Exhibit Design: Your RFP isn’t a Beauty Pageant


Most companies, when the time comes to either choose a new agency or to build a new exhibit, will issue an RFP. There is no consistency to this process which can range from an online bidding war open to anyone with the link or an RFP, issued after conducting due diligence, to a well-researched field of potential partners. The implied bias in that last sentence indicates the best practice, but the nature and content of the RFP vary greatly.

Sometimes the RFP will be limited primarily to services and account management, but at other times, the RFP will also include a request for design concepts—and here is where decision making goes off the rails.

Assuming the recommended due diligence, the company that asks not only for information about account management but also for design concepts is generally looking for a “Wow” moment when they review concepts. Forget the boring work of transshipping properties and meeting early bird deadlines. Eye-popping design often seals the deal. And that is a mistake.

Design and art are not the same

Art moves us. Design is part of exhibition marketing strategy. Why? Because, to quote design legend Milton Glaser, “Design is the process of going from an existing condition to a preferred one. Observe that there’s no relationship to art. It’s good to understand that design has a purpose and art has another purpose.” Art’s power is mysterious and cannot be quantified, he explains, while design’s efficacy is measured by how well it delivers on a clients’ goal.

Design is how it works, not how it looks

Good design solves problems. In the words of Massimo Vignelli, famous for having designed the New York City subway map, “Styles come and go. Good design is a language, not a style.” By not realizing that design is an integral part of the agency’s entire offering, companies miss the point of design as well as the importance of other capabilities. They also miss the point that working with designers is part of the process; exhibit design isn’t an off-the-shelf product. Or as Steve Jobs put it, “Some people think design means how it looks…if you dig deeper, it’s really how it works.”

In the larger corporate environment, design is getting a lot of respect these days because there is a new understanding that things don’t just happen. The goal of design is to get people to think differently, to have an experience that opens their minds to new possibilities.

The role of exhibit design

Exhibit design is meant to engage people, to transition the existing to the preferred, to persuade. Design doesn’t exist for its own sake; it is directed toward human beings. It fosters two-way communication and provides a new experience.

Design is part of the entire exhibit marketing process. Problems arise when design is separate from the rest of the exhibit program. In other words, after the strategy and goals have been hammered out, designers are given a seat at the table during a discussion of tactics. Design needs to be part of the strategy discussion, or in the words of Tom Peters, “The dumbest mistake is viewing design as something you do at the end of the process to ‘tidy up’ the mess, as opposed to understanding it’s a ‘day one’ issue and part of everything.”

The first element in the design discussion is creative bravery.

What is creative bravery? In a document from the Cannes Lions, it is Work that takes chances in pursuit of excellence and changes the status quo. The investment in creative brilliance and bravery is a safe business decision.

There are whole industries that tend to be risk-averse. Let’s take healthcare exhibiting. The environment in healthcare right now is very risk-averse—and the excuse is “regulatory.” Excuses are the major stumbling block for creative bravery: fear of stepping outside the status quo.

On the other hand, Agency 23 won nine awards at Cannes Lions, 2018, for its healthcare work. Tim Hawkey, managing director and executive creative director, had this to say:

Pharma is still a very conservative industry, in some ways unnecessarily. But every year, I feel like the door to creativity opens wider and wider. And every time a pharma marketer makes a brave decision, it makes everyone around them a little bit braver too. Creativity is creativity, and when we use pharma or healthcare as a modifier for our creative work, then we’re lowering the bar to meet us where we are. Instead, let’s leave the bar where it is and stretch ourselves to meet it.

If you are a healthcare exhibitor, ask for a design that will encourage you to think differently and to think about your customers. Yes, there might be internal minefields, but the right agency partner will help you navigate those—to educate your managers about the nature of the exhibit encounter. Describe the type of experience you want your customers to have, and ask your design team for help in developing a strategy that will allow you to stand out from the competition and result in a positive impact on corporate revenue.  Facilitate “design thinking.” Design is bringing the content into an accessible experience, the experience that moves your target audience to take the desired action: to buy, to recommend, to prescribe.

Design Solves Problems

No matter what your industry, remember: design solves problems. Design breaks through the narrative and imposes the discipline of understanding the goals, the target audience, the strategy. Design is how your customers experience your company, not how they experience the exhibit itself. Design, said Ferdinand Porsche, the designer of, yes, the Porsche, advised: “Design must be functional, and functionality must be translated into visual aesthetics, without any reliance on gimmicks that have to be explained.” The exhibit that relies on “gimmicks that have to be explained” is not going to serve you well. In all likelihood, it will not serve your budget well either.

So, when the answers to your RFP come in, including the ones with the design concepts, don’t be blown away by gimmicks or “wow” factors. Design is part of the total approach to strategy. A good designer will help you develop a strategy based on your goals and arrive at tactics that will help you in that process. Rather than look for “Wow” concepts in the RFP process, have a conversation with the agency’s designer or design team and determine whether they are part of the agency offering that will make your exhibit program successful. Don’t choose a fragmented solution that in the end will only make your job harder. Choose wisely.

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