Designing a Trade Show Display


Emerging trends in the industry are showing that “less is more” in trade show booth design. Trade show prospects should walk away from your display knowing who you are and what you do and have an understanding of how your company is important to their company.

Focus on Branding and Products

After all, branding and products represent who you are and what you do.

Focus on Lighting

Lighting is the most effective and underused trade show display accessory. Lighting makes your message or product “pop” as it directs the attendee’s eye exactly to where you want.


Look on the Internet, in trade magazines, and walk the floor at trade shows you attend before deciding on your new display design. When you see something you like, ask yourself, “What is it about this that I like?” Often clients make the mistake of saying, “I like the XYZ display.” Remember, that design is taken, so be specific and ask yourself, “What elements of the XYZ display do I like?”

Avoid fads

Fads, such as colors or fixtures that are not expected to have the same life span as your display should be avoided. However, some fads, such as iPods as promotional gifts are a good way to keep your display current and “hip” without incurring a major cost when you want to make a change.

Is the experience worth the effort?

While the overall project will have its ups and downs, the final project needs to be worth the effort. Know your limits before embarking on this project and design accordingly. Your prospects will see and feel the difference between “This is what we had to settle for” and “Look what we were able to do within our limited budget!”

The success of your project should be dictated by the following criteria that you establish before embarking on the design project.

Avoid design by committee.

Design by committee is defined as allowing a large group of people such as a sales team, to have input into the entire design phase of your trade show display. This not only drives the cost UP, but also drives the creative process DOWN and usually results in a mediocre final product. Select a group of people whose ideas are important to determine items like functionality, budget, and staffing. Once these decisions are made, create a small team, perhaps just three people, to spearhead the effort to find possible designers and exhibit houses.

Once you have narrowed the choices to no more than three designs, you can present them to important stakeholders to choose the final design. This is a successful approach because everybody has input.

What do you want people to remember most about your company?

Attendees at any major trade show will have a visual overload of information. To have an effective presentation, you will need to have more of an impact than your competitors on those attendees to whom you target your products and services. In your first meeting with a designer, you must answer the question: What do you want people to remember most about your company?

Do you want them to remember the people who work for your company, or do you want them to remember your products or services?

Know what you do NOT want to see.

Just as important as deciding how you would like your display to function, it is important to know what you want to avoid. Power Point presentations are usually boring! You might also want to avoid certain colors, shapes, or product highlights.

Don’t let inexperienced people choose furniture and avoid rental furniture.

Two of the most underestimated items in a display are carpet and furniture. Carpet should be treated like shoes. Would you wear old or scuffed shoes with your best suit? Consider your display your best suit. People notice!

Furniture can also make a statement. The most successful trade show displays have designer furniture and custom-made tables to accessorize the rest of the booth. Rental furniture is functional; however, you many consider allowing a designer to choose the right furniture to complement the design.

Your Product/Service is the hero.

Focus your attention on providing an outstanding product/service—this is your ultimate goal.

Be keenly aware of these components:

  1. The design office
  2. The client
  3. The community

The criteria encompassing all of these areas will define your design boundaries.

Make value engineering a top priority.

Focus your budget on those items that will have an impact on your prospect. Maybe it is a large graphic or a multimedia presentation. Then, work with the designer or exhibit builder to prioritize the elements you want most.

The lower the budget, the higher the design costs.

While this does not make sense at the outset, this statement is based on fact. The more restrictive the budget that designers have to work within, the more limited their choices become. This means more “trial and error” occurs as a result of trying to create an effective design within the budget parameters.

Be creative and recycle.

When working with a designer or exhibit house, conduct an inventory of existing displays. You will be surprised to find that a new coat of paint with design or structural adjustments may be all you need to tweak existing displays. Voila! You have a usable component for your new design.

Begin with pencil sketches.

Pencil sketches—or drawing a picture—is a great way for companies to exchange basic sketches and ideas to improve the booth design. At Moose Logistics, we start with pencil sketches to find a direction for the design before we begin charging for design time.

Narrow down what you want in your display.

You should be able to state what your display should accomplish in the following ways:

  1. A single sentence
  2. A single phrase
  3. A single word

Controlling the cost factor is important.

Are you designing for budget or budgeting for design?

At least 90% of most companies establish a budget and design accordingly. However, most of the top displays budget to the design. This is not to be considered a blank check, but rather an effective way to design a display.

When meeting with clients, a good designer should focus on the criteria, or “wish list,” of key components they would like to incorporate into the functionality of the display. It is NOT the designer’s position to choose which elements should be omitted. The designer is not part of the client’s day-to-day operations. The designer should design the display based on this criteria. Once price is determined for the build-out, it is up to the company paying for the display to determine the items that should be omitted and those to remain.

When interviewing, the designer or sales exec should explain this strategy to the client. This avoids surprises and allows for not only a design the client can be happy with, but also design elements that can be added to the display as future budgets allow.

Industry standards exist and should help you with the budgeting process.

Inline: $1,250.00 per lineal foot

Island: $175.00 per square foot $225.00 per square foot for a double decker

Budget allotment should follow a formula.

Design 20% of the budget Lighting 10% of the budget Structure, furniture, 70% of the budget graphics, and carpet

Decide the role of the exhibit house early.

What is the role you wish the exhibit house to play? Consider the following responsibilities:

  1. Provide the best price for a trade show display
  2. Provide an effective display for the clients marketing program
  3. Work with the client as a service provider after the exhibit is built
  4. Develop a long-term relationship and become a part of the marketing team

What is driving your decision?

Which of the following aspects is key in your decision making?

  1. Price
  2. Service
  3. Previous relationship with an exhibit house

After the display is built, two other considerations need to be part of the budget.

After the display is built, two major areas remain and must be included in the budget. The first is the cost to carry the exhibit as well as “per show costs” associated with each event. According to an article entitled, “Budgeting Rules of Thumb,” in the September issue of Exhibitor Magazine, companies can expect the following:


Crated: 15% - 20% of the original price, per year Uncrated: 25% - 35% of the original price, per year From an average overall show budget:

  1. Contingency plans: Add 10% to your show budget for the unexpected
  2. Return on Investment: 3% of the total budget

Average labor requirements (for exhibit only)

Island: One hour per 8 square feet In-line: One hour per 10 linear feet

Shipping and drayage based on 2006 average for Moose Logistics’ client base


To advance warehouse: 70.00 per CWT* Direct to show site (Crated): 66.00 per CWT Direct to show site (Uncrated): 86.00 per CWT *CWT mean per 100 pounds Based on straight time delivery 8:00 am – 4:00 pm Monday-Friday


Average shipping cost for display materials

Regional: priced by the pound Nationwide: priced by the pound

Price includes shipping charges, accessorial fees, fuel surcharges, and insurance coverage


Marc Mousseau

Marc Mousseau

Marc Mousseau is President of Moose Logistics, a full-service trade show marketing company based in Atlanta, Georgia. His company provides pop-up displays, custom trade show exhibits, rental exhibits, creative services, and freight and logistical services to clients around the world. Marc is also available for speaking and consulting engagements related to this topic and trade show marketing in general.

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