The Sell: Retail and exhibition design

On now at the National Library of Australia is The Sell: Australian Advertising 1790s to 1990s. It’s a simple and entertaining exhibition which serves up enjoyable doses of nostalgia (Life. Be in it.), laced with moments in history (the 1967 referendum). There are poster ads for politics, products, performances and public health.

I love exhibitions, and it’s hard for me to visit one without analysing the design even as I am taking in the content. The Sell is nicely put together, and the design sits back and allows the content to speak for itself. That content brought to mind something I have been mulling over for a long time—the strong links between retail and exhibition design.

I have worked in both these fields, starting with retail design and then moving into designing exhibitions. I think they share four fundamental elements that designers work with to create successful spaces.

The narrative

Each exhibition is telling a story that has been developed by the curators. It is the job of the designer to interpret that story and translate it spatially. In exhibition design, the story is laid out fairly clearly for the designer through the supplied content.

Retail has its own story that requires interpretation—the brand narrative. This can be easy for the designer to interpret (such as when you are working on store design for a well-established brand), or you may be designing a first store for a fledgling company who are just starting to develop their story.

In either case, the job of the designer is to interpret and embody the narrative in a spatial design that lets the visitor/customer understand it, enter into it, and (hopefully) embrace it.

The products

In a retail setting, the products are on display for sale. Within an exhibition, the objects and content are the products, and they need to be displayed just as effectively. In either case, the display method, the height and angle of display, the order, the labelling and whether or not they can be handled all need to be considered in detail. There is no point at putting products or objects at people’s feet, or up above eye level. The lighting must be right to enhance them and make sure that the labels can be clearly and easily read. It’s the designer’s job to put these items on show in the best way possible.

Visitor flow

This is one of those topics that has been studied endlessly, particularly in the retail industry. It’s fascinating and important on many levels in both retail and exhibition design. Ideally, designing a good layout means understanding and meshing both the way that people tend to move through a space, and the way the client would like them to move through that space. On top of that, there are safety issues to consider, such as the location and availability of emergency exits. All this is simultaneously a science and (still) a complete mystery (if you want to look further into this, read this interesting Malcolm Gladwell piece from twenty years ago. Everything and nothing has changed).

The flow options will of course vary from project to project, but you will always need an entry, an exit and a plan as to the order in which people will progress through the space. It’s also worth noting that in these days of capitalism and funding cuts, an exhibition layout will generally need to funnel visitors out via the exhibition shop. There’s the synergy right there!

Advertising and graphics

Once the spatial elements are worked out, it is the work of graphic designers to help get numbers in the door, and encourage sales or donations. I was amused by how many banners and graphics there were in the NLA lobby selling The Sell. It was way-finding and advertising all in one, and it’s a crucial part of both the retail and exhibition experience.

What are the implications of these fundamental similarities? A number of retail brands (particularly those projecting a high-end narrative) already borrow heavily from the museum playbook (single objects in cases, dramatic lighting, sparse layouts etc.). Meanwhile, museums are becoming more aware of the value in examining and altering traditional exhibition orthodoxies. Exhibitions are becoming more immersive, utilising technology and conceptual design to express the content and highlight the objects. Lessons from retail design can be used to push this even further, particularly around frequency of display changeovers to create impetus to revisit, and taking the idea of dynamic and enticing shopfront displays as a means of drawing visitors in. The similarities are strong, and the possibilities are endless.

One Comment

  1. Penny Hardy (Author)

    Thank you!

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