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Welcome to Advice from the Booth Mom editorial series, each article you will gain insight on how to set up your company trade show schedule, planning logistics and marketing efforts strategically at industry events. This week from the Booth Mom, she shares her insight on the effectiveness of graphics.

I love the saying, “Form follows function.”  To me, it pulls me back to cold reality whenever I need to put myself into the exhibit design mode.  Moreover, nothing says effective exhibit design to me more than the message on exhibit graphics.

I walk show floors a lot.  Not meaning to make a play on words with my name, but it’s like turning a kid loose in a candy store! I like to put myself in the shoes of the random attendee who’s cruising the aisles, playing the virtual radio station in their head – WIIFM (also known as “what’s in it for me?”) to see what makes me stop in my tracks.

Very often, I’m amazed at exhibit graphics that leave me scratching my head and saying, “Hmmm.  Wonder what that company does and why they’re here?” If your graphics don’t do anything else, they should answer three critical questions:

1) Who are you?
2) What’s your product or service?
3) What about your product/service benefits your target market? (Depending on the show and how well your company is known, these questions may not necessarily appear on your graphics in this order.)

Keep in mind that visitors to trade shows are looking for products and services – preferably new ones — that can solve their three most significant problems of time, money or hassles.  Your graphics should quickly answer their WIIFM question as they peruse your exhibit on the show floor.

Avoid useless information or information that often changes on your graphics, like product numbers, specs, and pricing.  Stick with the product’s benefits – not their features – and their appeal to your target audience. When given the choice of showing just a product photo or a picture of someone using your product, go for the human element so your attendee can feel an affinity for using your product.

What other elements do you need to ponder to make sure your graphics are effective?

Let’s look at my “top 12 list”:

1) Graphics need to perform a purpose: messaging.  

Their purpose should be well-thought-out.  They can’t be just an afterthought of “Hey, it looks empty over there.  Let’s slap something on that wall!”

Graphics need to convey your message to your target audience to help you achieve your exhibit’s goals and objectives. Will a graphic attract attention, provoke thought, evoke emotion, generate interest, inspire a need, help attendees self-qualify, act as a corporate ID to reinforce your company’s brand, state your company’s message or unique selling proposition (USP), point out a specific product location within your booth, spotlight “What’s new?” or disseminate information such as benefits, pricing or features?  Some graphics can multi-task, but before even putting a pen to your paper, decide what purpose you want them to achieve.

Do your graphics talk directly to attendees?  Are they written in active, not passive voice?  Do they tease the reader into wanting to find out more – such as with a rhetorical question or call to action?  Are they directed personally toward your target market’s pain points, providing the solutions they’re seeking? I like to say your graphics should give the aspirin for your target audiences’ headache.

Getting your message across to your target audience generally needs to happen quickly, since it only takes a passer-by about 3-1/2 seconds to walk by 10’ of your booth’s perimeter.  Your graphic content needs to be short enough to be quickly read in passing like a billboard, yet get your meaning across to viewers. To make your key message readable quickly, stick with the billboard design philosophy that it should be no more than six words, and optimally, on one line that can be read left to right, not up and down.  Keep it clear, keep it simple!

Nobody says you can’t have both billboard graphics and also what I call “stop-sign graphics” that attendees will need pause at to read if they want more detailed information, like products specs. (Some graphic artists differentiate the two by calling them graphics vs. signage.)  Just make sure that these stop signs are at eye-level, and don’t clutter up the overall look of your exhibit. You can always have two-sided printed handouts with this “fine print” information mounted near their matching products or even better, print business cards with a URL that will drive traffic to your company website for this info after attendees get back to their desk.

2) How powerful is your message?  

Does the text on your graphics include the most effective words to evoke strong personal emotion in your target audience that would persuade them to purchase your product?

Researching dozens of articles on the Internet about the most persuasive words in the English language, there have been many attributions of these lists deemed to be the strongest in persuading and selling, but nobody seems quite sure if there was actually a scientific study done (or by whom) to determine which of these are the “magic words”. The research I did repeatedly turned up 19 words or word pairs, including  “new” (deemed as the most powerful word on the show floor since the majority of attendees say they come to shows to see what’s new), “you”, “save”, “money”, “safe/safety”, “proven”, “easy/easier”, “love”, “discover/discovery”, “guarantee/ guaranteed”), “health”, “results”, “free”, “fast”, “quick”, “increase”, “improve”, “announcing” and “reduce”. Which of these powerful words can you use to describe the benefits of your company’s products or services?

Avoid weak words and useless information or information that changes often on your graphics, like product numbers, specs, and pricing.  Stick with describing your product’s benefits to your target audience using the words listed above for maximum effect.

3) They need to be seen from the right distance.

This may seem like over-simplification, but not all graphics are created equal when it comes to where a passer-by or booth visitor will be reading them. You need to plan the size and location of your graphics with this in mind.

Are you using your graphics as a magnet so attendees can find your exhibit from across the show floor from aisles away? These are long-range graphics.
Do they need to be read from 20’ down the aisle as a visitor approaches? Are you using them to slow prospects down as they walk right in front of your exhibit so you can engage them with eye contact or a quick question? These could be considered mid-range graphics.

There will also be graphics within your booth space that are to be viewed close-up, where the primary message needs to be at the top of the graphics at eye level, especially if you’ll have exhibit staff in your booth who could block any critical messaging below their shoulder level. These are short-range graphics.

Someone once gave me a sage piece of advice: that any graphics below the waist are a waste, and in most cases, they were right! Booth visitors aren’t usually looking around below waist level for clues to what your company’s showing.  A graphic designer once told me he swears by the “2-foot rule” that states any short-range graphics should only be placed in the top two feet of an 8-foot-tall exhibit property.

Also, one of the most-often missed graphic opportunities are floor graphics – whether it’s cut-ins to your carpet of corporate logos, product names, walkways or arrows — or vinyl overlays that use this underutilized space.

When placing graphics within your exhibit, do a visual review from each aisle around your booth to see what passers-by will see when approaching your exhibit from all the aisles surrounding your exhibition and from different distances.  It’s usually an eye-opening experience you don’t want to wait until you’re on the show floor to see.

4) Do they move you?

Three things seem to draw eyes to an exhibit: color, light, and movement. How can you use the lure of a vivid, moving graphic to attract visitors to your exhibit?

Will you use looped video on large displays or a video wall to show a series of images that will tell a story about your product? Will your exhibit staff be able to change what’s running on the fly if someone is interested in seeing a video about just one of your many product applications? Alternatively, could you use iPads to let attendees select various vignettes of your products and their benefits?  Don’t underestimate the value of using low-tech gobos to project moving corporate logos or the keywords within your booth space to catch a visitor’s eyes. Even using digital LED displays – think of the Wall Street ticker tape – are mesmerizing if they flash show special pricing or announce a new product.

And if you have a hanging sign, consider having it rotate using a turntable to attract additional attention with its movement or use color-changing lights to illuminate it.  I’ve even made a series of hanging banners sway in the breeze using fans mounted to the top of my exhibit walls to create additional visual interest.

5) Does size matter?  

One of the age-old questions about exhibit graphics is, “Is bigger always better?” Again, it depends on the graphic’s purpose.

Looking back at graphics that I’ve used in my clients’ exhibits, I’ve covered the entire back wall of an exhibit with a gallery of art showing a company’s product line of over-sized products that wouldn’t fit in our small booth space printed on canvas and framed. I then placed small labels (known as captions or tombstones) with basic product information hung right beside them. I considered the product art as graphics, but the captions as signage – something you have to stop to read from less than 3 feet away that doesn’t qualify as a billboard to grab attention.

On the other hand, I’ve also constructed huge, wall-sized graphic murals, a series of long, narrow ceiling-hung fabric banners that formed a graphic wall above an exhibit, and printed larger-than-life oversized graphics and had them profile cut to capture the eye.

If space allows, think “billboard” rather than “bulletin board” for the most bang for your buck.

6) What shape is it?  

Since most of the visual lines of graphics are square or rectangular, anything that isn’t one of these common (and boring) shapes will also catch your visitor’s eye.

Think outside of the box with angles, ovals, circles, triangles and even stop-sign-shaped octagons for your exhibit graphics and signage.  This can add a touch of the unexpected – and hopefully more add more visual appeal and memorability – to your exhibit graphics.

7) What’s your graphics medium?  

The options for your graphics can be digitally-driven on flat-panel monitors (and possibly even with 3-D or touch-screen content); digitally printed and flat-mounted on paper or a rigid substrate like Sintra or laminate, or produced as a flexible graphic on Duraflex, fabric or computer-cut adhesive vinyl.

The method of production used to print your graphics will affect both your graphics’ options and also your cost. Will your graphics elements be printed using a photographic process, Digital C Lambda, inkjet, dye sublimation, electrostatic, cutting plotter, or laser?

Not all exhibit houses and/or sign shops have the equipment to produce all the various types of graphics.  If graphic design and production are outsourced from your primary exhibit provider, there is generally a “middleman markup” and the possibility of additional rush charges.

8) What’s the required longevity?  

Start by looking at the big picture of your entire year’s show schedule.  Plan your graphics requirements for all exhibits annually to determine the most efficient way to produce graphics for all your different markets, divisions, product lines, and exhibit sizes. Are your graphics being produced for one-time use with a message for a specific vertical audience?  Or are they a more generic, multi-use element of your exhibit that will be used every time you exhibit?

The type of graphic you pick and whether it’s mounted on an economy substrate such as Foamcore vs. a more sturdy backing like Sintra® will determine the optimal materials used based on the wear and tear (or abuse) it will endure for the length of proposed use. This question not only applies to printed graphics, but also the ever-changing technology used with various video displays.

And while we’re considering the longevity of graphics, don’t forget to budget for graphics cartons, cases, tubes or crates to protect them during shipping and storage. And don’t skimp on packing materials. Use sheets of foam or bubble wrap to keep your Velcro from marring the face of your graphics, and cardboard corners to protect your graphics from getting dog-eared.  Shipping can be brutal on all types of exhibit graphics so if you’re interested in protecting them from damage and extending their life, make the investment in quality shipping/storage containers.

Another part of the longevity picture can be expressed in one word: green. If being green is important to you and your exhibit program, are your graphics made of recycled materials, materials that can be recycled after use, and is there a lot of waste in production based on the graphic vs. material size or type being used?

9) What’s your color?  

Since the eye processes color first, were your graphics designed in colors that maximize their readability?  Make sure that the most important elements on your graphics “pop” with color.

For effective graphics, select text colors that provide a sharp contrast to the background color and are easily readable, like dark over light or light over dark. If you don’t have a trained eye for graphics and contrasting colors, there’s no shame in using a color wheel to select colors that are opposite each other on it.

And how do your graphics contrast or complement the colors of your exhibit properties?  And color, whether using CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow and black) or PMS (Pantone Matching System), should be carefully matched to your corporate style book.

10) Are your graphics consistent and legible?  

Are all your exhibit graphics consistent in design, color, and font?  Make sure your graphic designer has a copy of your corporate style book, so all graphics are consistent with other media that portrays your company’s brand.

If your current corporate graphics’ look is part of a themed overall marketing campaign, integrating it for brand consistency and memorability is critical. There’s no reason to reinvent the wheel. Use pre-existing artwork and themes from advertising campaigns instead of recreating everything from scratch. But just because you have great art on a tri-fold brochure doesn’t mean it can be automatically blown up to wall-size without being recreated as a high-resolution, large format file.

Using a readable font (either serif or sans serif) with a reasonable amount of text printed in a highly-readable color is critical to catching the eye of your booth visitors. My number one pet peeve with exhibit graphics is that way too much information is put on them.  If you’ve ever seen an effective billboard along the highway (“Got Milk?”), I can bet you that it has six words or less on it, not six lines of small bullet-pointed text in an unreadable font. And don’t scrimp on the white space around your graphic messages that make them even more readable.

Your exhibit graphics convey your corporate brand, so having mismatched colors, unreadable fonts and cluttered design all can reflect negatively on it.

11) How’s your lighting?  

Have you planned for light sources to make your graphics pop? Will they be lit from internal or external sources?  Based on the type of graphic medium, there are numerous light sources to use to make it “pop” – with overhead spotlighting, wall-washing or backlighting.  When in doubt, have a contingency plan for adding more light to your exhibit graphics.

The exact placement of ceiling lighting in convention venues is generally not known by exhibitors at the time when they’re planning their exhibit layout and graphics placement, so the amount of lighting you may need – or don’t want – is a wild card. Show Management can generally tell you what percentage of lighting their show plans on using (such as ½ of the facility’s overhead lights will be turned off at shows that are heavy on using video displays), but you can also work with Show Management to pay to have light bulbs above your exhibit removed in you’re planning on providing your own internal or external graphics lighting within your booth space.

12) Don’t forget quality control!

With graphics, there’s always an element of the unknown until they’re in their final home in your exhibit. So many things can go wrong, and often do – whether it’s low-resolution art files that produce pixilated output, poor color matching, side-by-side panels that don’t line up during installation and even spelling errors that weren’t caught in the final proofing process.

Always ask for the file specifications for the graphics files to output correctly including the type of file (i.e., .jpg or .eps), file resolution, whether they will accept Mac vs. PC files, font files for copy, and the software the file was created on.  Moreover, it never hurts to have another set of eyes – preferably by a good speller and not just an automated spell checker – to look for errors in grammar, spelling and proper use of product registration and trademarks.

To avoid costly last-minute graphic recreation in case a graphic needs to be replaced or changed, always have access to a copy of all exhibit graphics files with you at the show, either on a memory stick (a.k.a. thumb drive), on an accessible company server or in the cloud.  Needing to reprint graphics happens often enough to make up for the extra work of always having these files available.

Final Advice from the Booth Mom

My last piece of advice is to plan adequate lead-time for graphics production. Compute your graphics timeline and then add a few weeks for good measure. Be realistic about the time required to complete the entire graphics production process from the cradle to the grave: compile and get approval of your content, graphic layout, proofing, production, shipping and installation at the show to avoid paying budget-busting last-minute rush and overtime charges.

Keep an eye out for my next article, as I will cover 10 Things to Remember about Writing Exhibit RFIs and RFPs? Do you have a question or want me to go over a specific topic? Click here. 

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