Here’s a helpful exercise for anyone who is in the process of developing a trade show exhibit. Next time you’re on a busy street corner, stop and look around you. Do a complete 360 degree turn. What captures your attention? Is it the bright lights, a particularly graphic billboard, or perhaps a clever slogan affixed to a store window? Each of these elements – lighting, graphic impact and marketing message – is key to attracting potential customers to your exhibit.

In pulling the three elements together, I strongly encourage you to draw on the expertise of a professional designer. A good designer will ask you a lot of questions about your products or services, your target audience and your objectives for exhibiting. Make sure you are well prepared to answer them.

In designing your exhibit, one of the first things you must decide is what to “brand” – your company, or a specific product or service. In the case of Microsoft, for example, the company is the brand. Its trade show exhibits give top billing to the Microsoft logo, with secondary emphasis on specific products. Apple, on the other hand, might decide to brand its latest iPOD as the best new music player, and de-emphasize the fact that iPOD is an Apple product. This approach allows the company to capture the attention of PC users who might not have even looked at an Apple product.

Ask yourself what matters most to your target audience, and craft your message to speak directly to them. Realize that people are rushing up and down the aisles, trying to make sure they see everything, and the faster they walk, the narrower their peripheral vision will become. For this reason, your primary message needs to be apparent in a split second, from 20 feet away. If you can add motion through interactive demonstrations and incorporate LED lighting, all the better.

Keep in mind that designing a trade show booth is much like designing a billboard. People respond to graphics before they ever take in the text. Think of the classic McDonald’s billboard: a giant picture of food, branded with the company’s ubiquitous logo, with big letters telling you where to find the next McDonald’s store. No wasted space, no wasted text. Be sure to design your exhibit for scanning, not reading. Forget the flow charts and the paragraph on your company history. It is the job of your booth staffers to relay all the pertinent information to interested parties.

Also consider the booth’s functional needs. Do you run computer demos? Do you display clothing or another product? Do you need storage space or locking cabinets for merchandise? Your designer should take you through a complete functional analysis, looking at traffic flow within the booth as well as ease of entry and exit. The last thing you want is for visitors to feel trapped in your booth. 

You might wonder what all of this will cost. Depending on your space and display requirements, you can expect to spend anywhere from $10,000 to $100,000 on booth development. I generally recommend to clients that they allocate between 12% to 15% of their total exhibit marketing budget. If you do your research on your target market and work with an experienced designer, you should end up with a booth that represents you well for at least several years.