Thursday, 4:13pm
28 June 2012

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What Is Exhibition Design?

<br>By Jan Lorenc, Lee Skolnick and Craig Berger<br>RotoVision, &pound;25

A decade ago I worked for a design firm on a permanent exhibition. The first thing to hit home was the range of restrictions on the design, such as the maximum number of words per display; how far from ground level the text must stop; health and safety rules (which have doubtless intensified since). Beyond this, the vocabulary used by those from other disciplines on the job was opaque. A handbook would have been a godsend.

Like all of RotoVision’s ‘Essential Design Handbooks’, What is Exhibition Design? is split in two. The first half discusses, at lightweight level, ‘Issues’ and ‘Anatomy’. Illustrations are limited to one or two per show. If exhibitions are difficult to illustrate in a photo-sequence, they often become meaningless when represented by a single establishing shot.

The series format (too large for a ‘hand’-book, too cuddly for the coffee table) frequently works against the pictures. Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial is reduced to a blank wall behind a procession of schoolchildren – the authors could learn something from Edward Tufte’s dissection of the same monument. Except where they are part of an exhibition’s title, locations and dates are absent.

More so than preceding books in the series, image treatment remains the same when we reach the second, ‘portfolio’ half. Sixteen design groups are each given three or four image-based spreads, and each begins with a slice of promospeak that feels as if reworded from a press release. This makes them depressingly similar: Atelier Markgraph uses ‘jaw-dropping spectacle and advanced technology to promote and further the story’; Mauk Design ‘creates jaw-dropping spectacles and experiences that can engage the visitor from a distance’.

Amid all the dropping of jaws, the book endlessly alludes to a ‘deeper educational content’ that never arrives. There are references to ‘mere’ text and the increasing demand for techno-heavy exhibitions, but nothing on what people really learn from a screen that they can’t from a page or panel. Perhaps the authors thought such issues might be off-putting, or simply wanted to show colourful pictures. But in 256 pages the phrase ‘attention span’ – surely one of the most crucial factors in this field – appears just once. In regard to toddlers.

The question looms as to what RotoVision means by ‘Essential Design Handbooks’. The name implies no-nonsense exploration of a subject, packaged in utilitarian form. Is it appropriate that such a book should be a £25 hardback half swallowed by portfolio pieces, and these arranged by designer rather than type? I’d rather have read about five exhibitions of different kinds, with each background and brief explained; decisions and mistakes described; alternate solutions (and reasons for their rejection) shown; traffic flows diagrammed; macro and micro levels illustrated; and public response properly gauged. A tall order, but more handy than the scattershot approach applied here.