 176. When a new artform emerges, it first imitates what came before it. But over time we learn so much more about its potential, about what makes it unique. We’re in an exciting period of history and we can’t wait to see what digital artists around the world make in the next century.
Content Creation Process
How do you effectively connect with or influence an audience’s emotions?
Start with something relatable and put it on a journey.
How do you determine what content is best for a specific client or in a given space?
We determine what content is best for any given project by utilizing best practices developed over our decades of experience, listening to both what the client is saying and what they’re not saying, and pushing ourselves to look beyond the ordinary. Understanding the client’s goals and the space is a key first step in any content project.
There are many variables to consider when determining what will make content ultimately successful in a given space. A few general considerations include screen location, pixel density, viewing distance/perspective, dwell time, lighting, and audience demographics.
For us, each project is very different than the last and the same can be said about the content we create. Content in a corporate lobby is much different than a children’s museum and content in a casino is much different than a trade show. They all have unique considerations.
What elements are most important in creating immersive or experiential content?
The single most important element is identifying how you want the audience to feel. Is this piece meant to provide a calming atmosphere? Is it meant to energize? To intrigue? To make the audience just say, “WOW, that’s cool, I’m going to post this on Instagram!”? Is it meant to educate your audience? Figure that out first and you’ll avoid a lot of missteps.
How do you determine a content strategy for various projects?
Learn to look at your work objectively and ignore your subjective thoughts. Then, when that doesn’t work, listen to your subjective thoughts.
What kind of sandbox environment do you use to explore new ideas or experiment with prototypes?
At the most rudimentary level, pen and paper is great. But the greatest tool for rapid prototyping is a human brain that can visualize concepts and explore possibilities. The study and practice of improv comedy is oddly helpful with that.
Our team is continually adopting new tools and learning new software. We look for inspiration everywhere, and we try to experiment as much as possible to achieve desired results. We have industry partners we work closely with to test our results for real-world applications.
For a long time, most digital signage content was made for square or widescreen formats, but with new technology, displays are no longer limited in this way. How has that changed your creative process?
It’s made previsualizations an essential part of our review process. It also makes content design much more intentional when you have screens creatively integrated into spaces.
We see the term “techorating” being used more often. This is a method that seamlessly blends technology with interior design, specifically by using display technologies or video walls as the canvas for content. These techorators use technology such as digital displays as part of the design of a space, delivering a unique canvas that is not only effective, but that is also aesthetically pleasing. Intentional content design maximizes techorating efforts and is an important part of our process in many projects.
With intentional content design, we help blend digital displays into their environment so they feel part of the space and not just another big screen on a wall. In order to do that, we’ll work closely with interior designers and architects to understand the overall design, materials, colors, textures, and inspiration they used to design a space. With that information, we’ll create content that incorporates those design elements and seamlessly blends the physical space with the digital so viewers cannot easily determine where one ends and the other begins.
Mapping the Landscape
What types of digital signage creative would you say are most in demand?
Each client has his or her own ideas, vision, and goals for content depending on who they are and who will see it. But anamorphics and forced perspectives are hot right now, which is no secret. AI-driven and data visualizations are also on the rise, but that may just be a trend.
Calm nature scenes and living plant walls are also really big and we expect them to become even more in demand over the next decade. Bringing nature indoors, whether it’s on a digital canvas or a physical one, is a trend that will likely never go away.
What do you think about the 3D/anamorphic content trend? Do you create this type of content?
We do anamorphics and we love them because of their unique look. It has a more intensive review process in order to get it just right for the optimum viewer perspective, but it’s incredibly satisfying once it’s working. Anamorphic illusions are an incredibly custom experience for each client and each display. We get a lot of requests for anamorphics because they have gone viral on social media. However, just because someone wants an anamorphic illusion does not always mean they have the proper LED display or location for it to be successful.
We provide a lot of upfront education to clients when they request anamorphic illusions so they understand the pros and cons for that type of content.
What type of art style do clients typically ask for?
Clients ask for anything and everything. Lots of folks want 3D and anamorphic art, but unfortunately, it’s not always the right fit for a client’s display. We also get a lot of requests for nature and underwater content. Abstract living art is another one. Believe it or not, many clients come to us with no specific requests and ask us to pitch a bunch of interesting content ideas to them.
What are the main things you, as a digital artist, want the LED industry to know?
Content should never be an afterthought. It should be a main driver for the technology solution.
Ask your clients what they are planning to do for content before they purchase an LED display. This will benefit everybody involved. If they haven’t thought about it yet, please make sure they understand that content is just as important as any other component when it comes to the overall success of the project.
Also, make sure your client properly budgets for content ahead of time. If they can get capital dollars for the initial content, that will go a long way. We’ve seen many instances where a million dollars was budgeted for the technology and only a thousand dollars for the content.
How does digital art drive technological advancement and vice-versa?
Folks always want to see something new, something fresh. Sometimes you need a new piece of technology or a new approach to achieve a desired result that traditional tools aren’t able to deliver. That’s when art drives technology to make something new. Other times you’re approached about showing off a new piece of technology and it feels like you’re playing with a new toy on Christmas morning.
What new technology are you using or excited about using in your content creation process?
We are sincerely excited about the new tools AI will provide 10 years from now. Additionally, we are leveraging UnReal Engine when we can in order to optimize rendering for super-high-resolution displays.
What would be your dream LED display to create content for?
One of those holodecks from Star Trek.
What’s the longest render time you’ve had to endure?
We have an old eMac (not iMac) that’s still running an HD After Effects render since 2007. We keep it in a closet and check in on it every now and then. Every few months it finishes another frame.
The Future of the Art Form
What course of study would you recommend to someone interested in becoming a digital content creator?
We’re going to skip the obvious choices and suggest they study performing arts. Study ballet. Study mime. Study clowning. Study shadow puppets. Study movement of all kinds. It’s going to expand your brain about what’s achievable. Steve Jobs studied calligraphy and revolutionized computer fonts. Study outside your field and your comfort zone so you can innovate.
What does the future hold for digital content creation?
The next couple generations of AI are going to change things; we just don’t know how yet. 2D is going to come back in a big way, bigger than it has in the past few years. When everyone is making one kind of art, it’s the outlier art that stands out.