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Evaluating Exhibit Design
ILLUSTRATION: MARK FISHER
Q.
I have a vague sense that our exhibit design could be far more effective. But how can I objectively evaluate it to determine how best to redesign or revamp our footprint?

A.
Good exhibit design follows some fundamental principles. It focuses on the needs of the people using it (i.e., attendees and your staff); it considers and prioritizes marketing goals and what information you need to convey to users; and it offers a comfortable and welcoming environment. So the best way to determine how well your design accomplishes these fundamentals is to visually examine the stand both while empty and in action. This visual examination works best if you break the process into several components. Doing so will help you zoom in for an in-depth analysis to identify not only what isn't effective but also possible opportunities for improvement.

Here, then, are eight critical criteria to analyze along with queries to guide your observations. By examining these criteria from the eyes of both a marketer and an attendee, you'll be able to determine which aspects of your design work – and which could use a reboot.


Welcoming and Wayfinding – Do attendees hang back along the aisle, or do they feel empowered to enter your booth? Do they hover inside the perimeter unsure of where to go, or do they follow a general path or pattern?

Wayfinding encompasses the directional signage and cues (visual, textual, graphic, and spatial) that help visitors navigate a space. If your sales team reports attendees don't know where to go or what to do in your booth, that's a big hint that you need to redesign the entry points, signage, and physical path of your footprint.


Lighting – No one wants to go into a dimly lit maze at a trade show unless they're at a haunted house expo. So consider if your stand's lighting is efficient and effective. Is it trained on the most critical elements that you want people to look at? Are there areas in your exhibit that are poorly lit and hard to see? Are the lights creating glare off of the finishes in your booth, and does that interfere with text, graphics, or product displays? Is the lighting putting the attention where you want and need it? If your lighting isn't effective, neither is your booth.

Colors and Materials – When you're assessing lighting glare, also look at your materials and color choices, as glossy surfaces and hue selections may also be to blame. Ask yourself if the materials are easy to maintain, they're showing their age, or they're challenging to keep clean during a conference. Do the colors work well with your brand? Do they look dated? Do they help delineate you from your competitors? Similar to lighting, colors and materials can be swapped out to varying degrees, so you might not need a complete reboot if these are the only areas suffering.

Wow Factor – What's the "wow" in your booth? Is it a new product, huge cost savings for users, or a technological advancement? Think about the best way to highlight this one thing. For instance, if you're selling a service that saves your clients money, what's the most powerful way to express that in an eye-catching graphic? If you have a widget that's better than any widget seen before, show it off like a rare jewel, beautifully lit and presented so people can ogle it from all sides. And if you're selling tech, how can you get potential customers hands-on with it? Bottom line: Ensure you have a wow or two that directly correlate to your goals, and then assess whether your wows are effectively highlighted in your design.

Graphics and Text – One of the greatest hazards of booth design is trying to do too much in too small a space. This is especially true when it comes to graphics. After all, your booth is only one step in what will hopefully be a long and fruitful client relationship. Your graphics need not be an encyclopedia. So consider your graphics and text with an extremely critical and concise eye. If you were an attendee, would you know what your booth is selling? Do your graphics and messages separate you from your competitors? They also should have a strong, clear messaging hierarchy that is consistent throughout the booth and connects seamlessly to your collateral materials. Visually walk through the space to determine if this hierarchy exists and if it's successful. Additionally, if you have updated your marketing materials or branding and haven't yet changed your booth, that's a problem. It is vital that your company sends a consistent message across all marketing mediums.

Accessibility and Inclusion – As you're reviewing your graphics and text, it's a good time to consider accessibility issues. Are your fonts large enough for people to read from a distance? Is the color contrast between fonts and graphics and their surrounding context strong enough to promote readability? If you have a video, is it close-captioned? Are there any trip hazards, particularly at the edges of the booth? Is the path in your exhibit wide enough for someone in a wheelchair to navigate it? Do you represent a broad array of users in your graphics, videos, and other materials? Do the photos or images reinforce gender, racial, ethnic, or religious stereotypes?

Technology – If you're not selling technology, make sure whatever tech you have in your booth (e.g., video, touchscreens, digital interactives, augmented and/or virtual reality, etc.) is actually working to sell your product. Tech is a tool, just like graphics, lighting, and product displays. As you analyze the design, closely examine whether your technology supports your goals and whether it's the most effective medium to meet those needs.

Usability – Does your design offer the functional elements your staff requires? Do they have the storage they need? Are there enough seating areas for client meetings, and are these spaces practical for the type of meetings being held? During conversations, is your team resorting to laborious explanations over and over when a video, presenter, or digital graphic would do the trick – and save staffers' time and frustration? Granted, your design must serve attendees first and foremost, but it should also address the functional needs of the staff so that they can effectively interact with attendees.

Exhibit managers often measure what goes on in their booths in terms of quantity of leads, dwell time, demo participation, and more. But they're almost never able to measure the traffic they're missing due to poor booth design. That is, exhibitors never account for the number of qualified buyers that pass by in the aisles because they're not sure what the exhibitor sells, they're put off by minimal access points, or they can't quickly and easily locate the one key product they're keen to buy.

By looking at the many facets of design that contribute to your booth through the lens of the users, you can begin to see if and how these elements are impediments to attendees and your sales team. While you may not want to add another task to your to-do list, a thorough evaluation of your design can help you not only devise a more aesthetically pleasing booth but also generate a far more effective stand that boosts leads, sales, and return on investment.



— Cynthia Sharpe, principal of cultural attractions and research, Thinkwell Group Inc., Los Angeles, www.thinkwellgroup.com
Help Wanted
Send your tough questions about exhibiting to Linda Armstrong, larmstrong@exhibitormagazine.com.

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