Booth Design for Trade Shows: 6 Tips from a Pro

March 2, 2015

Today's guest post comes from Tim Patterson, Founder of Communication One Exhibits and trade show booth design expert. Check out what he has to say about designing the perfect exhibit for your next show.  So you need a new trade show booth. How do you go about figuring out what kind of booth you want, need or can afford? How do you design and lay it out? Remember, not only is it a reflection of your brand, it’s also a space that you’ll have to work in for days at a time. The three main questions you should first answer when it comes to a new booth are: 1) Who’s going to build it? 2) How much will it cost? 3) Will it function properly? When I mention function to trade show exhibitors, I often get a funny look. Function? What do you mean, will your booth function properly? The booth just needs to sit there and look good, right? Yes, but there’s more to it than that. For instance, the booth should have a graphic design and schema that invites prospects and self-disqualifies non-interested parties. It should have appropriate storage and meeting areas based on your company’s show needs. It should have dedicated demo or stage areas if that is important to your exhibiting success. Whether you’re a newcomer to the world of trade shows or a seasoned veteran, here are some tips and considerations to take you through the process of designing and building your next successful trade show booth.

Booth Design Tips for Trade Shows

1. Real-world research can yield important insights.

There are a lot of places to start the process. Certainly one of the easiest is to simply walk the floor at the next show you attend or exhibit at, make notes and take pictures. If you see a booth that really inspires you, just stop and ask a few questions. Which company designed the booth? How old is it? Approximately what did it cost? Does it work well for you? Even if you are unable to get any questions answered, take some time to watch the booth staff. Are they having a good time? Are they going in and out of a storage area constantly? If they are giving away products, do they have easy access to the samples? Is trash handled easily? Is there a good, semi-private area where clients or potential clients can sit for a meeting?

2. Function is crucial to consider.

In a similar vein, as you come to the point of determining the design of your new trade show booth exhibit, make sure you discuss with your designer the various points of function that are important to you. When it comes to a new booth, the design is often the most time-consuming portion, and appropriately so. If you don’t get the design just right, you may have to live with the results for years. An exhibitor I worked with years ago had a 20x30 booth that they took to large expos, like Expo West in Anaheim. They were promoting chips and nuts and wanted to make sure that they had a separate area to sit in with clients or prospects, opposite the end where they handed out thousands of food samples daily. During the design phase, they determined that one end of the booth – approximately 20’ x 8’ – would be covered and separate from the rest of the booth. Unfortunately, in real life, it didn’t work quite the way it was intended. They didn’t have nearly as many client meetings as they thought they would, and during breaks, their booth staff would congregate in the area and take over. Needless to say, after one or two uses, the booth was redesigned so that more samples and product displays could be given away at that end. Next, let’s cover meeting and storage areas. If you’re an experienced exhibitor, you no doubt have a good idea of the amount of storage and semi-private meeting areas that your company needs to come away with a successful outcome. Most companies I’ve worked with tend to expand meeting areas over the years as their company grows. Storage is important, too. Storage for personal items (coats, purses, backpacks, briefcases, etc.), products, and anything else your company might need to get through the show.

3. 3D booth design and 2D graphic design are two very different concepts.

As you choose a booth designer, keep in mind the difference between 3D booth design and 2D graphic design. The two disciplines are quite different, and both are needed to create a first-class functional booth. In my experience, they are usually mutually exclusive (3D designers I’ve worked with don’t typically work on graphic design and vice versa). A 3D designer keeps in mind things like traffic flow, lines of sight, show dimension restraints and more. His or her skill and experience in assembling a 3D design will ensure that your final layout will meet your needs. A graphic artist will be occupied by creating the 2D graphics that will draw people into the booth. They should have the skill and experience to know that basic graphic design for a trade show booth is much different than design for a brochure, advertisement, or website. Not only are the goals different in booth graphic design, the technical production aspects of booth graphics mean that files must be set up differently than typical graphic files.

4. Your graphics must be high-impact.

When deciding on the graphic design for a trade show booth, remember that most visitors are walking by quickly. They spend just a few seconds looking at any booth, and your graphics must accomplish two goals very quickly.

  1. They must give a very quick impression of the brand (product or service) with an image or bold statement.
  2. The graphic must disqualify any visitor who is not interested, so they don’t come into your booth.

Imagine a billboard on a freeway. The goal of the billboard is to give an impression in a flash. If there are more than just a few words or a single image on a billboard, there is too much for a driver to absorb in the second she glances upward. It’s the same with booth graphics: if you put more than a single arresting image and accompanying statement or company name on a booth, you’ll have competing elements. Most visitors will simply discount those elements and keep walking. As a visitor walks the aisle and glances from booth to booth, they must know immediately if each booth (company, product or service) is in their area of interest. Do that quickly with a bold statement, provocative question or arresting image, and you’ve interrupted their brain function enough to get them to stop or at least pause. We could spend another ten paragraphs on graphics, but let’s leave it at this: brevity and boldness reign.

5. Your company name doesn't necessarily need to be front and center.

One mistake a lot of young and lesser known companies make is in thinking that their company name must be at the top of the booth, but it’s not necessarily so. Graphic hierarchy in booth design is important, but it doesn’t mean that the company name must be at the top of that hierarchy. If you’re a well-known name in your industry (Nike, Intel, Clif Bar), yes the name should be the first thing a visitor sees, as they already have an image in their mind of the company. If your brand is new and unknown, however, putting a bold positioning statement at the top, like “Best Booth Shipping, Bar NONE” can be much more effective. You’ve told visitors WHAT you’re about, not who you are (if you’re an unknown brand, the “WHO” is less important). If WHAT you’re all about is important, they can soon find out the WHO, HOW and WHEN.

6. Looking at industry averages can help with determining your costs.

Finally, how much does all of this cost? While booth design and fabrication costs can have a wide range, a good starting point for putting together a budget is to look at industry averages. A rule of thumb for new, custom booths will look something like this:

  • For in-line booths, anticipate that you’ll spend about $1,000 per linear foot. So that 30-foot inline booth will cost around $30,000.
  • Custom island booth design and construction will likely average between $135 and $155 per square foot. If you’re looking at a 20x20 booth, that means cost will likely land between $54,000 and $62,000.
  • A spare design can bring those costs lower; adding bells and whistles and electronics can move the price higher.

Having said that, most exhibit companies have the experience to work with a budget that may not be large enough to satisfy ‘industry averages.’ So if your budget is 25% less than an industry average exhibit, work with your company to find solutions that still satisfy your functional and graphic needs. One of the best pieces of advice I can give is to simply ask around. Talk to exhibit companies. Talk to colleagues. Heck, talk to competitors. By gathering a lot of information from as many sources as possible, you’ll go into your new booth project well-prepared.   Author Biography: Tim Patterson is a trade show strategist, blogger and Founder of Communication One Exhibits. Tim’s happy to talk about trade shows all day if you let him. Give him a call at 503-507-4110, or read his blog and subscribe to his newsletter at You can also find Tim on Twitter @tradeshowguy.