Author & Illustrator: Gavin Gray Valentine · Editor: Darren Di Lieto · 17th August 2020
Conventions are not a place of subtlety. Walking the show floor you quickly become overloaded with visual information: walls of colorful prints, vendor booths that reach to the moon, cosplayers, and crowd noise bombard your senses. How can an artist stand out? By doing what we always do — playing by our own rules.
I attribute much of my convention success to my knowledge of design. Before I was an illustrator I was a graphic designer for nearly ten years. A constant misstep I see in convention booth design is to ignore the fundamentals of design. I decided to put together a guide of sorts to shine some light on what I feel are the things that help me do well at shows and how to use design to craft a memorable experience.
Hooked on a Feeling
I will never forget my first show. It was a very small convention in Oregon, in the same town where I lived. I was nervous about recouping my costs and people liking my work (these feelings never go away). A middle-aged man walked by my booth staring at my centerpiece, The Faerie King, and I will never forget the look on his face. It was a mixture of confusion and disgust, as if he was offended that I had created this thing that he now had to look at. In that moment I knew I was on to something good.
I made him feel something. He didn’t like it, but someone else would. That’s the thing with creating an experience. Some like it hot, some like it cold, but if you’re trying to please everyone you end up with soggy, tasteless goop and no one likes that.
So, how do we craft an experience that will leave an impression? You get five keywords. Five words to define the feeling you want your customers to have. These act as your guidelines when you are thinking about what your body of work and what your booth will look like. When choosing your keywords be careful not to be too generic. Words like quality should be assumed. These are mine:
If a piece doesn’t satisfy at least three of your words it doesn’t belong in your body of work. That doesn’t mean you can’t make it, it just means that it will need to exist outside of your current body of work. Your keywords also extend to your booth setup. Think about ways your booth can feel like these words. Here’s a few of examples of artists doing a wonderful job incorporating their artistic voice into their booths:
A huge advantage we have as artists is that our work will do the heavy lifting when it comes to the visual representation of our keywords, but there are other ways to communicate with design. Through staging of your setup, signage, and your product packaging, you can create a memorable experience that showcases your keywords. This also extends to interacting with your customers. Obviously this isn’t always the case as I wouldn’t sell much art if I came off as just unsettling, but I do try to embrace the artistic platitude of being mysterious and authentic. As an Oregonian I often talk about how my experiences with nature influence my art. This is easy to overdo, so if it doesn’t come naturally just focus on providing the best customer service you can.
How to Look Like You’re a Big Deal
You’ve got a cohesive body of work and a basic booth, now what? It’s time to get serious about taking yourself seriously. No, you don’t have to buy a suit, but you can if it fits in with your keywords. What I mean is that you should begin to act like a business and treat your art prints and originals like products. I suggest visiting art galleries to get a feel for how to present your work professionally.
Here’s a quick list of things I think are must haves for creating a professional booth:
- Bags and boards for your prints
- Retail bags with handles
- Printed price tags and labels
- Signage with your name and/or logo
- A display wall that creates a barrier between you and your neighbors’ booths
- Table cloth
- Business cards
We need to talk about print stands. Lots of artists use these little guys to hold their work upright, which is awesome. What’s not awesome is at least once per show a customer will grab a print and knock down the stack causing a tear in the space time continuum resulting in anyone who witnessed the event to lose any interest in buying anything. This is what I call a micro-distraction. Enough of these results in your customer realizing that you built this rollercoaster this morning and possibly forgot a few bolts. If you think this isn’t affecting your sales, put yourself in the shoes of your would-be customer. They are now embarrassed and will associate that feeling with your booth for the rest of eternity. Each time your customer gets the slightest peek into how the hot dog is made it moves them one step closer to realizing they’re at a glorified flea market. This is just one example of a micro-distraction. Other examples include, but are not limited to: prints falling off your display, anything hanging crooked, visible unfinished structure, random clutter, cat hair, typefaces that don’t match, handwritten signs (unless they’re awesome), dust — you get the idea. You should seek to avoid these at all costs and if you notice one, fix it.
Don’t Sweat the Small Talk
I am an introvert by nature, but I dress up as an extrovert for conventions. I have a script for what I say each time someone comes to the booth and I get increasingly nervous when I deviate from it. The sales strategy of asking open-ended questions used to make my knees quiver. If this is you, don’t fear! We have the easiest job in the world – we sell people something they love and all we have to do is stand out in their mind as the place to get it.
We have the easiest job in the world – we sell people something they love…
Now for one of the most important tools in your toolbox — the back of your print. On the backs of my prints I write a little story to go along with the image, usually less than a paragraph. This isn’t a description of the scene, but part of a narrative, something that gets the viewer to think about the image in a different way. I use it to get prints in the hands of potential customers and get them to hang around my booth longer. Use the backs of your prints in a way that works for you. If you’re not comfortable with narrative writing describe your process or the experience that inspired the piece.
Here’s an example of a typical interaction at my booth:
- Introduce myself
- Tell them about the stories on the back of my prints
- Turn a print over and hand it to them
- Let them browse
- Briefly tell them my prices and print options
- Let them browse
- If they hold a print and stare at it for a while, ask them if they’d like to purchase it
- If they seem interested in a canvas, take it off the wall and hand it to them
- If they turn to leave, hand them a business card with my booth number on it
- Thank them for their purchase or time
If someone doesn’t love your work, it doesn’t matter what you say, they won’t buy it. If someone loves your work, you can say or do the wrong things and you’ll never see them again. If you are too pushy or too quick to offer deals, these actions have consequences that may not be seen in the immediate, but long term they will hurt your customer base by creating an uncomfortable or haphazard experience. Discounts and pushy sales tactics signal desperation and in the worst case scenario a customer might purchase out of guilt or pressure. It might feel like you’ve won in the short term, but your customer will be left with the overwhelming feeling of unease. This has greater long term consequences when it comes to customer retention and the perceived value of your art.
People might forget who you are, but they will never forget how you made them feel.
Instead, open the door for your customer to talk about what they love. Ask them which piece brought them over. Ask them what it is about that piece they like. Ask them where they would hang it. And if they’re not feeling it, let them walk away (with a business card, of course). Bottom line — people might forget who you are, but they will never forget how you made them feel.
Gavin Gray Valentine is an independent artist from Portland, Oregon. His work brings the whimsical and sometimes unsettling creatures of Elsewhere to life.