Architectural Approach to Trade Show Booth Design

A staff member from a construction industry trade association recently reminisced:
"I remember my first trade show... and you gently showing me how to set up and work a booth, and critiquing the graphics. (You were right)."
Helping exhibitors get the most from their tradeshow booths is one of my passions. Most exhibit designers create their displays as if a booth was a two-dimensional graphic. Or, if the booth is complicated, they build a scale model and look at it as if it were a piece of sculpture on display in the pristine environment of a gallery. Instead, I fall back onto my architectural training to envision the design as a totality.

As with a building, I design a booth from the inside out, and from the outside in.

From the inside, I consider the function of the booth: Is it a place where you want to have long discussions -- or to collect leads and move people out so you can maximize lead collection? Is the product so well known that it is enough to fly the corporate banner to reinforce the brand, or is it a new product that needs demonstration and interaction?

The ratio of people in the booth to booth size has to be considered. Too many people, and prospects don't feel welcomed. In a big booth, too few people creates the impression that others do not find the booth of interest, prompting attendees to walk on by.

It is from the outside that my architectural training really kicks in.  A key architectural concept is the progression of views that occurs as one approaches and enters a space. Almost all great buildings create a sequence of experiences that reveal the structure and its message as one draws closer and then enters a space.

In tradeshow design, this can begin with the view from across the hall where someone sees your logo suspended from the rigging. This is like the gothic steeple rising above the town's walls so visitors from afar can identify the heart of the city.

Navigating the narrow streets of the city, viewers capture glimpses of the church as they draw nearer, and each reviews the structure in more detail -- first a buttress, then a portal. Similarly, more is revealed about your booth as someone approaches. First they may see lights and colors. Then the outlines of a display or a mock-up installation. It is still not clear what you are selling, but one's interest is peaked and the senses are prepared.

Suddenly, visitors to the city turn a corner and discover themselves in a square from which the facade of the structure can be seen in its entire glory. This replicates the moment someone can finally see your entire booth even as they stand in front of an adjacent booth. This is the moment of reckoning: either the booth communicates the salvation that is yours to dispense, or the visitor can turn their head aside and look at the booth on the other side of the aisle.

Walking into the cathedral, one enters terra sanctus, and is present to receive the good word.  But the message of the church is not just in the sermon from the pulpit. Indeed, every carved stone, every radiant window, and every altar in the edifice communicates the gospel to those who know their encoded messages. This is the role of your signage, your props, and everything else in the booth.

I got to experiment with my design strategy at the recent CONSTRUCT 2010 tradeshow. A first time exhibitor had almost no traffic in their booth. With their permission, I dispatched a special unit of CSI - Construction Show Investigators, and identified two problems:

1. They had a double booth at the very end of an aisle. After brief observation of traffic patterns, it became obvious that almost all the traffic was turning a corner before they saw the marketing message on the company's banners.  This represented a missed opportunity to create an impact upon approach.

2. There was no signage on the product mock-ups to draw the viewer's attention to their unique features or benefits. The only people who understood what was being offered were those already singing in the choir.

The solutions, in this case, were simple:
  • I moved their banners, at the far end of the booth, so they were angled away from the drapes by 45 degrees. This made them visible to the majority of attendees approaching their booth.
  • And, I suggested that they make inexpensive signs,  hand lettered if necessary, to apply to the mock-ups to call out the unique features and benefits of their products.
After they made these changes -- it just took a few minutes -- the number of qualified buyers entering the booth immediately doubled.  (The choir sings "Hallelujah!")

If you are responsible for a booth at a tradeshow, take time to look at the booth from all angles. Look at the flow patterns and at the neighboring booths to see what may be distracting attention from your display. In many cases, simple changes -- like moving a display table from one side of the booth to the other -- can make a world of difference. Ask yourself if the graphics are right for the audience in attendance. If not, there is probably a quick print shop nearby that can make you new banners or signs in just a few hours; take advantage of them.

For more ideas, look at the "Trade Shows" tag on this blog.