Exhibition designers work on cultural exhibitions including museums and galleries, or on commercial exhibitions which include showcase events, trade shows and conferences.
Designers need to create 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.
They base their designs on their interpretation of the client's ideas and requirements and also provide their own ideas in relation to product concept and customer appeal.
Some designers may also have responsibility for overseeing the implementation and building of the exhibition or display stand, while others may specialise in just one specific area.
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, tasks typically include:
- liaising with clients to discuss the brief (themes, ideas or products to be promoted);
- discussing the brief and design concepts with the design team, finalising proposals and presenting these to clients;
- developing a genuine understanding of the client's brand, products, needs and objectives, as well as the motivations behind customers' buying decisions;
- working on quotes - once the design brief and concept are established, the costs need to be calculated to make sure the project is financially viable;
- creating initial design sketches and computer-generated three-dimensional visuals, sometimes building models and prototypes;
- doing a variety of design work (graphic design and artwork) for different displays and exhibitions;
- taking financial responsibility for a project in terms of meeting budget constraints;
- handling production orders for materials and site services, e.g. electronics;
- meeting with and briefing suppliers;
- transporting displays to exhibition sites and installing and dismantling exhibition displays.
You are likely to have several different one-off projects in progress at any one time. The role may include project management, which is likely to involve responsibility for aspects such as furniture, stock-panel, lighting and rig rental, pre-event marketing, packaging, delivery and storage.
Museum exhibition work involves many similar activities to those outlined above, but tasks specific to museum design include:
- ensuring all exhibitions and displays have a definite link to the museum's other collections and overall theme
- making sure that the exhibition is compatible with the museum's own materials and conservation requirements;
- travelling to other galleries and museums to find exhibitions to buy in;
- ensuring exhibitions are of the right size and quality;
- working 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 material;
- liaising 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.
- Salaries for exhibition designers start at around £18,000 to £22,000.
- Once some experience has been gained, exhibition designers can earn £25,000 to £35,000.
- With substantial experience, salaries can reach £45,000 to £55,000+.
- At senior level, creative directors or design managers working in large companies in London could expect to achieve salaries in the region of £100,000.
Salaries depend on the size of the company or, in the case of freelance designers, the type of job. Freelancers are usually paid per exhibition or per day.
Income figures are intended as a guide only.
Working hours vary according to the employer but typically are 9am to 5pm. However, overtime may be required to meet deadlines and some evening or weekend work might be needed to build the exhibition in time for an event or exhibition opening.
What to expect
- In smaller companies, your role is unlikely to be solely design specific and you will probably be involved in some project management work. This will typically require good time management skills as the work may become stressful when trying to meet deadlines.
- Self-employment and freelance work are common but are more likely after you have gained 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.
- Occasional international travel may be required to visit clients overseas. Increasingly, however, designers maintain contact with clients electronically and through the client area of their website.
Exhibition design is open to all graduates, but a degree in one of the following areas is particularly useful:
- fine art;
- graphic design;
- interior and spatial design;
- theatre design.
The University of Lincoln runs a degree in design for exhibition and museums. Other degrees, such as spatial and interior design, include a significant element of exhibition design within individual modules. It is important to research the structure of degrees to know how much exhibition design will be included.
A postgraduate qualification is not essential but some exhibition designers, particularly in museum and heritage work, have one. Relevant Masters include interior and spatial design and museum and heritage exhibition design.
Search for postgraduate courses in exhibition design.
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 multi-disciplinary design consultancies, interior design and architectural modelling and visualisation.
Entry into this career without a degree is possible, but attitudes vary between employers. Some may favour a mix of the right skills and personality rather than academic qualifications. Others, however, may ask for specific degree qualifications and grades. Check with individual employers before applying.
You can become a student member of the Chartered Society of Designers (CSD), which offers professional recognition and training and networking opportunities. A two-week creative academy, which includes talks, workshops, briefs and live challenges to help prepare you for industry, is offered by D&AD.
You will need to show evidence of the following:
- 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;
- an outgoing and positive personality;
- excellent organisational skills;
- the ability to work well 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;
- ability to work with other specialists and an awareness of other people's particular knowledge;
- knowledge of computer-based design programs, such as Quark Xpress, In Design and FreeHand;
- ability to work well under pressure and sometimes to tight deadlines.
Irrespective of the views of employers on qualifications and training, it is essential to have a design portfolio and some relevant work experience.
Some courses offer placement and live-project opportunities, which are a good way to build contacts and develop your portfolio. University or college design departments typically have strong links with the design industry and it is a good idea to take advantage of these networking opportunities during your course.
The number of design companies, including exhibition design, is increasing across the UK. While some companies concentrate solely on exhibition design, you are 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.
There is a reasonable market for freelance exhibition designers, but it is essential to gain experience and build your portfolio and network of contacts before embarking on a freelance career.
Look for job vacancies at:
Make speculative applications by calling employers, sending them your CV or even going in person to meet with them. For speculative applications, use employer directories such as:
- Association of Event Organisers (AEO)
- Directory of Design Consultants
- Marketing and Creative Handbook
Opportunities for further training vary depending on your employer and the size of the company.
Smaller companies have more limited resources, so you may find you are expected to learn on the job. This can be a steep learning curve, but some people find it is 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 at nearby educational institutions.
In a large company, the training is likely to be more specific. As well as design, you might spend a significant amount of 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 course are available in areas such as:
- display background design;
- exhibition design;
- promotional/point of sale design;
- visitor attraction display.
The way your career progresses will depend on whether or not you are self-employed and on the nature and size of your employer:
- Freelance: you are more likely to work purely on exhibition design.
- 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.
Your career path will also depend on your background and training. There are likely to be more opportunities open to you and you will have greater freedom to move into other areas and fields of work, if you have, for example:
- architectural training;
- a technical background;
- specialist knowledge and experience in areas beyond pure design.
It is a good idea to get as much experience as possible, particularly in project management, in order to maximise your desirability as an employee. This is particularly important for work in smaller companies, where roles involving purely exhibition design are few and far between.