Is Your Digital Billboard Design a Traffic Hazard?

Is the design of your digital billboard so distracting it poses a threat to public safety? And are digital billboards a distraction equivalent to cell phone texting and should be banned immediately?

A recent article in USA Today, More cities ban digital billboards, had these diverse opinions:

“The digital billboards are a distraction,” says Fred Wessels, an alderman in St. Louis, which just approved a one-year moratorium on new such signs in that city.

“If they weren’t distracting, they wouldn’t be doing their job,” says Max Ashburn, spokesman for Scenic America, a national non-profit group that seeks to limit billboards.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that they are not a driving distraction,” says Bryan Parker, an executive vice president for Clear Channel Outdoor, which owns about 400 digital billboards. He cites industry-sponsored studies of collisions before and after digital billboards were installed in Albuquerque, Cleveland, and Rochester, Minn., that found no correlation.

A study by the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration, issued in February 2009, sought to determine if CEVMS (Commercial Electronic Variable Message Signs - or digital billboards to the rest of us) were a significant distraction to drivers to cause traffic accidents. The study found “The conclusion of the literature review is that the current body of knowledge represents an inconclusive scientific result with regard to demonstrating detrimental driver safety effects due to CEVMS exposure. This outcome points toward the importance of conducting carefully controlled and methodologically sound future research on the issue.” In other words, there is no evidence that digital billboards are a distraction to drivers, but they need to conduct more research to make sure.

Average digital billboard rotation times are 3 to 8 seconds, so you have a small amount of time to convey your message to the viewer. A cluttered design that violates the basic principles of effective billboard design, I would argue, makes it difficult for the viewer to understand the message. This, in turn, requires a longer glance to comprehend the message, and therefore causes more of a distraction from driving. However, is that increased distraction period enough to cause an accident? A study by Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) found the typical glance toward a digital billboard was less than one second. “Glances totaling more than two seconds for any purpose increase near-crash/crash risk by at least two times that of normal, baseline driving. The typical glance toward a digital billboard is well under the threshold.” But, if you have a cluttered mess of a billboard that has too many words (see examples below), the glance period may easily exceed one second and increase the risk of a crash.

The important thing to remember in all of this is that digital billboards are no different than traditional billboards when it comes to design.

The basic rules of billboard design:

• Simple headlines are best, 9 words maximum.

• Use readable fonts. Fonts that are too thick, thin or ornate will be hard to read from a distance. Upper and lower case are also easier to read than all caps.

• Readable text should be 10” - 15” in height, depending on location and viewing distance.

• Contrasting colors are also important. The stronger the contrast between the copy and background color, the easier the message will be to read.

• Billboards will be viewed from a distance while moving, so simplicity and clarity of message are key. Preferably three elements maximum (headline, photo and logo).

• Choose photos or graphic elements with a strong focal point, busy photos do not work well.

Examples of good billboard design:

If you follow the basic rules of billboard design, not only will you have a memorable message that is effective for your client, but you’ll also have a billboard that isn’t distracting for drivers and potentially harmful.

Posted in: Advertising, Marketing, Offline Marketing

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