If you have strong design skills, enjoy working collaboratively and can meet strict deadlines, exhibition design could be the career for you

As an exhibition designer, you'll work on large commercial public exhibitions, showcase events, trade shows and conferences for trade, industry or education, or on cultural exhibitions for museums, libraries and galleries. You might also work on temporary displays for businesses and retailers.

You'll be responsible for creating an exhibition that works on several levels. It must:

  • have aesthetic appeal
  • be practical
  • communicate the client's message, concept and image to visitors
  • meet the limitations imposed by space and budget.

You'll base your designs on your interpretation of the client's ideas and requirements and will also provide your own ideas in relation to product concept and customer appeal.

Some designers also have responsibility for overseeing the implementation and building of the exhibition or display stand, while others will specialise in just one specific area.

Responsibilities

The work varies between roles and employers. Larger firms may specialise and have account managers handling initial negotiations with the client.

In commercial exhibition work, you'll need to:

  • liaise with clients to discuss the brief (themes, ideas or products to be promoted)
  • discuss the brief and design concepts with the design team, finalise proposals and present these to clients
  • develop a genuine understanding of the client's brand, products, needs and objectives, as well as the motivations behind customers' buying decisions
  • create initial design sketches and computer-generated 3D visuals, sometimes building models and prototypes
  • do a variety of design work (graphic design and artwork) for different displays and exhibitions
  • work on quotes - once the design brief and concept are established, the costs need to be calculated to make sure the project is financially viable
  • attend meetings with the accounts and sales teams to take briefs and to present your designs
  • take financial responsibility for a project in terms of meeting budget constraints
  • handle production orders for materials and site services, e.g. electronics
  • meet with and brief suppliers
  • transport displays to exhibition sites and install and dismantle exhibition displays.

Museum exhibition work involves many similar activities to commercial work, but you'll also need to:

  • ensure all exhibitions and displays have a definite link to the museum's other collections and overall theme
  • make sure that the exhibition is compatible with the museum's own materials and conservation requirements
  • travel to other galleries and museums to find exhibitions to buy in
  • ensure exhibitions are of the right size and quality
  • work with members from other areas of the museum, such as marketing, education, conservation, front of house and, most crucially, the curator, to produce outline plans to specification and supporting materials
  • liaise with graphic and other designers, audiovisual and animatronics experts, graphic video producers and multimedia specialists and actors to create a sensory experience for the visitor.

Salary

  • Salaries for junior exhibition designers start at around £18,000 to £22,000.
  • With experience, you can earn in the region of £25,000 to £35,000.
  • Salaries for senior exhibition designers typically range from £35,000 to £50,000. Creative directors or heads of design can earn in excess of this.

Salaries depend on the size of the company you work for and your location. Freelancers are usually paid per exhibition or per day.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Working hours are typically 9am to 5pm. However, you may need to work longer hours, including evenings or weekends, particularly in the run up to an exhibition.

What to expect

  • You're likely to have several different one-off projects in progress at any one time.
  • The role may also include project management, particularly in smaller companies, which can involve responsibility for furniture, stock-panel, lighting and rig rental, pre-event marketing, packaging, delivery and storage.
  • Self-employment and freelance work are common once you've got significant experience and have established a network of personal contacts.
  • Travel within a working day and overnight absences from home are common when visiting clients or exhibition spaces. You may need to visit clients overseas occasionally.

Qualifications

You'll typically have a degree, HND or foundation degree in an art and design-related subject such as:

  • three-dimensional (3D) design
  • fine art
  • graphic design
  • interior and spatial design
  • interior architecture and design
  • multimedia
  • visual arts
  • theatre design.

The University of Lincoln runs a degree specifically in design for exhibition and museums. Degrees in related areas such as spatial and interior design will often include a significant element of exhibition design within individual modules. When choosing a course, do your research to find out how much exhibition design will be included.

Relevant courses focus on areas such as communication through spaces, involving 2D, 3D and time-based design in many combinations, as well as the hands-on production of models and artwork and training in specific computer design programs. These courses help to prepare you for work in the growing number of multidisciplinary design consultancies, interior design and architectural modelling and visualisation.

You don't need a postgraduate qualification to get into exhibition design, although some designers, particularly in museum and heritage work, have one. It may also be useful if your degree is in an unrelated area (although you'll also need relevant work experience). Search for postgraduate courses in exhibition design.

It's possible to get a job in exhibition design without a degree if you have a lot of practical experience. Some employers may favour a mix of the right skills and personality rather than academic qualifications. Others, however, may ask for specific degree qualifications.

Skills

You will need to show:

  • strong design, drawing and artistic skills, including the ability to do perspective sketches
  • creative, imaginative and lateral thinking
  • effective communication skills for dealing and liaising with colleagues and clients through presentations, written bids and reports, and also through designs
  • the ability to work well under pressure
  • an outgoing and positive personality
  • excellent organisational and time management skills in order to meet exhibition deadlines
  • the ability to work collaboratively as part of a team to achieve a good design solution, sometimes accepting that your own ideas will not be adopted by the whole team
  • good commercial understanding
  • the ability to work with other specialists and an awareness of other people's particular knowledge
  • knowledge of computer-based design programs, such as QuarkXPress, AutoCAD, Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign and FreeHand.

Work experience

You must have a design portfolio and some relevant work experience. Some degree courses offer placement and live-project opportunities, which are a good way to build contacts and develop your portfolio. Use the degree show in your final year of study to showcase your work publicly. You could also volunteer to help set up exhibitions in your local area at art festivals or in libraries, for example.

University or college design departments typically have strong links with the design industry and it's a good idea to take advantage of these networking opportunities during your course and in your search for work placements.

While studying, you can become a student member of the Chartered Society of Designers (CSD), which offers professional recognition and networking opportunities.

Employers

You'll typically work for a design company or consultancy. While some companies concentrate solely on exhibition design, you're more likely to find broader design and marketing companies that cover this area of design within their portfolio.

A few companies offer a full design and build service. There are generally more openings and opportunities in the larger companies.

Jobs are also available at the larger museums and galleries.

There is a reasonable market for freelance exhibition designers, but it's essential to gain experience and build your portfolio and network of contacts before embarking on a freelance career.

Look for job vacancies at:

Specialist recruitment agencies such as Careers in Design also handle vacancies.

Make speculative applications by calling employers, sending them your CV or going in person to meet with them. Find out contact details using employer directories such as:

Professional development

Opportunities for further training vary depending on your employer and the size of the company.

Smaller companies have more limited resources, so you may be expected to learn on the job. This can be a steep learning curve, but some people find it's the best way to learn. You may also have the opportunity to shadow a colleague for a set period of time or enrol for design-related, day-release training days and courses.

In a large company, the training is likely to be more specific. As well as design, you may spend time on other areas related to the job, such as purchasing and project management, or regulations, such as health and safety.

Larger companies are also likely to offer more formal training opportunities, such as graduate training programmes, work-based qualifications, work shadowing and internal courses.

External courses are available in areas such as:

  • display background design
  • exhibition design
  • promotional/point of sale design
  • visitor attraction display.

The CSD is the chartered body for all design disciplines, including exhibition design, and they provide advice on continuing professional development (CPD). Practitioners with more than three years' experience can apply to become a full member (MCSD). It's then possible to follow the pathway to Chartered Designer, the highest level of recognition of professional practice.

Career prospects

The way your career progresses will depend on the nature and size of your employer and whether or not you're self-employed:

  • Medium to large company: you might start as a junior or a design assistant and work your way up the company's career ladder to a position such as team leader, senior designer, creative director or design manager.
  • Very large company: you may take increased responsibility for tendering for new work and finding new clients.
  • Freelance: you're more likely to work purely on exhibition design.

Your career path will also depend on your background and training. There may be more opportunities available, and you may have greater freedom to move into other related areas of work, if you have:

  • architectural training
  • a technical background
  • specialist knowledge and experience in areas beyond pure design.

It's a good idea to get as much experience as possible, particularly in project management, in order to maximise your career prospects. This is particularly important for work in smaller companies, where roles involving purely exhibition design are few and far between.