Simply, Exhibition Design is an environment that tells a story.
Exhibition Design is a form of visual and experiential communication, falling at the intersection of graphics, space, objects, media, and storytelling. Exhibitions combine artifacts/objects, images, media, words, space, and people to tell a story. Objects are not neutral; they carry meaning and history, and how they are presented and organized frame how their stories are told. Exhibitions are evidence of our shared history, and curators and designers play a role in determining what stories are told and how they are experienced by the visitor.
This highly collaborative discipline follows a design process rooted in deep research. It starts with creative concepts that become increasingly refined until every exhibition part has been drawn and described. An exhibition designer can jump into various topics, working with experts in academia, research, and skilled artists and makers. The work culminates in creating dynamic spaces that inform, intrigue, and delight the public.
Exhibition design is a curatorial practice. From the display of objects to the recreation of spaces, today’s exhibitions are entertaining, interactive, and educational.
Activity 1 – Connecting to the Site
Think of a public space you enjoy. It could be a park, museum, cultural space, restaurant, or library, or it could be related to transportation, etc. Close your eyes and imagine that place. Imagine what it feels like. Is it crowded? What are the sounds and smells? What is the quality of light? Write for 60-90 seconds and describe what the place looks and feels like. Be specific. Now sketch what the place looks (and feels like). Spend 3-5 minutes sketching a perspective or series of perspectives.
Do the same exercise in a private space. Imagine it. Write about it. Sketch it. Consider – rooms, corners, nooks, closets, pantries, pieces of furniture, places where you feel quiet and private outdoors, etc. Exhibits can be inside, outside, and even in transition spaces. Defining the space, and its context is key to designing an exhibit.
Activity 2 – Scale
Understanding Scale is critical to the practice of exhibition design. Scale drawings, a reduced (or enlarged) drawing that maintains the proportions of the space or object it represents, make it easy to represent big things (like buildings) on paper. For more information on scale, check out NEXT.cc’s Scale Journey. Exhibit designers work with or as curators collecting the items that will be displayed. each item must be carefully documented and measured.
Activity 3 – Object Narratives
In the Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard writes that everyday objects and spaces evoke strong emotions and connect us to deeper parts of ourselves. These design elements can evoke a sense of childlike wonder, rooting people in a deeper understanding of themselves and others. Objects carry meaning for both individuals and our collective society. Objects can be relics from the past, from the present, and even represent ideas of the future. Spaces and be inside or outside, large and airy, or small and compact. Find a few objects that mean something to you in your own house. Photgraph, measure and record, and write about why these objects are important.
Brainstorm three different topics you could explore through objects. Your concept could be driven by an object or collection. Do you have an intriguing object or collection of objects you’d like to build a narrative around? Is your narrative time-based (a chronology), thematic, a typology, or based on a broader concept? Or is your concept driven by ideas? What concepts would you like to explore/unpack through objects?
Activity 4 – EXHIBITION Design Principles
Consider these design principles as you lay out your objects: Spacing between objects, Positive space/Negative space, Odd numbers, rule of three, Color value, Density, Balance, Texture, Rhythm, Emphasis, and Harmony. What kind of background will you use? You could use plain white paper or set the objects on a material from home (counter, wood floor, bathroom sink, etc). Take quick photographs of 3-5 different layouts of the objects. Study the photographs of the different layouts.
Evaluate your photographs and pick one. If possible, photograph your installation with natural, diffuse light. For more info on photography, see NEXT.cc’s Photography Journey
Upload your photographs to the Gallery!
Activity 5 – Exhibit Labels
Exhibition Labels are an interpretive tool; they use text and layout to give the visitor more information about the object(s). Write a draft of the information you’d include in your label. Prepare a text file including the following items: name of the object, artist name, year, materials. dimensions, quantity, other important technical info, history (if applicable), name/title, and description. Include information you deem relevant in telling your story. Any ideas for a title? Include that, too. Now, look at all that information and decide what is essential to communicate to your viewer. Choosing the font and font size for the title, the year, the author or artist, the materials used, and some history are all part of curating labels. Using one of your chosen objects create a label for it.
Activity 6 – COVID Exhibit
The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago is doing an exhibition on the individual yet shared experience of quarantine during the COVID-19 pandemic through a series of object installations from domestic spaces. Design an object installation that represents an aspect of your life in quarantine.
This exercise requests a designed Google slide containing a photograph of your installation (one overall straight on view, in elevation) and a written exhibit label describing your installation. This exercise provides practice working with objects and the written word and allows the designer to curate their content to develop a curatorial voice and point of view. Once the exhibit is available to the public, experience looking through the collections of experiences when people were isolated in their own homes.
- Exhibition designers work closely with
- Objects are neutral and do not carry meanings.
- Scaled drawings represent a reduced or enlarged size drawing that maintains the proportions that it depicts.
- Certain informational elements (artist name, year made, dimensions) must be on each and every object label.
- Exhibition can be installed inside and outside.
- DESIGN MUSEUM EVERYWHERE
- DIA Art on the Hudson
- Elizabeth Bauer Mock Kassler: Exhibits for the Public
- Exhibit Designers
- FORMULA D
- Gary Hoyle
- Geo Ponti Exhibition Design
- MANUSxMACHINUS Technolgy & Fashion Exhibition Design OMA
- Maritime Museum Exhibitions
- Minotaur Mazes
- Motion Matters UN Studio
- Moving Icon
- Occidens Museum
- OMA Design Exhibit Denver Art Museum
- OMA Dior Retrospective Denver Art Museum
- Pavilion d'arsenal Exhibits
- Set & Exhibition Designers
- Sir John Soane's Collections
- Sir John Soane's Virtual Tour
- The Future is Here London Design Museum
- The Living Portrait of NYC
- Venice Biennale Virtual Tour