Kicking Out Clutter

Ways to eliminate exhibit overload
Based on an interview with MC2 Senior Designer Ethan Hostetler

Exhibit clutter. It’s easy to define — an overabundance of products or visual elements that don’t allow or are too confusing for the audience to focus on an exhibit’s meaning. But dealing with clutter isn’t always easy.

“We’ve all been faced with 10 stakeholders who each want 25 percent of the booth for their products,” says MC2 Senior Designer Ethan Hostetler. And that can lead to massive amounts of clutter. “It’s important to find ways to work together toward the common goal — THE BRAND.”

What can you do if multiple people are clamoring for exhibit space? Basically, you have two options: Limit the number of products you’ll display, or find a way to squeeze all the products into your exhibit without blurring your message. But before you decide which option to exercise, you have some prep work to do.

Get your ducks in a row before you take your first shot

Before you try to sell your approach to the people inside your company, get to know the people outside your company whom you’ll be selling to. The best place to start is with an audience analysis. Figure out which products will interest your target group the most. After all, if you don’t know what resonates with them, all your messaging will be lost.

Then, ask yourself, “What do I want to say to attendees? What story do I want people to take away from the experience?” Knowing the answers to these questions could make or break how you channel information to your audience.

Consider how attendees may be expected to experience (interact) with your products. For instance, if you have a cell phone exhibit, will this group focus on service or the phones’ form or shape? Information like this will help you determine the best placement of products and how to allocate space in your exhibit.

Dyson combines horizontal and vertical elements for enhanced visual appeal.

Also, create a preliminary exhibit design using a forest vs. trees approach. Decide what you want your space to feel and look like first, and then incorporate the shapes and elements. As Hostetler says, “It’s the whole gestalt thing: Consider the overall approach first, and the details become more obvious.”

Then, you’re ready to decide which path you’ll take to create a clean, appealing exhibit.

Path 1: Eliminating overpopulation

Of course, the easiest way to de-clutter your exhibit is to limit the number of products you’ll feature in it. Unfortunately, though, to cut down on what you take to a show, first you’ll need to get everyone to set aside their egos and work together for the greater company good. How?

Call a meeting as early in the design process as possible. Relay the information you’ve obtained from your audience analysis. And present broad, possible solutions you can implement in your exhibit design that will meet the needs of each shareholder.

Encourage all of them to think bigger — about your company brand, not their small portion of it. In other words, motivate them to cooperate, not compete. Have everyone agree on a strategy and how they will support it.  

Make them a part of the ongoing process of creating a knockout exhibit by establishing communication paths, so they understand the chain and how to communicate with you and each other. Getting everyone to play nice and work together will help in gaining support for which products really need to be in your exhibit and which wares go where.

Path 2: Making everything fit

Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you may not be able to limit the number of products in your exhibit. If this is the case, shift your focus from quantity to placement.

After you do your research, prepare for your shareholder meeting by determining how to represent your messaging and strategy and ways to utilize products to reinforce your message without making your exhibit look cluttered. One way of doing this is to eliminate redundancy. For example, if you have a line of closely related products, show one product for the focus piece and place a bulleted graphic behind it that explains its features.

If, for some reason, you must show the entire product line, use a strategic plan to organize placement. For instance, you can organize products according to business segments, such as function or solution sets, with solution ideas grouped together. Or group the products in a visual (e.g., by color) or architectural manner to make your exhibit visually appealing while still conveying one message. Or unify your exhibit space by placing an element that represents the company, such as your company logo, around or behind a group of products.

Lighting can create a unifying effect too.

For some variety, try mixing horizontal and vertical elements. “At a recent event, we aligned Dyson’s products horizontally and in the line of sight as you entered the space,” Hostetler recalls. “The Dyson line had a cohesive look, yet each product had its own vertical pedestal and stood on its own as a showpiece.”

And keep in mind that, although you may be required to take a multitude of products to a show, you don’t have to treat all of them the same way. You can always highlight a smaller number of products, perhaps the newest from a group, and store the rest in an organized cabinet or drawer that exhibit staff can easily access if an attendee wants to see another version of the product on display.

Discuss these options with your product managers and other shareholders and assure them no one’s product is getting short shrift. Their buy-in is essential, whether you follow Path 1 or 2.

Don’t be afraid to be the expert

Your strategy is key to designing a clutter-free exhibit. It keeps you — and all the other interested parties — focused on your brand, message and audience experience. Plus, it helps you better organize and streamline your exhibit while meeting everyone’s needs.

Be ready to explain why your strategy is a better approach than jamming your exhibit full of too many products. Detail how it will achieve your company’s goals, improve attendee experience and possibly save on expenses, for example, by reducing shipping costs.

Remember you’re not just a message carrier; you’re a source of valuable input, a leader who can keep everyone focused on the goals at hand. By being prepared, providing insightful counsel and getting everyone on the same page, you can design a clutter-free exhibit that will wow attendees and deliver the results everyone at your company is aiming for.


Ethan Hostetler is a senior designer at MC2 Atlanta and a graduate of The University of the Arts in Philadelphia with a degree in industrial design. He has worked as an environmental graphic designer and exhibit designer. His projects include Alcatel-Lucent at World Mobile Congress, Verizon at CES, Volvo Construction Equipment at Con Expo, The Home Depot at the International Builders Show and Bethesda Softworks at E3.