GOOD BOOTHS GONE BAD #4: And the Walls Come Tumblin’ Down

This article will be a long, but not inclusive look at walls. I am not the expert on booth design Bruce Baker is. I haven’t tried tons of different wall designs. But I’m happy to share my own personal experience with walls.

I have the unfortunate privilege to have created three distinct product lines that all demand different presentation. I need walls for displaying 2-D work; flat surfaces for displaying sculpture; and cases for displaying jewelry. I’ve had to do a lot of scrambling and head-scratching to come up with a good, integrated display to showcase my work, and not have it look like a jumble sale. (Sometimes it still does….!!)

Walls have been the most difficult.

I built my first booth for my in-state 9-day outdoor retail show, the Annual League of New Hampshire Craftsmen’s Fair. It’s not a good show to build a first booth for, because you get lulled into thinking you have to build an actual little “house” for such a long show. (It’s also under huge tents, which offers a lot of protection against the elements, but that’s another theme.)

In fact, many exhibitors show up with huge panel vans and trucks toting huge amounts of lumber and other building materials. You can actually hear power drills and saws whining during the two days of set-up (which is almost as loud as the whining of us craftspeople….), and hammmers pounding into the night.

Bruce Baker says most of us women say to our husbands, “Can you build me a booth?” and the guys swagger a bit and stick their thumbs in their toolbelts and drawl, “Sure, little lady, just leave it to me!” And then they build us these bulky, sturdy, heavy booths that demand a small crew of people to load, set-up, dismantle and cart away. I have actually seen women who divorced and showed up the next year with a completely different, streamlined booth, so I suspect it’s true.

I don’t mean they got divorced because of the booth (although, if you’ve ever eavesdropped while a couple puts a booth up, you can see how that would happen.) I mean that when they divorce, they come up with a different booth because they no longer have a guy with a truck and major power tools to help them put it up anymore.

The simplest, easiest and often cheapest wall solution is pole-and-drape. I bought mine from these people almost ten years ago: Flourish Canopies and Display Products They are nice people and took care of me and my pole-drape-needs for many years. It’s a good product and was competitively priced. I have no idea what’s out there now, but this company is a good place to start your research.

I have seen people make their own with good success, too. It depends on how much time and energy vs. money you have. I thought the drapes were well-made and the material was great. Lots of color choices, too. Much cheaper than I could have bought and sewn myself–and I sew for a living.

I went with a just-barely off-white color that was bright and light. I wish I could have figured out a way to have flat walls, but the drapes are pretty standard. Their material is inherently fire-retardant (VERY important, especially when you start to do juried shows and indoor shows). The poles broke down into shorter lengths, and a handy carrying bag kept it all together.

As I started to do wholesale shows, I could actually pin or attach my own drapes over the show pipe-and-drapes, to set my booth off from the hundreds of other gray drape booths. I could leave my pipe at home and simply ship the drapes (which were compact and lightweight.)

Drawbacks–the poles are HEAVY. This kind of tent is difficult to level on uneven ground. It is not weatherproof–you can ONLY use it under bigger tents or indoors. And it’s basically a square (or rectangle, depending on how many poles you set up). You can only work with straight lines and right angles.

The worst part for me was the walls were SOFT. If you only need a backdrop, that may not be a problem. But when I needed to have a stiff wall, I had to do things like hang reed roll-up curtains on top of the drape, or use those roll-up rice paper shades from Pier 1 Imports or stores in Chinatown. It looked kinda nice, all those layers, but also gave the booth a decidedly oriental look. Which was NOT what my work was about. Also, I now needed to pack more and more of these shades and screens. So my set-up was getting MORE complicated. Harder to level, harder to get straight lines, harder to get everything visually lined up.

I’ve seen booths using ONLY these roll-up shades (rice paper, reed), and they can be highly effective. Be sure to treat them with a fire-retardant spray, though, as they are highly flammable, too.

My next walls were fabric panels I made myself. I used heavyweight synthentic chenille panels. They hung from my poles and I pinned them together along the sides and at the bottom. They were rich but subdued colors, “tobacco colors” as one fiber artist said–gold, sage green, chestnut, brown. The panels hung straight, simulating a flat wall.

The effect was like being in a nomad’s tent, with layers of rich, textured fabric. The colors were warm and soothing, yet let my work pop. (I noticed men with color-blindness hated this booth–the colors seemed muddy to them.) Best of all, the look was very different from other trade show booths. You could catch a glimpse of the fabric walls way down an aisle and it just looked interesting and different–a good thing at a big show!

People came in my booth and stayed and stayed–and shopped and shopped. The fiber layers muffled noise and softened the lights, making a haven for weary buyers at wholesale shows and a peaceful, serene environment at retail shows.

Again, I could use my drapes over/with the show pipe-and-drapes. The drapes doubled as cushioning for my artwork during shipping, so it was cheap and easy to pack and ship.

Unfortunately, these panels were fussy and difficult to put up. And though the walls were flat, they were not sturdy. I still had a hard time hanging signs, 2-D work, etc.

Last year I splurged big-time and invested in MD ProPanels, which you can see here:
MD ProPanels and you can see them in situ <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/14881284@N08/1531994565/”here.

I absolutely love them. I will not compare them to Armstrong Panels because I can’t remember why I went with the MD Propanels. You can see the Armstrong version here:

Armstrong display panels

I THINK the Armstrong versions have an interior mesh, while the MD Propanel versions have a slab of styrofoam, and are lighter. I spoke to a lot of artists and went with the MDs, but you may find the Armstrongs will work better for you.

I’ve seen homemade versions of these panels being assembled at shows, and I still shudder to think of it. If you have tons of time, absolutely no money and love doing everything yourself, this may be for you. But the thought of cutting large sections of carpeting, screwing together dozens of little pieces, getting everything aligned, looking for little washers and screws, getting the fabric on straight, etc. etc. and watching those people sweat and swear and weep….well, it’s not for me.

What do I think of my MD Propanels?

I LOVE THEM.

These panels are expensive, but everything is already done–PERFECTLY. The panels arrive in uniform shape, perfectly finished and beautiful. You can order the adjustable legs which make leveling the booth on uneven ground a breeze. It takes a little practice, but the walls go up quickly and are perfectly stable once they are all connected and your stabilizer bars are in place.

I picked a neutral color that totally drops away and lets my work take center stage. The fabric still acts as a noise barrier, creating a quiet environment. It is ridiculously easy to hand signs and 2-D work with either T-pins or Velcro hangers.

You can order units that break down into two segments for easier shipping or carrying. You can order units that will accept shelves. There are many accessories and add-ons that allow you to add features at a later date.

Best of all, you can reconfigure the panels into all kinds of booth layouts. I actually used three panels to create a “tower” in one corner for a corner booth layout. You can also use both sides of the panels, so you can create little “half walls” or partitions. And hinged panels can act as doors to access storage, or to set off a little changing room for wearables.

Are they perfect?

No. You need to know you want shelves and where you want them when you order panels with shelf capability.

I wish the stabilizer bars came in varying heights because I have shows with different height restrictions.

I wish they had more components for hanging and display, because I’m finding my homemade Velcro components melt under summer heat, or freeze during shipping to winter shows.

It can be tricky to get everything square at first on hilly sites, though this is an incredibly stable booth once everything is in place.

And though the KD (knock-down) units are easier to ship, it’s still not SIMPLE or CHEAP to ship, like my drapes were.

One last caveat–as more and more people turn to MD Propanels, it will be hard for your booth to stand out. There are only half a dozen or so color choices, and the best (black) is becoming as common as dirt at shows. (Oooh, bad simile….)

On the other hand, when it came time to decide, I realized I’m not selling my booth.

What I mean is, I’m not in the business of creating the best BOOTH I can make. I’m in the business of creating the best ART I can make. The booth is just a vehicle for displaying and selling my art.

I don’t really want people noticing my booth or my floor or my display anymore. I want everything working quietly, subtly, to encourage them to simply see the ART. And to be comfortable, and enjoy peace and quiet to do that.

I think it’s working. What I’m hearing over and over the last few shows is, “You’ve created an entire world in here!

And oddly enough, although I always get high booth scores, this is the first year I got an honorable mention for my booth design. It’s odd because the booth structure itself is not “creative”.

But it’s doing it’s job–showcasing my art–beautifully.

GOOD BOOTHS GONE BAD #3: Alice’s Tiny Doors

I talked earlier about booths with so much stuff in them, you can’t get in. This common booth layout flaw is similar.

The way(s) into and out of the booth are way too small.

I called this essay “Alice’s Tiny Doors” because it reminds me of one of John Tenniel’s illustration in the book Alice in Wonderland. It’s the one where Alice is trying to get through a door that’s only two feet tall.

I’m guessing this booth layout problem happens when people design their booths on graph paper. You start to lay out these little squares and rectangles, lining everything up just so and squishing in as much display as you can. You plan a three-foot wide entrance, and leave a little three-foot wide path along here. The idea is the booth visitor will come through the little entrance and work there way along the path you’ve created.

In fact, years ago when I was part of a large group booth, the original plan was just that–a long, narrow booth with a U-shaped path consisting of two narrow entrances at the front. The idea was we would have display tables lining every wall. Visitors would come in one leg of the U and walk through, looking at every exhibit.

Everyone was very excited about the layout. Until I said, “How many people do you think can shop in that booth at one time?”

Huh?

I pointed out that the aisles were less than three feet wide. “That’s plenty of room for people to get through!” protested one artist.

Well…maybe. Though that didn’t mean people would WANT to walk through such a narrow aisle. “What happens if another person comes in the other ‘leg’ of the U?” I asked.

“People can scootch by each other”, one guy said. I noticed some of the women beginning to look uncomfortable. Women do not like people scootching by them when they are shopping.

“Okay, so let’s assume people will be willing to scootch. Buyers often shop in pairs. Now we have three people–or four people–trying to squish by each other. How conducive is that to shopping?” People began to nod their heads.

“And we’re supposed to be manning the booth. If two or three of us are in this aisle, that means every single shopper has to squish by every single craftsman working in the booth. How conducive is that to shopping?”

The layout was scrapped.

In this case, we had a beautiful booth location–four back-to-back booths at the end of a double row. We ended up keeping one large back wall (for our banner, wall art, etc.) and made multiple islands of display. Let people come into the booth no matter what aisle they’re in, I suggested. We ended up with almost six points entry.

That meant whenever one special item caught a buyer’s eye, they could immediately and easily pop into the booth and look. Once they were in our space, it felt like a department store. They could see many other intriguing displays, and they could easily move from one to the next.

This was a highly successful booth, because once people came in, they stayed.  And the longer they stayed, the more they bought.

Try not to herd people through cattle chutes in your booth. No scootching! Pablo Underhill used the term “butt brush” in his excellent book Why We Buy

The butt brush is when aisles are too narrow and someone brushes someone else from behind as they attempt to pass buy. The reaction of the brushed person is profound and extreme–they immediately stop shopping. It is an especially powerful reaction in women. So by all means, if you want women to stop shopping and leave your booth, make sure they are getting brushed and bumped from behind as people scootch by.

Guide people subtly with your display layout, and use visual cues to move them through your booth. Arrange your work so that one display leads to the next. Signage, dashes of color in a neutral display, lighting, work angled in interesting ways–all of these are so much more conducive to shopping than narrow paths and rigid layouts.

PRESS RELEASES FOR ARTISTS

Just to make it a little easier for you, here is a link to some links to past articles I’ve on creating publicity for yourself with press releases:

PUBLICITY 101: A List of Articles on Self Promotion

As always, feel free to read and peruse for your own use.. I teach workshops on this topic for the Arts Business Institute and have presented this material for various arts organizations. So sharing what I’ve learned is part of my livelihood as an artist. Enjoy!

THE SEED WITHIN

I’m smack in the middle of my one big retail show, the Annual League of New Hampshire Craftsmen’s Fair. So I’m taking a break in my booth design series to write some shorter essays. Today I’ll get a chance to walk around the fair. I hope to again “pay attention” to which booths invite me in and which booths don’t.

I serve on the Fair Committee. Once a month, I drive up to League HQ and discuss various issues that have been brought to our attention. Contrary to popular opinion, we don’t lie awake nights trying to figure out new and astounding ways to annoy exhibitors and prevent artists from making a living. After all, every single member of the committee is an exhibiting artist at the fair, too. But some people feel that way, and as they vent and fume and yell their way through the Fair, I find myself feeling disheartened, abused and disconnected from my artist self.

Until my customers come in, that is. One brought me photos of the work she brought from me last year, proudly displayed on her mantelpiece with other, museum-quality pieces. Another brought his young son in to select one special piece from money he’d saved all year.

And most of my fellow craftspeople and the League administration have been kind, supportive, and yes, loving. I am surrounded by hugs and laughter and cheers.

Yesterday was especially difficult, and it was a little hard to get out of bed this morning. This was a good day to read Lynn Colwell’s essay in her e-newsletter “The Seed Within”. You can view Lynn’s entire essay at her website here:

The Seed Within

Lynn writes about her struggles to create a beautiful garden. She fails miserably til she finds the right climate and the right place for each plant. Even then, she doesn’t quite master all the components necessary. But the seeds and plants come through on their own. Because the seed within will overcome all difficulties, given even the tiniest chance to survive.

Here are her words that give me the courage the get up and try again today:

“It’s no different with human beings. The seeds of greatness, beauty, empathy and love are locked inside from the moment of conception. It is up to each of us to be attentive, to find ways to nurture the best that is us and each other. We can make mistakes along the way, but that’s all right. That seed maintains its promise as long as we are here.”

As I read Lynn’s words, I realize that my art is that tiny chance for me. And for many other people. I have seen people change their lives because of something I said while talking about my art and what it means to me. In fact, someone came to my booth just as I was closing up last night to tell me that. She returned to painting after having me speak to her elementary school classes several years ago. She came by to thank me for giving her the courage to change her life.

I didn’t really, of course. Give her the courage, I mean. The courage was in her already. She just saw it for herself.

But I am proud to be a small part of that process, of bringing one more artist into the world.

So I will ignore the rocky people, the thorny people, the screamers, the complainers, the little tyrants who would gladly rip up any tiny little green thing they see.

I will remain true to my own artistic self. I will show what art has done for my own “seed within”. And by sharing that with others, perhaps a few other beautiful blooms will grow in this world that sorely needs a little more color, beauty, patience, kindness and love.

BOOTHS GONE BAD #2: Let Me In!

There’s a booth mistake that’s sort of related to the “Too Much Stuff” syndrome. But sparsely furnished booths can fall prey to it, too.

I call it the “I can’t come into your booth” syndrome.

People need to have easy access to your booth. They need to be able to walk in and feel like they aren’t going to knock something over or get bonked in the head.

You may think that’s a no-brainer, but it isn’t.

No whapping the customers in the head.

An artist who makes mobiles and wind chimes thought it would be cool to hang them all from the top of her booth. It would have been cool, too. Except that the top of her booth was only seven feet tall, and the mobiles hung down about 2-3 feet into her booth. And about 3-4 feet inside the walls of her tent. The effect was like walking through a fun tunnel at the fair. I was terrified I was going to get a mobile stuck in my hair.

Moving them against the walls, and up and out of range of people’s heads, would have the same wonderful effect with less customer intimidation.

Please do not electrocute the customers.

I use long goose-neck track lighting lamps overhead. The first time I used them was at a trade show booth, which is eight feet high. No problems.

The second time I used them was in my retail booth, which was seven feet high. They were out of the way of most people. Except for the tall guy who came in and had to keep swerving to avoid getting whapped in the head with my lamps. Oh, and the guy who came in with his little kid on his shoulders. Who promptly reached for the tracks. ai yi yi…..

I bought some risers that lifted the track lighting out of reach of everybody.

Let me in, let me in.

An artist had a tall display shelf right smack in the middle of the booth. “How does it look?” she asked. Great, I said. Except now I can’t see anything along the back wall. And it only leaves two feet on either side to get through–so I won’t even try, because I won’t want to run the risk of bumping anything. Why was it there, anyway?

“I don’t want to scare people out of the booth, so I thought I’d kinda hide behind it while I do some work,” she said.

Nice sentiment, but it doesn’t work. Do not hide from your customers. And put that shelf along the back wall. Until you get that 10×20 booth, of course.

Do not trip your customers.

I hate it when artists display stuff anywhere on or near the floor. Unless it’s a floor mat and supposed to be on the floor.

For one thing, anything sitting on the floor doesn’t look like you treasure it. It looks like you didn’t have a place for it so you set it on the floor. Stuff on the floor says “yard sale!”
For another, people’s feet stick out from their bodies. That is why there is a toe-kick space under your kitchen cabinets–so your feet have a place to go while you stand at the sink doing dishes. When people are standing at your booth wall, looking at your work, they do not think to look down to mind where their feet go.

Bruce Baker says people also hate, hate, hate bending over to look at stuff. This is true, too. I’m now at that age when even if I squat down, I have to think really hard about getting back up.

So don’t put stuff on the floor.

I need my space….

The next time your booth is set up, take a cold, hard look at how Can people come in easily? If they stand outside your booth and look in, that’s a good sign there’s something psychological that’s keeping them out.

If the layout is cramped, or narrow or shallow, or if things look precarious, people will not come in. They don’t want to wreak havoc in your booth!
If you do have “aisles”, make them spacious so people can get by. And wide enough so that if one person is looking at something, others can get passed them.

If you have a displays that jut out, is there enough space for people to navigate around it? Especially without bumping something else??

Watch out for dead-ends in your booth. They can be subtle–a little alcove-type space behind your cases, for example. Believe it or not, people hate being “trapped” in a booth and won’t go into places if they feel they might not be able to get out. If there’s a little corner or space people aren’t checking out, it may mean there’s a little psychological “dead-end” space there. Smooth out an angle or open it up a bit, and see if that makes it more approachable.

How to freak out your customers

Are your displays secure? Sometimes we get so caught up in making our displays easily transportable, we forget that they have to stand up to actual use. If people touch a pair of earrings and the display stand falls over, it will freak them out. If they lean on a jewelry case and it rocks, it will freak them out. If a branch holding Christmas ornaments is sticking out and snags their shirt as they walk by, it freaks them out. Especially if they pull the entire display over. And something breaks. oy.

A furniture maker makes coffee tables, end tables, smaller pieces. These are something that could easily be bumped into and knocked over, or ding a knee on. He came up with a great solution. He created little “floor islands”–small raised floor sections a little bigger than each piece of furniture–sometimes big enough to hold two or three pieces in a setting. They had a twofold effect. They elevated the furniture and gave it more presence. And they gave each piece a little “breathing room”, room for people to walk around and not run into stuff. It felt very elegant yet comfortable being in his booth.

Avoid making your customers feel like the proverbial bull in the china shop, and they will relax and shop. And shop. And shop!

BOOTHS GONE BAD #1: Too Much Stuff

One of the biggest mistakes I see in booth design is the “Loaded Booth” look.

There are many variations on this theme. There is the “Something for Everyone” look. There is the “One in Every Color” look. There is the “I Can Make a Million of These (and I Have!)” look.

Unfortunately, the result is the same. It ends up looking like the “Artist with No Focus” look.

Believe me, I know what you’re trying to say: “I’m an artist, I am extremely creative, I have a million ideas, and I don’t want to color inside the lines!”

But the result is chaos and confusion.

There is work covering the entire walls of the booth. There are widgets right up to the top of the booth. There are widgets hanging ten inches off the ground. In fact, the walls are not enough. Sometimes the widgets are actually on the floor, leaning against the walls.

Every surface is covered with widgets and more widgets. “Maybe I can cram another one in here!” thinks the artist during set-up.

If the widgets are displayed in a basket, there aren’t merely a handful, or a even a basketful. The basket will be piled to overflowing. No one can actually look through them, either, without actually dumping the basket out in a pile and looking through them that way. Except the counter the basket is on is full, too.

If there is a print bin, it is jammed so full you can’t thumb through the stash. Or there are so many bins, you know it will take a huge chunk of time to go through them.

If there are little widgets on the wall, evenly spaced so as to maximize the display space, the eye has no resting place, no focal point. You simply stand and gaze around and around, looking, wishing desperately for something to jump out at you.

How do I know?

Because this is how I set up my first booth. And this is what a friend told me afterwards.

She had money. She was a shopaholic. She loved my work.

She wanted to buy something from me. She really wanted to buy something from me. She wanted to buy a lot of things from me.

But she has mild attention defiecit disorder, and was overwhelmed with all the choices. In fact, the “buzz” of my display made her anxious.

She ended up buying NOTHING.

We could blame it on her ADD, but the fact is, almost everyone feels this way when presented with too many choices.

Even those of us who adore the yard sale modality don’t expect to find this with art.

And even if we do, it doesn’t mean we have the time, energy or patience to dig through this at an art fair.

Now pretend you are at a big art fair. Or a huge wholesale show. Or a monstrous trade show. (Think of thousands of booths….)

We want to chose the best one of something. Or be able to quickly sort out what strikes our fancy, and eliminate that which doesn’t.

Too many choices makes it too hard for us to sort.

So limit people’s choices.  As counterintuitive as this sounds, it works.

Don’t make them choose the best of fifty.  Make them choose the best of seven.  Or three.  Or even two.

Don’t make them choose from 28 subjects.  Let them choose from half a dozen.  If they don’t see what they want, they can ask.  And that gives you a chance to talk to them, too.

If you make something in lots of colors, only show a few. Or spread out the color choices among several styles. People will get that you can make it in purple. And if they like it, they’ll ask if you also make it in green. (That’s your cue to whip out your green one.)

Display fewer things, and be ready to restock an empty space quickly. In fact, sometimes that empty space is a good thing. I’ve had customers ask, “What was here??”, pointing to an empty place with a price tag. They’re curious what sold. They want to know what they’re missing. When you pull out another piece, they look at it closely. Maybe they should get one, too!

Signs can be a good way to get a customer’s overloaded brain to rest for a moment. Just keep them neat and simple and easy to read. You can hang your artist statement, or introduce a new series. You can describe a special feature about your widget, or tell a little story about a special piece.

Group your work in some way. This can be by subject, color, style or series. There are pros and cons for each way of organizing, but don’t worry about that right now. Just make some “white space” around your work.

In fact, think of how you feel when you pick up a magazine and browse through the articles.

How do you feel when you see page after page of tiny print, long paragraphs, long run-on sentences with convoluted syntax, no photos or images, and no captions?

Now think of an article with good column width, good margins, a comfortably-sized and easy-to-read font, subtitles, captions, highlights, etc. It’s easier to read, easier to jump in and sample a section, easier to find your place if you get distracted or have to put it down for a moment.

Make your booth easier to read. Make it easier to jump in and sample. Make it easier to navigate.

Don’t worry. You don’t have to prove you’re an artist. They’ll know.