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Practical Help for Exhibit Design

2. Interesting exhibit design #1

NHD has very specific rules on exhibit dimensions and word limit. Once your text is written and organized you are ready to begin with your exhibit design.

How big should I make the photographs?
Determing the size of your images depends on how many you will be displaying. Keep it simple. For example, if you are making an exhibit on Albert Einstein, you probably won't make his baby photo the biggest one on the panel. It would probably be one of him working out an equation or writing on a chalkboard. For your panels - do not make all photographs the same size. Choose which photo is the most important and make it larger than the others. Build your design around the focal point.

What about color?

There are many artistic guidelines about using color and which colors on the color wheel compliment other colors. Do a google search on "color wheel" for more information. That may be more complex than you need. Think about your topic -what colors come to mind? If your exhibit is on industrial waste does it make you think about the color lavender or garbage-can green? Look at some examples .

Now that you have a color in mind find a box of crayons and start coloring. Try many shades of the same color on your swatch, look at what I mean. If you choose to paint your panel the lighter color, then use the dark color for photo borders and possibly the text. Or find two contrasting colors that you like together, like peach and midnight blue. If you still aren't sure, show a couple of samples to friends and family members and ask for opinions.

A good rule is to use no more than three colors in your design. And remember, there is nothing wrong with black and white--especially if you throw in a touch of "hot" color like red, hot pink or orange (depending on your topic). Try a narrow red border around your photo or a fluorescent color for an "urban" sort of feel.

What tools do I use to design my exhibit?
For a low tech design use graph paper to make a scale drawing of your panels.

How do I decide where everything goes?
Designing an exhibit is like writing a paper or a book. Divide your information up into sections, so your topic can easily be followed. Keep the most important information and illustrations at the top of the center panel and make them the largest. Let's take a look at those Rose Garden Club panels again, pretending these are the center panel of a three-panel exhibit.

exhibit panel
Panel 1
exhibit panel
Panel 2
exhibit panel
Panel 3
exhibit panel
Panel 4

Panel 1 - There are two text pages on this panel. Can you tell which pictures go with the text? From this layout it is very hard to tell.

Panel 2 - Notice there is a text page at the top left? This is where the eye first falls once you have read the title, place important information here.Each caption is touching, overlapping or very near the photo it is describing. You can see the three distinct groups on this panel.

Panel 3 - This panel is designed with everything lined up.

Panel 4 - It is more interesting to arrange things in different places and on angles.

Once you have drawn your design to scale cut your panels to size and arrange the tiems on the panel. Don't attach them until you have the exhibit entirely laid out and are certain you like the arrangement!


What else can I do to make the design interesting?

3D depth to an image or text:
There is an inexpensive way to give things more depth that we use in our exhibits.See how Gene Autry and Champion stand out from the wall a little bit? They aren't just flat. The cutout photo of Tex Ritter is the same way. Here are instructions on how to make things stick out from the panel or wall.

The pieces of gatorboard ready to be mounted the pieces of gator taped together the stacks on the back of the image
In this photo you can see the small pieces of gatorboard that I cut with the knife, but you can use fomecore, too. I'm using foam tape, but any double sided tape will work or glue. I've put a small piece of tape on each square of gator and I've taped them together in a stack like pancakes. Here are the stacks taped to the back of the photo. I used two pieces of gator taped together on the top and the bottom of the cutout. You can see the tape that will be used to hang the photo to the panel. A piece of velcro with the sticky back on it would also work. Then stick the other half of the velcro to your panel and you can take it down when you're moving it and put it up for display!

Borders will also add interest and and make things stand out. Here's an example from our Mississippi River exhibit: notice how the blue border around the white text makes it stand out more than if it were just white on light aqua (the color scheme was based on colors of water, like aqua and blue and teal). Here's one from our Revolutionary War exhibit: all of the text has a red border to make it stand out and to make sure the visitors notice it (the color scheme was red, white and blue). But borders don't have to be the same shape as the photo or text. Try a colored matboard triangle with a rectangle photo on top of it. Or paint a circle on the panel and put a photo cutout on top of it. It's okay if it overlaps the edges.

Cutout photos can make things more interesting, too.Remember the gold panel about the rose growers we looked at on the last page? Look at this to see the gold panel with white squares and one with the drawings cutout. Just cut them out with a pair of scissors. Notice what a difference it makes.

Three-dimensional objects can add interest, too. For the rose-growing club panel I used a cutout of a drawing of a rose, but better yet would be to buy a few silk flower rose buds and glue them right to your panel. Have an exhibit that is car related or on roads or something like that? Glue matchbox cars to the panel. Use your imagination. Don't overwhelm the panel with your cars or rosebuds--keep it simple, but a few of them would be clever and interesting and different.

You can also cover your panels with fabric. This would add texture and interest. You can glue it to board or stretch it around and staple it on the back. You could put pleats along the edges or gather it along the bottom edge, but keep it simple and don't get a really big and wild pattern. It will be too distracting from the text and the illustrations.

The whole Pearl Harbor movie ad

Layers and Cutouts
This was made to advertise the movie "Pearl Harbor" in a theater lobby, but it's got some great design that could beusde for an exhibit.

1. It has depth. The airplane sticks out from the background. It looks to be part of the background photo, but it pops out in 3-D. The plane is attached with tabs that stick into slots on the cardboard and can be removed. The two big pieces on the wings fold back and give the wings more support. There is one tab on the top and one on the bottom of the airplane. Look at how the tab is just an extension of the wing and folds over on the edge of the photo. You could do this with a photo (either cutout or square) or do it with text.

2. It has layers. We like the hole with the clear sheet of plastic taped behind it, the plastic has printing. There's not a whole paragraph--that would be hard to read--use just a quotel. Make sure your print is big and choose a block style font to make it easier to read. There needs to be enough contrast to see it, your photo needs to be light and your text dark.

3. The photo behind the plastic text is visually interesting also. There is a gap of about 2-3 inches between the photo and the plastic sheet, which gives it even more depth. The tabs for the photo are just taped to the back of the display.

You couldn't replicate a big photo like the one behind the plastic sheet without a large format printer, but you could do it if your hole was small enough for an 8 x 10 print. Or put your 8 x 10 photo on a colored or black board that is bigger. And your hole doesn't have to be round. You can make it whatever size or shape you want.

Another thing we can learn from and borrow is that the background photo is faded out so it's not so crisp. That makes it easier to see the writing on top of it. It makes it less busy and the contrast is greater.space shuttle quote photo

In the photo to the right the background image is at 40%opacity and the quote on top should be a bold text so it can be easily read.

Or you could do a background photo in black and white and make it more faded on a photocopier. You could type the text right on top of the photo in some photo software and print it out, or you could put the text on the clear plastic and hang it in front of the photo like the Peal Harbor display.

1. How to Relate the Topic to the Design of the Exhibit
2. Interesting Exhibit Design
3. Fonts and Type Faces
4. How Do I Do That?
5. Sources

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