Thoughts on branding, design, writing and life by Kevin Potts. Established 2003.

Designing for the Trade Show Environment

I had to break out of my two-dimensional comfort zone and conceptualize in terms of “environment.” I also had to think BIG. This was not a two-inch logo, this was a six-foot logo.

It’s a rare treat for a designer to see their work blown up on a wall sixteen feet high, but I recently experienced that elation with the design of my company’s new tradeshow booth. It was well worth the hours spent agonizing over a compute, wondering and hoping that the flat, dislocated images on my screen would elegantly snap together and form a 20’x20’ trade show booth.

Actually, the whole experience was kind of an adrenaline rush.

The company I work for garners the majority of our business through trade shows, and part of our growth includes a brand new trade show presence that is larger, pricier and generally more kick-ass than our old ones. We were using a trio of 10’x10’ booths, but we found ourselves getting lost in the sea of signage at larger events. Naturally, we had to up the competition.

We contacted several companies that specialize in large-scale graphics and booth design. The bidding process took months. After the initial contact, receiving renders, meeting with vendors, deciding on a final design and getting everyone on the same page, we had burned over two months off our schedule.

Add to that several weeks of CAD design time that included more than one afternoon-long marathon conference call, and it was a solid three to four months before construction even began. That being said, the final result was worth the effort. Some highlights of the design:

  • 20’x20’ footprint. Four times larger than our previous designs.
  • Six large plasma screens running looping Flash demos. Several machines have a wireless mouse and keyboard for quick access to a completely loaded demo environment for quick, manual presentations. There are five actual computers in the booth, all connected wirelessly.
  • Dedicated reception area.
  • “Private” conference area. This is like a miniature living room in one corner of the booth: a chair, coffee table and sofa face a 42” plasma screen, which is accessible by a DVI cable and tiny KVM switch so a salesperson can give a demo from their laptop.
  • Huge branding effort. The two largest walls are 16’ high and 6’ wide. Everything is doused in our corporate colors, lifestyle pics and massive logo impressions. One wall is solid orange (Pantone 130) and should be clearly seen across the show floor.

While the vendor was in charge of the physical booth design—the actual CAD work—I was brought in as the graphic designer, responsible for wall signage, messaging and color placement.

Since I do not work in 3D, it was hard to conceptualize a physical area, and I constantly found myself concentrating on putting myself inside the space and seeing what would work best. For instance, if one wall was solid orange, would the other walls be different enough for a person to distinguish from a few dozen feet away? Would the signage be legible from an angle? Are the logos big enough? Should we have any interior graphics at all or leave the walls white? Maybe we should have a fishbowl with a goldfish on the reception desk?

I had to break out of my two-dimensional comfort zone and conceptualize in terms of “environment.” I also had to think BIG. This was not a two-inch logo, this was a six-foot logo. These pictures were three feet wide. This one word is over a foot long. Would the graphics be too small? Too big? Would they work at twenty feet and twenty inches?

There was more than one technical headache, not the least of which came from Adobe Illustrator. The files were RGB, graphics were 150 dpi and embedded directly into the file (no linking nonsense), and all fonts were converted to outlines. I am actually convinced the program has a memory leak. From a fresh open on my 2Ghz machine (with 2GB of RAM), I could save the largest file in less than three minutes; after about an hour of working, saves slowed down to ten minutes and performance was abysmal. Closing the program (not even rebooting the machine) would fix everything. I also experienced random crashes and stupid little bugs, like guides locking right after I unlocked them.

I have always thought of Illustrator as a buggy, bloated program that Adobe desperately needs to rethink from the ground up, and this experience cemented my conviction. I am slowly understanding why people who use CorelDRAW speak so derisively toward Illustrator.

Besides my frustrations with Adobe’s software, the whole experience was a rare treat. After all, how often does the average designer get to see their work looming sixteen feet in the air? Not nearly enough, I think, and it gives trade show designers—people who do this full time—a newfound respect.

Update 2004-09-25: Now with pictures:

commentary + criticism


wrote the following on Thursday December 30, 2004

Yeah, I work for Norfolk Southern’s Visual Communication’s Dept. We have an annual Safety Fair, where all the divisions from all over the railway come and set up booths. I’m usually responsible for three or four of them. Working on large files and thinking large-scale like that is definitely a challenge.

I’m glad I only have to do it once a year haha!


wrote the following on Thursday December 30, 2004

So let’s see a photo of it already!!!!! 8^D

My wife used to work for a company that creates and fabricates museum exhibits. She would always come home and complain to me about working in Photoshop and Illustrator with really large files.

I myself have had my own run-ins with Illustrator, so I try to use Freehand as much as possible (I don’t do print work, normally, just web.)

The funny thing is that I tried to update my old version of Illustrator (9) to version 9.02, and the updater said I had the “wrong version of Windows installed”! I’m running XP Pro at work, so I can only imagine that to “upgrade” I had to downgrade my OS. ROFLMAO!

I think it’s a shame that Adobe consistently seems to have these sort of application glitches with many of their products. I mean, they offer or boast great features for digital artists, but when it comes to application stability and/or performance, they are lacking. Still, what is better than Photoshop for what it does? Nothing.


wrote the following on Thursday December 30, 2004

I am trying to get a picture! The booth is actually making it debut this week in San Francisco at PeopleSoft Connect, and I am trying to get one of our marketing people to send me pictures. I have 3D renders, but they are not that great.


wrote the following on Thursday December 30, 2004

Man i hear ya! i used to work a lot in just that. Signs, signage, trade show booths, billboards, exhibit displays and I also ran the large format inkjets to print the designs. It was harsh at times. I remember working on 800MB Illustrator eps files and the likes. And whipping up a 3D model of tradeshow booths etc was always difficult (I can;t seem to quite get the 3D thing down). Glad it worked out though and keep on posting these great reflections on your experiences.