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Philip Hughes's exhibition design tips

Exhibition designer Philip Hughes has tips on how to display products and exhibits to best effect
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Philip Hughes
Vanessa Hogge RAA

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Philip Hughes is an exhibition designer with over 20 years’ experience. He works in London for the world’s leading museum design consultancy, Ralph Appelbaum Associates, and recently published Exhibition Design, a guide for exhibitors and exhibition designers.

#01
GET THE RIGHT LOCATION
Exhibitions should be held in prominent, convenient and/or desirable locations near transport networks. Locations can often lend glamour to an exhibition – people who would not visit your widgets show in Bolton might reconsider if you hold it in Cannes. However, if Bolton is the epicentre of widget enthusiasts, that is probably the right place to go.

#02
WRITE OUT YOUR EXHIBITION AS A SINGLE STORY
People understand exhibits in the context of things that they already know and understand. By writing the story, you can work out the order of exhibits, where the story subdivides into natural chapters and what they might represent to the visitor. This works surprisingly well for all kinds of exhibits.

For a trade fair, the story of a breakthrough product will have distinct chapters: where the breakthrough came from, how it was discovered and how it has emerged to take its place in the market.

#03
MAKE YOUR EXHIBITION EASY TO NAVIGATE
Like most magazines or newspapers, exhibitions should be arranged in a way that feels natural but with headings or signage so that visitors can find their way around. Exhibition spaces are often confusing and crowded, so signage should be clear. So often, we visit exhibitions and speak to friends and colleagues afterwards to discover that we missed something we really wanted to see, or mistook one thing for another – frequently because areas were not well indicated.

#04
DECIDE WHAT YOU WANT YOUR VISITORS TO LEARN
If you are really specific at the outset about your goals, you have a much better chance of achieving and measuring them. People tend to enjoy shows where they have learnt something new. Children are particularly cynical about exhibitions where they feel they came away without anything useful. If the exhibition is really effective, the learning stays with you – sometimes for years.

#05
STUDY YOUR AUDIENCE
Some exhibitions attract well-defined visitor groups with strong likes and dislikes. It is the exhibitor’s job to research their audience and provide experiences that can be appreciated and understood by the visitor. Scientists, executives, schoolchildren and art enthusiasts, for example, will have sharply differing interests that can be catered for directly, though some shows – open to the general public – might have all of these groups attend. The best exhibitions will have several ‘layers’ of information to cater for visitors with differing levels of interest and expertise – a top layer for the visitor who wants to get around quickly, a middle layer for the curious person with a genuine interest and a detailed layer for the expert.

#06
AVOID THE TEMPTATION TO SHOW EVERYTHING
Exhibitors are often tempted to show everything in their collection, leading to cluttered environments. Think about the people who attend and what you want them to see. What things should have significance? If you put everything on display, will the breadth of the exhibits detract from the key exhibits you want them to understand and appreciate? Often space around an object can communicate that it is special. If you surround exhibits with too many other things, they get lost.

#07
USE SOPHISTICATED TOOLS
Exhibitions have moved on a long way since visitors were asked to tramp around poorly lit displays with just a few labels for guidance. Modern shows need great video, sound, graphics, interactive devices and illustrations to tell stories to a critical modern audience. This might involve flashy audiovisual gimmicks or jawdropping effects, but not always. Media should be used to enhance the story and should be paced to coincide with the highlights and scripted to help the visitor understand themes.

Exhibition Design (Portfolio), Laurence King Publishing, £22.50

BUY IT HERE: Exhibition Design (Portfolio)

Philip Hughes

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