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exhibit design
very exhibit manager knows the design process is rife with more horror stories than the SyFy Channel on Halloween. There's the booth that began looking like the swankiest mansion in Beverly Hills, CA, but ended up resembling the roughest shack in Appalachia. Or the exhibit that started off more unique than a unicorn but came out as run-of-the-mill as a chain store at a mall. Then there's the booth whose modest budget spiraled out of control so badly, that it made the Greek government look like a model of fiscal restraint.

Debacles like these may all seem to have singular and unrelated causes. But according to exhibit designers, landing yourself in the seventh circle of exhibit-design hell - with a booth that weighs too much, portrays the wrong image, busts your budget, or is made from the wrong materials - is the result of sin. No, not the Old Testament transgressions of sloth, lust, wrath, and gluttony, et al., but the steps you didn't take, questions you didn't ask, and procedures you didn't follow during the design/build process.

That's the bad news. The good news is that it's a fall from grace you can redeem faster than you can verbalize a mea culpa. To find out how to sidestep those sins and make the new-build process more angelic than demonic, we asked veteran exhibit designers to explain the counterproductive attitudes, glaring mistakes, egregious errors, and poor preparation that clients make all the time. So with their help, here are the seven deadly sins that will absolutely, positively guarantee you will get the exhibit you don't want.

Whose business is it if you have $50,000 to spend or $500,000? After all, why ground designers' fertile flights of fancy with the sordid specifics of commerce? Better to let those creative angels soar with ideas of any expense before bringing them back down to earth, right?

Exhibit managers' reasons for budget secrecy can be as copious as they are counterproductive. According to Mark Bendickson, principal and designer at Exhibitdesign, a Maple Grove, MN-based exhibit-design firm, they usually boil down to two erroneous beliefs. "Many exhibit managers think that if they keep their budget under wraps, designers will release their inner Frank Gehry, ultimately resulting in a more creative design," he says. "Some clients instinctively feel if they give their designers a budget to work with, they'll use up every penny, whether it's necessary or not."

But Bendickson suggests disclosing your budget as soon as possible. Eli B'sheart of EWI Worldwide goes a few steps further with her advice. The vice president of creative and innovations for the Livonia, MI-headquartered company encourages exhibitors to gather a history of what you spent on your booth for a particular show from the previous year, or how you allocated funds for a past exhibit of similar size, and pass on that info to your exhibit house. She also recommends asking designers to show you what they've done with budgets similar to yours. "Taking this approach will help guide the designers," B'sheart says, "Plus, it will give you a more realistic idea of what you can expect for what you're willing to pay."
 
It's no secret that Rome wasn't built in a day - in fact, the designers and builders of the Coliseum alone took nearly a decade to create the monument of stone and iron. While your exhibit may not be required to host gladiatorial smack downs or aquatic battles on artificial lakes, it's still going to be a space that measures from perhaps 100 to 1,000 square feet or more where you'll attempt to build traffic, generate leads, make sales, educate customers, demonstrate products, and more.

Any construction of that caliber requires extensive planning and therefore substantial time. In fact, according to Nancy McMillan, allowing insufficient time is a mortal design sin possibly worse than not supplying budget particulars. Calling it "the most common problem in the exhibit industry," the co-founder of Westport, CT-based McMillan Group Inc., says "a compressed hurry-up-and-shove-it-out-the-door attitude absolutely guarantees predictable, conservative, and simplistic results no one will be satisfied with."

It doesn't take Stephen Hawking to explain why time is a crucial element in the exhibit-design process. Ideally, the procedure starts with designers
acquiring a feel for what exhibit managers want, through a series of meetings, sketches, photographs, or other visual elements to shape and form their sometimes blurry or even bewildering notions. Then there's the actual fabrication time needed to render those ideas into reality. Like baking a cake, this process can only go so fast if you want an outcome that's more tasteful than tasteless.

The amount of time you should give your designers depends on a variety of factors, but mostly it hinges on the scale of booth you'll need. Rob Majerowski, vice president of creative for MG Design Associates Corp., a Pleasant Prairie, WI-based firm, estimates that exhibits with budgets less than $100,000 need a bare minimum of two months to be designed and constructed, while anything more than $100,000 generally requires three to six months, depending on the scope of the project.

Budget is important to consider, agrees Russ Fowler, senior creative director at Derse Inc., based in Milwaukee. But he notes that the particular type of exhibit you're planning holds equal importance when it comes to time frame. Fowler explains that fabric structures, for example, tend to require less time to design and fabricate, while custom exhibits and double decks - which sometimes come with fire-marshal-approved sprinkler systems - tend
to take longer. "Overall, however, you need to allow one month for the creative process alone, then at least two to three months to build the exhibit, because that provides enough time for you to review and make revisions as needed," Fowler says.

While four months may sound as impractical to some exhibit managers as four decades, that amount of time is necessary to adequately account for key messaging, product displays, demonstrations, graphics, materials, lighting, and audiovisual equipment (such as flatscreen monitors and speakers) that need to be worked into the booth. What's more, a compressed time frame means less time to fix inadvertent mistakes, make mid-course corrections to the design, and preview the exhibit before it's shipped to the trade show and set up.
 
Want to see designers' heads do an "Exorcist"-style, 360-degree pirouette? When they ask about your brand, tell them they can represent it with a Mardi Gras or a Hawaiian motif in your booth. It's a curious but common detour many exhibit managers take. "Themes are for children's birthday parties, not for trade show exhibits," Bendickson says. "Renting some palm trees and dressing everyone in Hawaiian shirts doesn't advance your brand, unless of course you're a resort in Hawaii."

If ill-defined brands are a sore point with designers, they're dangerous quicksand for exhibit managers. According to marketing guru and author Seth Godin, "A brand is the set of expectations, memories, stories, and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer's decision to choose one product or service over another." Lacking a narrative from you that encompasses at least part of Godin's definition, designers can't create an exhibit that expresses your brand to attendees.

This need-to-know information should begin with what Fowler calls a "branding package." It's to your brand what DNA is to a person - a rich, detailed description of what makes you unique. "A branding package is an absolute must," Fowler says. "The package should start with your logo, colors, typography, and marketing materials." Provide the branding package to designers in both hard copy and electronic form, such as a PowerPoint or Prezi presentation. Designers can then add questions and remarks easily. "Once they have the package, offer a set amount of time for them to review it, and then come back to you with any questions or requests for clarifications," Fowler says. "The more the designers understand your culture, the more on target the solutions will be."

Certainly typography and fonts are helpful in conveying information about your brand, but they play more of a subordinate than a starring role. To dig down to your roots, Bendickson recommends you construct a kind of brand biography. Ideally, this background account should inform the designers about: how your company is perceived in the marketplace; what makes you different and similar to your competition; what messages you hope to communicate via your exhibit; and what attributes define your target audience. "This translates your brand into a set of tangibles the designers can build around," he says.
 
When designers ask their clients about goals, the answers they get back are often as vague and fuzzy as a stoners' convention: "Management just wants us to fly the corporate colors." Or, "We want the booth to have a 'wow' factor." But those statements are the doublespeak of business jargon, not the appropriate goals of an exhibit that will generate results.

Giles Rickett knows what it's like to work with clients who think along those contours. "Bringing your team together ahead of time to take ownership in setting goals before designers even look at the project means everyone will be pulling for the success of the event," says the director of creative and marketing for Portland, OR-based Pinnacle Exhibits. "Designing a project without predetermined, shared metrics will likely result in very few people being satisfied with the end product."

So what exactly should your objectives be? Essentially, they're how you would answer if asked, "What would define a successful build for you?" The best answers, in Stephanie Recalde's experience, are those that center on measurable goals with elegant design. "Design can be very emotional and ultimately subjective to individual tastes and preferences," says Recalde, senior designer at Las Vegas-headquartered Global Experience Specialists Inc. (GES). "Make sure that everyone is basing the design execution on a set of measurable goals to help focus design needs on objective priorities."
 
It's a warning sign when an exhibit manager doesn't ask about his or her designers' backgrounds. Think about it. That's a little like going in for a nose job and neglecting to ask the plastic surgeon if he or she has had any experience in rhinoplasty.

Whether you're in the medical-device or the home-construction industries, if you want someone who's designed exhibits for your field, say so. If a particular designer has never designed for your industry, your next question should be, "How would you overcome that lack of familiarity with this market?"

"Assuming that you have reviewed the designer's portfolio and found examples of work that you like, several questions still need to be asked," Fowler says. "For example, which of the designers whose work you responded to are still with the company? Are they currently available for your project? If so, find out which other projects they're working on and how much of their time will be taken up by them."

Once you settle on a designer or designers, supply them with an explicit description of your brand, objectives, and daily operations of the booth staff. Ask the designers to visit your company and tour its physical plant. "After they've visited you, ask them specifically if what they saw jibes with the message you want their design to convey," MG Design's Majerowski says. "This will prove a good designer's true value in showing you what you haven't thought about, and how the booth design can address those unknowns."

Ignore your designer's background at your own peril - it's about as dangerous as going into combat with no ammunition and no battle plan.
 
When it comes to a booth design that will represent their company and its goals, exhibit mangers typically have to deal with a soccer riot of conflicting demands and internal opinions. While executive management wants a monument that would be too garish even for Dubai's skyline, your boss, the vice president of marketing, wants something that will configure to five different floor plans and operate 20 percent cheaper than the booth you had last year.

It's imperative that you get all these stakeholders to commit their goals to paper early on, and then come to a consensus regarding which of those goals - an innovative design, decreased cost of operation, or perhaps a reduced environmental footprint - is the most important. What happens if you don't get that agreement ahead of time? The short answer is creative chaos. "It's like herding cats, but it's got to be done," McMillan says. "If there's no consensus beforehand, it's a safe bet that while the client battles internal politics, the design process will paradoxically slow to a halt - then finish in a hurry when everyone finally and begrudgingly agrees on what they want from the exhibit."

When no one provides clear direction, the results can be costly. One of Fowler's multinational high-tech clients, for example, couldn't make up its mind about how its branding should be integrated into the exhibit. The domestic branch directed one approach while the international division demanded another. The exhibit was designed and built with just four weeks to spare, with an extra $100,000 cost to the client because too many cooks in the proverbial kitchen spoiled the broth - and almost ruined the booth.
 
Getting the exhibit that fulfills your needs isn't the same as ordering books on Amazon.com, where your participation concludes with the click of a mouse. The actual process of designing a booth from conceptual notion to concrete reality is more akin to a personal relationship than a commercial exchange. "It's only mutually beneficial when there's open communication and collaboration between the client and the exhibit house," EWI's B'sheart says.

Indeed, Fowler even has a motto when it comes to staying in touch: "The less you communicate, the more surprises you get." He strongly advocates a schedule that includes weekly meetings in person, if possible, or at least by phone; a midpoint review date; and a presentation date. During the process, your designer should offer a continual flow of rough drafts, progress reports, etc. And you should answer promptly with any comments or corrections.

Additionally, meetings should focus on any changes - which might happen, for instance, if the client's company adopts new branding or edits marketing materials - and how those changes will affect the schedule. If and when any such changes occur, ask the designers immediately for an updated estimate on the time and money the alterations are likely to cost you. "If designers are only talking about the architecture, 'We're going to use this laminate,' or 'It's going to be this shape,' that's a big red flag," Fowler says. "At this point, they should be talking about how they're going to reach your strategic objectives - your pre-show efforts, your on-site events, and what your demos and displays communicate."

By staying in touch on a scheduled and frequent basis, you avoid leaving the designers to guess what you want. Checking in frequently after your initial encounters with the designers also prevents the design from ever going too far down the wrong path, and gives you plenty of time to get back on the right one.

Here you have them, then: the seven deadly sins that, if committed, will result in a booth designed by your own demons instead of skilled designers. But if you follow the good word that industry experts preach here - that is, articulate exactly what your brand is, explain what your goals are, give your designers plenty of time, and more - your exhibit will feel like it was made in paradise, not manufactured in perdition. E
 

Charles Pappas, senior writer; cpappas@exhibitormagazine.com

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