Just as beauty only comes from within, award-winning design can only emerge from a strategic starting point.
"Content precedes design. Design in the absence of content is not design; it's decoration."
– Jeffrey Zeldman
Each year, EXHIBITOR dedicates its May issue to honoring the winners of our annual Exhibit Design Awards, which recognize the best trade show exhibit designs in the world. While recently discussing the issue with a reader, something she said struck me as inadvertently off-putting, even though she meant it as a compliment: "That issue of EXHIBITOR is always full of such pretty booths and exhibit-design eye candy."
She's right. This issue is chock-full of swoon-worthy photos of 15 of the world's most remarkable stands. But just as a female student completing her doctoral dissertation might be offended by being told she's pretty (instead of being commended for her insights and accomplishments), I felt a little umbrage at the implication that quality exhibit design is merely skin deep – or, perhaps more accurately, Sintra deep. So instead of simply
accepting the compliment, I made sure to explain that just as beauty only comes from within, the award-winning designs in this issue can only emerge from strategic starting points.
Sadly, many marketers see design as a superfluous luxury and too often settle for uninspired spaces created with about as much care as a camping tent. But design is actually a powerful weapon in the fight for attendees' attention and mindshare. Walk any trade show, and you'll see what I mean. In the context of exhibit marketing, design attracts attention, promotes engagement, and conveys a message. Good design becomes the de facto face of a brand, sending impactful visual cues to passersby about who you are and what you do. Everything from the materials used to the trends and colors incorporated can make attendees associate your exhibit – and therefore your brand – with attributes they equate with those visual prompts, be they luxury, modernity, stability, etc.
In the same way that good design becomes the face of your brand, great design becomes a branded experience. It makes visitors feel something, which more often than not makes them remember something. And while trade shows are fleeting by definition, if you can cement a message – or even just a moment – in attendees' minds, that's face-to-face marketing magic. When you think about design in general, and exhibit design in particular, within that context, it becomes less about making a booth look pretty and far more about making it magnetic.
Just like musical notes played at a specific time and in a certain order sound right, elements such as font, scale, and texture employed in thoughtful, functional ways result in an exhibit that looks right. In other words, good design isn't pleasing to the eye just because it follows some trend-based set of rules or regulations, but because there is purpose and meaning to both the sum and its parts. Bottom line: A truly noteworthy design isn't merely a matter of aesthetics; it's strategic. For that reason, you'll find that all 15 of the exhibits featured in this issue have an origin story that started not with a designer's desire to create a pretty structure, but rather his or her desire to design an exhibit that would do something, be something, or say something.
To designer Jeffrey Zeldman's point, there's a reason this issue is not dedicated to our annual Exhibit Decoration Awards. A big, beautiful booth that doesn't advance a company's goals or objectives is about as useful as a pristine sports car that's out of gas and up on blocks. And if Zeldman happened to design exhibits rather than websites, I imagine he would agree that exhibit design in the absence of strategy is not design; it's just eye candy. E