Exhibition Design made easy

A personal approach checklist.


Dream exhibitions in dream locations are just that: FANTASIES.

Read the story of THE LITTLE RED HEN

The reality of the situation is something more like:
There is NO Budget
The Space is LIMITED.
The Administration UNSYMPATHETIC to new Ideas.




a. Developing An Attitude To The Situation
There is really no difference between displaying a local show in a rural church hall and designingThe Fletcher Challenge Exhibition at the Auckland Museum.

Or at least there shouldn't be in your mind.

b. The Size Of The Space
Where is it in relation to other traffic? Is it a corridor to somewhere else, like 24hr public toilets?

What else do you have to contend with? Judo on Thursdays? Or visually, like dominant wallpaper or a sensitive painting or mural which cannot be covered over without offending the living local artist. Be aware of the politics of the builiding. Who lives with who?

What are the physical restrictions? Awkward columns?
Where are the windows? Where are the lights if any? Where are the power points?

What is the extraneous noise level?

c. The Budget
What can you scrounge, or borrow? Who can you con? What is made locally like Wine boxes, Cutouts of loudspeaker holes.
What can you use and return. Don't forget the old standby, the concrete block and the door.
As a last resort add 5% onto the commission for display materials.
Beware of contra-deals that demand prominent displays of the sponsor’s product.

d. The Work
Totally ignore the work at this stage, really, YES. (But have a sneaking look for potential display problems like murals or fountains.)

e. The Help
Assess the man/woman power, able bodied people with more hours to spend than they think. The reality is that it often relies on you and a few hi-jacked friends.


Try to get a brief for the job. Even if you write your own.
Dramas come out of misunderstandings that haven't been settled in advance.

Maybe the judge had an exhibition concept in mind while selecting.



Decide on the materials available and plan a display unit. Something that exists as a unit and functions and reads as a unit.

When someone enters a display space and is confronted with something to look at, the first thing you want them to do is take in the display as a whole. Then they can easily forget it and ignore the display materials and concentrate on the work, which is after all the reason for doing the job.

If you do a display which varies considerably in jaunty angles, colours and materials, it ends up being a display of display materials and usually cancels out the work.

To reiterate : The viewer should be able to suss out immediately what is happening with the display and then be able to lose it and be able to focus entirely on the work.


The 2 obvious ways of approaching an area are to either go with the space and extend the display out of what is already there - materials, forms, layout, architecture.

Or totally ignore the space and contrast it.

Remember: Why are you doing all this? To say, " Here is something special that I want to show you”.

Now is the time to start considering the WORK.

The more unsympathetic the surfaces and materials chosen, the better the work will look. Stainless steel and broken glass for "truth to materials" work etc.

If the work tones in beautifully, it just disappears completely into the background. It is apologising for the work, cosmetic surgery rather than a statement.

Also remember: You are not trying to reproduce the final resting place in someones house. Homes and tastes vary too much. 

Feature the work. Try to show it in a new perspective, maybe never even dreamed of by the artist in their worst nightmare. Extend their vision of their own work.  Be theatrical, go for drama rather than comfort. Take risks. Be controversial. Be memorable.

You are trying to win people's eyes. Consider the visual competition.

Sometines it is necessary to attack people to make them really look. Do a number, it is all show business. The solution is up to the wildest extremes of your imagination tempered with the REALITY OF THE SITUATION and the ORIGINAL BRIEF.



The most important and misunderstood feature of all that I get the most flack for.

Exhibition design is all about the presentation of precious things. You are making an offering to the spectator. Height should be at a minimum of extended hand height which roughly corresponds to a table height. Kids and wheel chairs are no exception. Table height and above works. You are saying "Here is something special I want to show you" and in reality you do this when you are handing something to someone you want them to value. You don't kick a gift to someone at ankle height across the floor. 

Consider also trying to see the work in a crowded exhibition room.

Avoid settling for what is given to you with the building.

Height though is also the most expensive part if the display. It is waste volume.

Be lateral, use waste stuff like appliance cartons, beer crates, polystryene kiwifruit trays, palletts, haybales, blocks etc. WARNING: Table height is also a very convenient leanable height. Reinforcement of cardboard boxes by doubling them inside one another is advisable, I found out the hard way.


Once the display units are assembled to your satisfaction then you can unpack the work.

If you haven't already seen anything, take careful note of you first reactions to individual pieces, and your first reactions with regards to groupings.
Try to get a quick overall feel for the style of the show.

First impressions are always right, before you start becoming rational. Basic Design Principles are a great help, but the Gut Reaction, what you feel counts for so much more.

Do the unthinkable, pick out your 6 favourites. These can be chosen from people you have slept with or owe money to or want to impress or want to sleep with. Display them generously first in the best places around the room. You will never be able to give them that amount of space in reality, but the effect is great and gives you a much needed injection of the contented glow of Job Satisfaction.

Then gradually place the other work.

You never have enough space but there are ways of coping.

Cram things together which can benefit from grouping and isolate others in open spaces. There is nothing like leaving some space empty to make a small room look enormous. Avoid even distribution.

The spaces between things are more important than the occupied ones.

Ultimately you will end up with the inevitable 6 difficult pieces which either you don't really like or are boring or represent a myopic abberration of the selector.

The secret is to go back to the positions of your original favourites and put the last nasties there. They will immedately look good and the favoured work will look just as good in a lesser place. It is always easier to find a last minute place for work you feel predisposed toward.

Adjust heights with boxes etc if neccessary. Display work of contrasting scales together for mutual benefit.
Group work for an esoteric subtext: Tell the story of a teacher and students. Seperate partners to give each an individual identity. Show themes: Shino, Paperclay.

It gets easier the more you do. It is only experience, but it is also gut feelings and hunches.


Touch up all the scratched paint.

Consider putting numbers and prices directly by the pieces vs boxes of expensive unsold catalogues stored for years under the committee's beds.

The opening. Organise Refreshments, Music, Sales people.

Plan the evening like a theatrical event from half an hour before the punters arrive to who is responsible for locking up last. What has to be temporarily included only for opening night, like a bar or a food station?

Parkinson's Law operates to the letter "The job always expands to fill the time available".

You should always take the attitude that you really haven't got any time to waste away from making pots.

Set yourself hours rather than days.

Start at the end and work backwards with your planning. Allocate hours when specific tasks need to be completed. Plan to finish with at least a couple of hours spare to ground everyone and everything.

Take confidence that The show must always go on and that
It is ALWAYS right on the night. You always get there somehow. No-one else knows what you didn't manage to achieve.

And The Adreneline is something else.

BUT someone has to care enough to TAKE CONTROL.

A committee is OUT when important design decisions are to be made. The well balanced committee is OK if you are interested in mediocrity and you have all the time in the world to waste.

Someone has to take the ultimate responsibility for everything.
The buck has to stop somewhere.

It is usually misconstrued as arrogance, but it is essential, clinical and practical.


The public, disgruntled potters etc don't know or care how much effort went into setting up the show, or the soul searching which went into making difficult decisions in the middle of the night and of which compromises were forced onto you that you still don't believe in. Flack is inevitable. And part of the tall poppy knocking machine.

Re-read the story of THE LITTLE RED HEN.

REMEMBER! ! ! ! You are only one part of a team. Make sure you acknowledge everyone's contribution. Have a thank you meal or a workers' party, to finish the whole thing off. You have all deserved it.

Have confidence, be organised, be relaxed and have fun.