2020 vision – Our designers’ insights into next year’s trends

With 2020 rapidly approaching, we asked members of our in-house design team to reflect on how exhibition design trends had evolved in recent years, and to look ahead to what would be hot in 2020. And fresh from a trip to the London Design Festival, they were full of ideas for next year’s projects.

Designers Cathy Dowse, Isobel Goodacre, studio manager Craig Davidson and creative director Mark Fletcher had plenty to say when we sat down with them in the RTH design studio.

How noticeable are the changes in fashions from one year to the next in the world of exhibiting? Is it a case of evolution or revolution?

Craig: Evolution. We are seeing a gradual change to clean, less cluttered stands with the emphasis changing from graphics to AV as the latter becomes more affordable.

Cathy: Yes, I’d agree it’s evolution in terms of design. It’s not drastic from year to year – but it’s certainly noticeable that people are trying to bridge the gap between exhibit show standards and permanent build standards. Attention to detail is on the increase, as is the introduction of furnishings more typical of high-end hotels and bars. And casual seating areas that wouldn’t look out of place in a business-class lounge.

However, when it comes to technology and user experience it is more a case of revolution.

Isobel: You’ll see certain colours or materials being hinted at one year, which then come to the fore the next. Sometimes the change may be even more gradual. Every year I have visited the London Design Festival, there has been a growing emphasis on sustainability as audience awareness, and therefore demand, increases.

Mark: A lot’s been said by the team, and I’d just add that on this evolutionary path of trends, influences diverge by sector categories.

What have been the most dramatic changes in the past five years?

Isobel: The biggest one that springs to mind is the increasing importance of the user journey in a narrative-based context. By this I mean engaging visitors with brand storytelling to transform an exhibit into an exciting destination. One that sparks customers’ imagination with emotional impact and brand personality – generally engaging visitors on a much more human level.

This approach helps brands get their message across faster and with greater impact, in an increasingly digital/visual age of social media, reaching a wider audience than previously.

One example of a narrative-led project is Embraer’s 2019 Paris Pavilion – where it was the brand experience, rather than a product, being ‘sold’ to the visitor.

Mark: I can reel off a long list of tech which has now become common in our industry: touchscreens, AR, VR, motion control, holographic projection, hyper vision, large format high-resolution LED screens/panels, large format curved LED screens and directional audio.

We have seen screen resolutions increase and costs stabilise over the last year. But where content generation definitely fell behind the pace of technology, we are now seeing much more investment in providing better content generation which creates a much more involving experience for the exhibition visitor.

Cathy: One of the more noticeable changes to me is the introduction of more natural looking materials. The use of bold and bright brand colours is often seen softened with touches of material such as wood or stone. Not only does this add a suggestion of ‘luxe’, but helps to soften the overall look of a stand that can sometimes look quite clinical if brand colours are the main palettes.

Craig: Mark has already mentioned a lot of the tech that we’ve seen come in. And at the simple but effective end of this I’d include LED lighting. Like other tech it has become much more affordable and is now used widely on stands to highlight areas and add impact.

What are your favourite materials and colours to work with right now, and how do you see that changing for 2020?

Cathy: I like matt materials and laminates in off-greys or mid-tones, not just black and white. As well as not scratching as easily as standard laminates, they look really expensive and luxurious. They also soften surfaces which can otherwise look harsh.

Muted pastels, soft clay and greys are great for areas which are busy and distracting like exhibition halls! More natural looking tones help to relax the surroundings and make lounge areas feel less corporate and more homely.

I am also a fan of heavily textured wallpapers and tiles. Used sparingly and in the right place, they can be a bit of a ‘cheat’ way to make a room or bar area look more upscale.

Mark: Interior furniture design often goes through material and colour trends from one year to the next. We keep a close eye on these for our chalet and pavilion designs where hospitality and office space is usually the requirement for business.

At the moment we are seeing dark muted colours, velvets and other soft touch materials in vogue. Dark blues and greens were certainly trending at the beginning of the year. However there is also a trend following a more natural, lighter soft pastel colourway used alongside metallics to highlight or balance fine details. This does not always suit the current project or client, so we have to be adaptable and ready to research.

We do commonly provide trending colourways and materials for our clients via mood boards during the development of major projects like Farnborough, Singapore and Paris. Although not always adopted, we see this as our responsibility as designers, keeping up to date and ready to draw influence.

Craig: My current preference is for simple colour palettes of white, greys mixed with brand colours and supplemented with more natural elements such as stone and muted timber effects.

Isobel: Layering of block colour and texture seemed to be very prevalent at the London Design Festival this year. It’s certainly something which creates a striking and incredibly tactile effect, and also adds a sense of depth. Personally, I enjoy mixing natural materials with manmade ones, so woods (which add warmth and texture) and stone or marble, complemented with the softness of fabric or ultra-matt laminate in a warm neutral tone. For example, the FENIX laminate range has some lovely earthy colours.

I think 2019 was all about colour in nature – leafy greens, soft earthy reds and pinks and warm neutrals. 2020, I think will play on the warm earthy colours from 2019 but add in some stronger, more ‘vintage’ colours for added punch, like ochre yellow or ultramarine blue – blending contemporary with vintage style.

Where do you look to, for inspiration in your design?

Mark: Working in the aerospace sector (engineering) we commonly look towards automotive, museum, retail and architecture to influence structure and material selections. Hard materials such as laminates, steel and glass are used. These are complemented with large format graphics to provide information. These have a clean modern trend. They are less cluttered with atmospheric photography and bold statements rather than being information or specification heavy.

It is also worth noting that exhibition stands tend to offer more than one function. Aside from displaying to, and informing, visitors and customers of their products or services, hospitality, office space and meeting rooms take up much of the space. This is where interior, furniture, museum and retail design become influential. But trends in these areas can sometimes be opposing. This is where our knowledge and skill works to balance trends within our design proposals.

Isobel: Visual merchandising in retail is a great source of inspiration. There are similarities between an exhibition hall and high street; each shop or stand is vying for the attention of the passer-by. They only really have around 30 seconds to engage and attract them.

The use of AV and lighting can play a huge role in the success of this, and many flagship retail spaces incorporate dynamic lighting and POS display in clever and interesting ways which can translate well into the exhibition industry.

Craig: Exhibitions stands in other sectors, such as automotive, provide plenty of inspiration.

Permanent installations such as museum, retail and interior design all provide ideas to apply to our designs.

Cathy: As Craig observes, it’s always important to take note of what other exhibitors are doing. But personally, high-end retail interiors and architecture seem to have that extra ‘something’ that inspires me. Exhibitions are temporary, but to take inspiration from permanent installs and structures is important. You want a stand to look like it is there to last and is constructed from the best materials.

High-end retail interiors are also great for taking inspiration of how to beautifully display products and light a limited space – something we often have to think about on an exhibition stand.

How important is the incorporation of technology into your designs? Can an impact be made without it?

Craig: Technology is a huge part of our stand designs, particularly in the aviation sector. Here it can be the only way to get some of the complex information across.

Cathy: I have found that the use of technology is very subjective. The choice to include elements of AV varies depending on the client and the services or products being promoted.

Sometimes simplicity is key, and beautiful products don’t always need to be assisted with technology. On the other hand, there are great examples of exploration touchscreen interfaces that we use alongside product displays. These have been really successful in helping to explain complex technologies.

The blueprint for great design is experience. So if done well, VR headsets and other sources of technology that enable the visitor to become fully immersed in an experience or brand can be really successful. But no matter how advanced the technology, the effectiveness of something like VR very much relies on the quality of the content.

Mark: The use of AV and technology at exhibitions has always been a major focus for RTH. Especially considering product heavy designs for the engineering sector.

We now see a movement or upcoming trend towards immersive environments that do not utilise AR. Throw away the headsets and be inside a space than immerses you in its content – very Star Trek holo-deck, but we hope this will become more of a reality in the near future with increasing resolutions and flexible screen technology.

As AV screen tech is ever evolving (LED, LCD, OLED, MicroLED) and resolutions are increasing, we also see the amalgamation of AR and VR and possibly a new type of mixed reality in the future that could be the key to a truly immersive environment/room. Note: content generation budgets may need to go up!

Isobel: As mentioned above, the integrated use of AV in a stand can be one of the best ways to create an eye-catching and compelling presence. It can engage visitors swiftly and effectively, without the need for a physical ‘sales pitch’ from someone working the stand. At the other end of the spectrum, it can become over-powering or imposing if used too much – it’s about getting the balance right.

Some of the most successful stands we see are ones where the product has enough room to breathe, and the display is curated to feel ‘together’ as one collection – with technology used to support this where it is needed.

What struck you most about what you saw at the London Design Festival?

Cathy: The focus on sustainable materials and bio-materials (also named material of the year by the design fair!) was definitely at the forefront of conversations. Not as ‘neat or perfected’ products. The imperfections and patterns you see in materials that have been composed of waste are very much becoming fashionable – the idea that imperfection can work really well.

Traditional craftsmanship of products was also really obvious. This may be filtering its way into the mainstream design world. We also observed a move towards less clinical looking furniture and more of an appreciation for bespoke items.

Isobel: ‘Eco’ and ‘natural’ were definitely the in-vogue words to be using to market products. And sometimes it seemed a bit questionable whether the use of these words was indeed relevant to the product being advertised. I think this means that sustainable design is definitely at the forefront of people’s minds when making an informed decision about whether to buy into a company or purchase a product.

However it did feel like the definition of sustainable, eco or natural was a little muddy at times, or used a little flippantly. There are some great sustainable products out there that really do champion the circular-economy drive. So I would say, don’t just take it at face value when a product is marketed as ‘eco’.

What are your three design predictions for 2020?

Isobel: For me, it is first the championing of sustainable materials and increasing pressure on suppliers and consumers to move away from single-use materials. Second, increasing the presence of technology in stand design – whether that be visual or hidden, to create interactive and immersive experiences. And third, bold, sculptural shapes used for both furniture, spatial design and display.

Craig: I think we’ll see more VR and tech – fewer physical exhibits, a greater use of sustainable materials and more reusable stands.

Cathy: Number one is green/zero waste/sustainable/recyclable materials. This is at the forefront of a lot of conversations, and something the exhibition industry has to invest in and support now. It was already seen throughout the Design Festival at different shows, so introducing reusable and recyclable materials is something we will definitely be seeing next year, if not already.

Number two is minimal and multi-use surfaces, aka ‘hidden technology’. I think technology or information that isn’t obvious always blends in better on a stand. Whether it be bar surfaces with touch options to order coffees, or touchscreen information points that are set into flat desk surfaces. Technology that isn’t distracting and is sleek or concealed will be popular (but unfortunately expensive!).

Number three is more open or integrated spaces. Less clutter and open spaces always feel more inviting. But the trend of minimalism is here to stay into next year, I think. A stand always feels more expensive and considered when space is of a luxury. Combining meeting spaces with lounge areas is already being done. But unless privacy is an absolute must, I think stands and chalets are going to strive to continue to feel bigger and more open. That may mean room divides are brought in with the use of low-level walls , carpet cuts and glass.

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