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When bad graphics attack!

When bad graphics attack!

By Ryan C. McKay

Do you remember those “Magic Eye” posters that were so big in the mid-’90s? They started off being sold at kiosks in every mall across America (and, hey, remember malls?), and before you knew it, they were on T-shirts, magazines, books, and screen savers everywhere.

For those of you who either missed the ’90s or have conveniently blocked out the memories of eye-strain and migraines, these posters were colorful blurs that would suddenly “morph” into some sort of coherent image or message if you stared at them long enough … well … stared long enough and were willing to endure potential ocular distention.

Don’t get me wrong — we ALL tried it, and if you were one of the people who got the messages to come into focus, you probably thought it was pretty cool … at first … but after awhile, what happened? We all gave up. It just wasn’t worth standing in the line of traffic at the malls while people dodged you (or slammed into you) just so you could try to get the message on these posters to “pop.” You got tired of the hassle, you stopped looking, and you kept walking. One look at some of the graphics I have seen at recent trade shows though tells me that the lesson of the “Magic Eye” wasn’t learned: If people have to stop and decipher what’s really there, they’ll just keep walking past.

How many times have we all heard about the magic marketing number of three? It will take three times to hear a message before someone might possibly act. The human brain can handle no more than three bullet points to a message at a time. You’ve got no more than three days to follow up with someone before they forget you. Heck, even the Stooges, the Musketeers, and Amigos knew that the No. 3 had power. Use that power when you design your graphics. Find no more than three messages for your graphics. Keep it simple or, I promise you, you’ll scare people away.

I can hear people now, though — “But Ryan, my graphics have to educate people as to what it is I do, and how it will help them!” Wrong! Your graphics aren’t there to educate — your graphics are there to ENTICE. The most effective graphics are the ones that arouse curiosity and that engage interest. Educating takes time, and you don’t have that kind of time when someone is passing your booth. If someone has to stop to read the 12 reasons why your company understands their needs, then you have already proven that you don’t understand their biggest need at a trade show — to get the information they want quickly and painlessly.

There is an old golf saying: “Drive for show, and putt for dough.” That’s the rule you want to follow here. Your graphics are the “drive” part of that equation. That’s going to be the “Wow!” factor that knocks their socks off and guarantee’s that they are paying attention. Your literature is the “putt” end of things. This is where you list your bullet points … this is where you educate. Graphics, when well done, will put them in your booth so that you can put your literature in their hands. It’s a symbiotic relationship between graphics and literature — you’ll never get the full benefit from one without doing the other correctly as well.

Let me give you a few pieces of advice on what works with booth graphics, and what doesn’t. Some of these things are common sense (or at least should be), and some are a bit more from left field:

1.) All photos files must be the right size. I can’t tell you how many times people have come to me and asked me to blow up a tiny image that they used for their literature or print ad. It just won’t work. It will look exactly like those Magic Eye posters we just talked about — blurry, pixilated, and fit more for a mall than a business gathering.

2.) If you are going to have text (other than your company name) on your graphics, limit it. Don’t list everything you make, don’t write long paragraphs, and if you can keep your text on ONE panel, you’ll be thankful you did when you don’t have to line two panels up perfectly on the show to keep all the text (or worse … a picture of a face) from getting lopsided if the floor is uneven.

3.) For the love of Saint Marketino (Patron Saint of marketing-driven profit), don’t Velcro pieces you made on your home printer to a backdrop in place of a “real” graphic. I know money and time are issues for everyone, but a homemade printer graphic is the equivalent of wearing a swimsuit to church (and what would Saint Marketino have to say about that?).

4.) One theme per exhibit. ONE. You can have multiple divisions, you can have multiple products, heck, you can have multiple personalities if you want, but leave them all off your graphics. Choose a theme for your graphics and stick to it.

5.) Keep the pertinent information ABOVE counter level. It’s one of those things that people tend not to think about until it’s to late, and it will kill your exhibit. Chances are there will be a table or a counter somewhere in your booth, and I assume you want to have people in your booth as well. Make sure that your logo and the other most important elements of your graphics are high enough that they can still be seen in a full booth.

Well, there you have my rules for trade show graphics. It’s up to you to add your own creativity to the mix to make it all work, but I will promise you this: If you follow these rules, you will get compliments for your exhibit, you will get more people stopping, and you will get more value per dollar than you have ever gotten out of your exhibit before.

If you would like some additional ideas on how to make the most out of your graphics or other free ideas on how to drive higher profits from your trade show program, add me on twitter at or email me at

Ryan C. McKay is a senior account manager and director of operations with Ohio Displays Inc./ODI Works. He can be reached at (216) 961-5600 and His blog, “Ramblings From a Traveling Trade Show Professional,” can be read at

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