How to Choose an Exhibition Designer

How to Choose an Exhibition Designer
I am currently working on a $1 million exhibition with Split Rock Studios out of Minneapolis, MN. We have been working on this project for several years, with a target opening date of September 25, 2009.

Here are some of the things I’ve learned through this process:

1. Before you begin your search for an exhibition designer, you need to have a clear picture of what your project is. You don’t have to have the whole thing worked out, but you should have a basic idea of what you want.

2. Visit museums that have exhibits like the one you are planning for your own museum. Interview the staff. Find out who did the exhibit for them, how they were to work with, and if they stayed in budget. Ask if they would work with the design firm again if given the chance.

3. Send out an RFP (Request for Proposals). You will need to write a brief outline of what your project is, how big your space is, a ballpark budget, and any other details you’ve already decided on. You can do an internet search for exhibition designers, or post a request for exhibition firms on a list like the Museum-L. Be sure to set a realistic deadline.

4. Once your proposals have arrived, review each one carefully. At this stage, each company will be selling themselves based on past projects. Contact past clients for more information about the company. Most likely, none of the packages you receive will contain specific design ideas for your project, so don’t be disappointed when you don’t get any at this point. That comes later.

5. Weigh the benefits of a design/build firm vs. a company that only designs. For our project, we selected a design/build firm to streamline the process. Split Rock Studios employs designers, writers, and fabricators for every stage of the project. None of our top candidates were design-only firms. Your needs may be different. But it is important to realize the difference between these two types of companies.

6. Invite your top three to come for an interview in person. It is important for them to see your space up close and personal, to be sure that they can complete your project. Ask every question you can think of. They will be working for you, so it is important that you find out as much as possible about each company.

7. Don’t focus exclusively on cost when making your selection. Sure, we are all working within tight budgets. But even if your project is similar to another one the company has worked on, yours will have unique features that might not be comparable in cost. You should select the company whose work impresses you. As you work with a designer you can scale back some ideas and expand others to get the project within your budget.

8. Be clear about tasks your staff will perform and what you expect the designer to complete. For example, will you provide the research or writing on your end? Or would you prefer the designer to supply a writer for you?

9. Once you have chosen a designer, the next step will be to sign a contract. Have your museum’s attorney review all contracts before you sign. All projects are different, but for ours, we signed two different contracts. The first was for preliminary design, which included a basic layout, text, and graphic and artifact recommendations. The second was for final design, which included the final versions of the text, definitive object and image lists, final design plans, and detailed mechanical drawings.

10. It is important to agree on an opening date right away and work backwards to ensure you have enough time to complete your project within the timeline you have set.

You Should Also Read:
Museum Career Skills -- Developing an Exhibition
Writing Exhibit Labels
How to Create an Exhibit on a Shoestring Budget

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This content was written by Kim Kenney. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Kim Kenney for details.