Design Tips for Choosing a Suitable Exhibit Concept

The concept phase is one of my favourite times in a project. The ideas are flying around and everyone is full of input and opinions. As the creative discussions ramp up to an initial design, it is inspiring and fulfilling!

Amidst all the excitement, it can be challenging to choose a creative direction for the exhibit design. Often the decision falls in the lap of a CEO, a manager, a board, or a committee, who is typically at arms-length from the project. After presenting them with multiple plans, sketches, colours, and finishes, sometimes I worry about how they will decide the final design direction, and how it will affect the exhibit design work to come.

Admittedly, there are a couple common scenarios that fill me with dread.

Looks aren’t everything

I’m blessed to work with a number of organizations that are comfortable evaluating exhibit concepts. They understand that an exhibit aims to create a cohesive experience with a particular message aimed at a specific audience, and it should be evaluated on that basis.

However, I’ve also worked with organizations where the decision makers are focused only on what that they think looks good. When this happens, projects can get off track before they even get started.

How do I know when the design decisions are being treated as a styling exercise, a mere surface treatment? It starts with requests like, “It would really spice things up if you could make this exhibit look more like an Indiana Jones movie.” If the exhibit doesn’t have anything to do with treasure hunting – or isn’t vaguely related to archeology – then the creative direction is going to really confuse your audience, no matter how “spicy” it is.

Don’t be fooled by your opinion

I really start to worry when I hear a decision maker utter statements such as, “I like round shapes more than square ones. This exhibit design really needs more round shapes.”

At the risk of sounding harsh, this is selfish, plain and simple.

As a designer, I often have to put aside my aesthetic preferences because they aren’t important. Why? Because most of my projects aren’t for me or about me. That’s true for a lot of decision makers as well. They are rarely representative of the audience. When audience preferences are ignored in favour of personal preferences, there’s a good chance that the audience might not get what they want.

(As an aside: A team member once tried to sway my colour choice with an emotional appeal. “That colour makes me sad,” she said. It was yellow, a colour not typically known for its gloomy qualities! And what’s more, it wasn’t about her. It makes me laugh to this day.)

Evaluation starts with the project brief

All this got me thinking…. what’s my evaluation process?

When I find myself wading through a torrent of creative options and debating the best direction to take, how do I do it? With every sketch I create, there is a seemingly ambiguous process of weeding out the good ideas from the bad. How do I know if the exhibit design in those sketches are any good?

To answer that, we have to go back to the beginning of the project. Someone will have drafted a creative brief – or an interpretive plan – that outlines the “big idea” for the project. In theory, it contains all the criteria for measuring the design’s suitability for the project: its aims, its audience, its message and medium, plus a plan to deliver the project. This is my guiding light.

If the brief isn’t already open on my desk when I start designing, I’ll grab it from the shelf and spend some quality time with it. As I sketch or model new exhibit ideas, the brief is always banging around in the back of my head. I am constantly making informal “micro-evaluations” of my work based on it. I’ve done this so many times, it has almost become automatic.  Ideas that don’t fit are set aside. Ideas that fit are incorporated into the bigger design schematic.

As the exhibit design becomes more fleshed out, I evaluate the concept against the original brief on a more formal level. Over the years, this series of questions has emerged as a reliable touchstone.

  1. Does the design concept advance the overall mission or goals of the project?
  2. Does the design concept appeal to and engage the intended audience?
  3. Does the design concept communicate clearly?
  4. Does the design concept create a cohesive visitor experience?
  5. Does the design concept address the real-world constraints of the project?

If the answers are “yes”, chances are good that the exhibit design is on track and is well-matched with the project goals. If the answers are “no”, it’s time to go back to the drawing table. Before I do a rethink, I try to articulate why a design isn’t working, so that I can address shortcomings in future design iterations. It’s a constant, fluid process, one that can be adopted by decision makers when it’s their time to choose.

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