In the realm of the senses

An exhibition stand need no longer be merely a glorified noticeboard with a couple of spotlights. New technology allows designers to create mood-influencing, self-contained worlds using light and sound. By Pete Roythorne

The first ten seconds is the crucial window for capturing someone’s attention. It is at this point that they are either engaged or lost. With the right combination of light and sound, it is possible to create an environment that appeals to people’s senses, and draws them in, almost instantly.

Thanks to technology, the quality, variety and extent to which sound and light can be used on exhibition stands has increased greatly. Ten years ago, both areas were so limited that an exhibitor would be happy with one or two plain stand lights and a couple of speakers. Nowadays, exhibitors and designers expect more. And rightly so: the products available mean stands can be brought to life, increasing not only company or brand presence, but also visitor numbers.

Sound and light offer a dependable way to be noticed that is sometimes difficult to achieve through architecture and branding alone. Lighting in particular can offer real-time variation – imagine a white stand being repeatedly “painted” in different colours throughout the duration of an event. Furthermore, the use of different lighting effects can help express an organisation’s corporate message: colours such as amber, for instance, can emphasise warmth, while blues can convey an impression of high technology.

Green light to innovation

In the past decade, three major developments have transformed the lighting design industry. First, lower power requirements have brought good lighting within affordable reach of almost everyone. This is particularly true of the huge advances in LED technology, facilitating the production of increasingly bright lamps with extraordinarily low power consumption. A related advantage to LEDs is that they emit relatively little heat, making a brightly lit stand a more comfortable environment.

Second, moving light technology has changed rapidly: every year a new lamp arrives on the scene that can do more than the previous model. Not restricted to mere movement, these lamps can change between hundreds of colours as well as projecting images, slides and textures, all of which can be manipulated to create a dazzling array of optical effects.

Third, miniaturisation means designers can create different moods while concealing their fittings. Furthermore, many of the latest light sources can be fitted in places where traditional light sources cannot, such as under surfaces, around columns, inside arches or along stairways, thereby lighting previously inaccessible areas.

“Lighting creates mood and atmosphere so how your stand is lit says a huge amount about how you want to be perceived,” says Mark Beaver, managing director of the Event Lighting & Design Company. “It is an effective way to highlight the positive attributes of a stand and equally it can be used to disguise its shortcomings. Lighting can breathe life into a space as well as altering its physical appearance – as such, it is perhaps the most cost-effective method of completely transforming areas of a stand.”

Lighting, then, should be an integral part of the modern event design process, and working closely with lighting designers in the planning stages will have a major impact on how a stand is built.

Derek Lunt, a director of stand desig[n agency 2LK, underlines the importance of lighting in boosting corporate presence: “Lighting is undoubtedly an attractor, and with a growing need for clients to differentiate their brand at exhibitions, good lighting is one method of providing an eye-catching and impressive stand. At a recent large broadcast show in Amsterdam we provided our client with a core feature surrounded by high-level banner branding that constantly changed colour. The colour variation fulfilled the need for visual impact and had the added bonus of providing two very different environments.”

Sound and light naturally attract people, especially in a dark exhibition hall. Both can help to provide customers with more information about products, as well as enhancing an existing design. If a lot of time, effort and money have gone into creating the graphics, it makes sense not to leave them in the dark.

Pippa Harris, marketing executive at exhibition company Clip, says that many companies believe this is an area that is out of their reach: “The perception is that lighting and sound are complicated and expensive,” she says. “However, this is far from the truth. With the correct advice and guidance, this can be the difference between a company and its competitors and, ultimately, whether or not it meets its exhibiting objectives. With the correct expertise and planning, a solution can be created for any budget.”

However, Harris sounds a cautionary note: “You can certainly use light and sound to enhance your company’s good points, but you must ensure that the material and methods used are relevant and appeal to the target market. Badly conceived or targeted ideas, as in any other area of design, can result in damage to a corporate image.”

The sound brings the fury

To anyone who has walked through a crowded exhibition hall, the dangers of misusing sound on a stand are all too apparent. Over-enthusiastic presenters propelling voices through PA systems directly onto unsuspecting passers-by, combined with deafening corporate spiel, can cause a cacophonous row that does little to draw customers to stands – unless they happen to be giving away free headache tablets. In an environment where all around exhibitors are promoting their wares equally vociferously, getting the balance right is essential.

Fortunately, sound technology, like lighting, has improved in recent years. Although little has changed in the design of speakers themselves, major improvements have been taking place in sound management and control.

“This is an area we are seeing an increasing call for,” says Brian Smith, managing director of FeOnic, which produces hi-tech sound devices. “To give you an idea of what’s possible, we are able to create a completely artificial acoustic environment on stands, so a customer walking in would notice an actual drop in the sound levels, thereby creating an apparent feeling of calm. This is done by approximating the external sound and producing a signal that negates it.”

Key to this are FeOnic’s high-powered transducers, which can turn almost any rigid surface into a speaker. This ability, coupled with control units that make the sound decay quickly, was used to great success on Reebok’s stand at a recent exhibition in Manchester’s GMEX. “The sound level was about 80dB within 4ft of the source, but beyond that it dropped off rapidly, so anyone walking past beyond that distance wouldn’t notice anything above the ambient noise of the arena,” explains Smith.

Being able to direct and control sound in this way means companies can programme small areas of the floors or walls on their stands to play different messages, with no cross-pollution as visitors move between zones – even if they are right next to each other. And that’s only the start of what this technology is capable of.

FeOnic has also been working with Melville Graphics Services (MGS) to produce the Soundsign, a free-standing sign with a built-in sound loop, aimed not only at sponsorship for organisers but also at meeting disability legislation for the visually impaired. “The sign is similar to the ‘You are here’ boards at exhibitions, but with FeOnic’s technology the whole sign becomes a speaker and you get full 360-degree sound up to a radius of about 5m – although this can be brought in as close as needed,” explains MGS managing director James Taylor. “Currently, we are targeting these at organisers, but they could be a major asset on a stand too.”

Abreast of the best

Lunt sees this sort of partnership between companies as the way forward: “Stand architecture, sound and lighting are inseparable. Designers need to be aware of developments in both areas. Sadly, design agencies are not usually experts in either field, and many lag behind in awareness of the latest techniques and potential applications in the exhibition industry. Often the best way to maintain a fresh approach is to develop a mutually beneficial relationship with a lighting or sound specialist, who can suggest ways of enhancing stand design and ensure that new developments are disseminated.”

For designers and exhibitors, light and sound are powerful tools in helping to create colour, mood, impact and effect to enhance brand image and gain people’s attention in crowded exhibition environments. Companies recognise the importance of this, and as confidence rises in the impact these new technologies can have, they will move from specialist uses into mainstream projects rapidly. Lighting and sound have a fundamental role to play in the future of design and brand management at events.

Watch – and listen to – this space.


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