Free exhibition stand design: a dysfunctional process?


Quadrant2Design’s MD Alan Jenkins offers some advice on how to avoid the pitfalls and get the best from your exhibition stand designer.


As exhibition design and build contractors, UK-based Quadrant2Design play the free design game, where we provide free, no obligation design visuals to potential clients.

In truth, we have little option. All of our competitors offer prospective clients a free design, and to be in the running, we have to as well. It’s as simple as that.

With seven great designers and visualisers on the job, we feel we play the game as well as anyone, if not better than most. Nevertheless, it imposes certain strains and costs upon our company that would otherwise not be there if ‘free design’ did not exist.

Of course, from the other side of the fence, where the potential client stands, free design must seem like a universal good. You can approach as many exhibition design-and-build contractors you like and get free design visuals from all of them. It costs you nothing and you have lots of different designs to choose from. What’s not to like?

However, not all is at it seems. My contention is that the free design process can create a dysfunctional relationship between you (the client) and the exhibition design-and-build contractor (the supplier).

None of this is to say that ‘free design’ could, or should, be abandoned. If the potential client approaches free design in a responsible and measured manner, it need not be viewed as a negative process by either party.

My point is that you need to manage intelligently the process to get the results you want. Before we look at how this can be achieved, we need to understand the pitfalls that lay in wait for you.


Poor engagement

When something is free, you will likely perceive that there is no value in it (otherwise why would it be free?). And when you perceive a thing has no value, you are unwilling to spend much time or thought on it, even though the end result (your exhibition stand) is probably of enormous consequence to your company’s marketing objectives.

This perceived lack of ‘value’ or importance attached to the free-design process, often leads senior marketing managers to delegate the project to an inexperienced junior.

So, the distribution of your design brief, is left to the office junior; the person least able to communicate your needs, priorities and objectives.

On the other side of the fence, this puts us, the exhibition design consultants, in a difficult position. When we attempt to learn more about your company, what you’re looking for, what your aims are, we are often met with blank responses.

Even worse, our attempts to communicate with you, the senior decision-maker, in a bid to ask important questions can cause unnecessary tension.

None of this is the junior marketing executive’s fault.

Rather it’s because the person with the knowledge, responsibility and buying power, is choosing not to engage in the design process.

The result is that the exhibition stands designer works in the dark, lacking the information and guidance that can only be communicated to them by the senior woman or man in the process.

This works both ways of course, the decision-maker doesn’t have the opportunity to evaluate the exhibition stand contractor, their merits or deficiencies, or understand their suitability for the project.

Do we really think this mutual ignorance is conducive to creating and developing a successful exhibition stand project?


The beauty contest

Poor engagement often leads to the Beauty Contest.

This is where the decision-maker, having failed to engage with their potential exhibition stand’s design-and-build supplier, make their buying decision based purely upon the perceived beauty of the design visuals.

So the prettiest (or luckiest?) design is subjectively chosen, with no thought given to the actual ability, resources or suitability of the exhibition stand supplier.


Due diligence

The worst consequence of not engaging, at a senior level with prospective exhibition stand suppliers, can be a shocking lack of sensible due diligence.

In any area of commercial buying this would be a mistake, but in the exhibiting world it can be catastrophic. If a stationery supplier lets you down it’s disappointing – but if your exhibition contractor fails, you are left minus your money and with an empty stand space.

Remember, you’re the person with the knowledge, commercial experience and skills necessary to ‘read between the lines’ and evaluate a potential supplier’s position and expertise. If you don’t engage and understand, who will?

Compound this by choosing your exhibiting partner by ‘beauty contest’, and you’re really playing Russian roulette with the success of your exhibition stand project.

So, given the above, how can you take advantage of the benefits of the free design process, while avoiding the serious negative consequences?


  • Go out to no more than three potential exhibition stand suppliers, having done some initial investigation of their websites and likely suitability. By limiting the number to three, you will give yourself the time and energy to communicate and engage with them.
  • G your chosen potential suppliers a written brief, but also talk with them in a meaningful way, answering any questions they may have.
  • As well as talking to them about the design, quiz them about their experience, company culture, values and history. Use your experience and commercial judgement to read between the lines; ‘are these people right for my exhibition stand design and build?’.
  • Look at the three suppliers’ client reviews and run a credit check on them.
  • Don’t rush to judgement based on a subjective liking of design visuals. If you have a supplier whose credentials fit, but whose visuals are lacking, why not ‘re-brief’ them and give them a second chance at the design?


As exhibition stand designers and exhibitors, we should both understand that ‘free design’ is here to stay, and that used intelligently and with mutual respect, the process can work extremely well for all parties.

Happy exhibiting!


Quadrant2Design are exhibition stand design and build contractors, based in Poole, Dorset, on the South Coast of the UK. The company is the sole supplier of the Swiss-designed exhibiting solution, the Prestige Events System.

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