An architect without vision is just a draftsman, and an exhibit without a concept is just a booth.
Several months ago, I toured an exhibit with the space's designer in tow. The structure was impressive, but what really wowed me was his impassioned explanation of the initial spark that grew into the design's central concept. His extraordinarily well thought-out idea had been developed and nurtured for weeks before a single rendering was created.
The reason his process astounded me was that I rarely hear designers talk about investing that amount of creative capital into the intangible but oh-so-important initial concept. Many inadvertently mistake the exhibitor's objectives for said concept, and begin mapping out structural elements to accommodate those needs before wholeheartedly considering the central theme, idea, or mood the design should convey to visitors.
During my discussion with the aforementioned designer, I settled on a theory that may explain why concepts have taken a back seat. Years ago, before fancy rendering software, most exhibit designers were also model makers. And when a client was considering a new build, he or she typically asked to see a 3-D scale model of the proposed exhibit.
Often built of resin and wood, these models were extremely time-consuming projects. As such, designers invested disproportionate amounts of energy on the front end of the process, developing inspired concepts and considering not just where elements might sit or how large they might be, but rather what the booth was supposed to represent, and how it should make visitors feel. Why? Because if they were off base on the initial concept, they'd likely spend days creating additional iterations of that damn scale model. Bottom line, it paid to get it right the first time.
Today, exhibit designers can create 3-D renderings in mere minutes, moving walls or swapping out fixtures with the click of a mouse. In other words, the barrier to entry has been lowered, eliminating the imperative to get it right the first time. Furthermore, truncated timelines, speculative design, and an overly myopic focus on function has resulted in less-inspired spaces. Once an art form, exhibit design has been incrementally commoditized.
Granted, a 10-by-20-foot in-line probably doesn't require an artistic, high-concept approach. But if you're investing in custom exhibitry, or attempting to create a truly experiential, transformative space, putting the design before the concept is akin to putting the cart before the horse.
Many of the most memorable exhibits I've seen in the past decade possessed a soulful depth of character born out of a deeply rooted concept from which the design, and its subsequent details, flowed. But that kind of brilliance can't be reverse engineered into an exhibit that's designed in 90 minutes.
So how do we combat the gradual extinction of truly inspired exhibitry? How do we ensure that the cart and horse are in proper alignment? I submit that exhibitors begin moving away from renderings as a primary component of their requests for proposal. Obviously, any company investing in a new build will want to see a representation of the structure they're about to purchase. But perhaps that step is being taken too prematurely – at least for custom spaces with experiential aims.
Rather, whittle down your list of exhibit houses by first asking them to explain their initial concepts – without renderings. Select those concepts that give you goose bumps, or that indicate a level of thoughtfulness above the uninspired average, and then move on to renderings. By doing so, you create a prerequisite of contemplation that will net you a more remarkable design, as well as a more remarkable designer.
An architect without vision is just a draftsman, and an exhibit without a concept is just a booth. But an experiential space, imbued with inspiration and brought to life in three dimensions, is the stuff of face-to-face marketing magic.