Old School Mechanical Displays Are Making A Comeback

Your shopping list has never looked so hip.


The technical term is “split-flap display.” But nobody knows the signs by that name. They’re the “neat, flippy signs” or “those old alarm clock displays” or “the signs they used to have at train stations.” They’re signs that update not with lights or pixels, but with a stack of tiny printed tags that flip into place.


Now, these old-school split-flap displays are available for your own home–if you’ve got $1850 left in your domicile’s cute sign budget. This is the Vestaboard, a 37″x21″ mechanical display for your wall. It has 161 spots for characters (also called bits), each of which can display all letters and numbers, symbols, and even a few “art” spots that are yet to be determined–though emoji seem like they’d be an excellent fit.

The magic is that inside each of these bits is a motor that spins like a Rolodex, or perhaps a mini day calendar, flipping the right characters into place. In the modern era, in which LCDs, LEDs, and other blinky lights are so cheap to produce, this sort of solution is absolutely over-engineered, and that’s why it’s both so fun and so expensive.

[Image: Vestaboard]
For however analog the display may be, the Vestaboard actually receives all of its content digitally. Connecting to Wi-Fi, it can show text messages, tweets, Slack updates, and GCal events. It also syncs to both Google Home and Amazon Alexa, allowing you to make voice commands like “show calendar.”

All of these connectivity options tip Vestaboard’s hand, just a bit. Because while it’s hard to imagine all that many of us buying these for our homes, this is just the sort of hip display that you could imagine outside every meeting room in a coworking space. There’s a lot of enterprise potential for offices that would prefer visually quieter signage as opposed to even more glowing screens. In fact, that was the goal of a similar project proposed by the now-defunct studio Berg a few years ago: To make a dynamic, mechanical sign that didn’t feel so distracting in the digital age. It’s a shame that Berg’s was never realized, but it’s nice to see the Vestaboard coming to market to fill the gap.

The Vestaboard is available for pre-order now, and the company promises to ship in December 2018.

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach