In the trade show industry, we are always searching for ways to make the process of shipping and building a booth simpler for our clients. We spend a lot of time figuring out how to make something small, then temporarily big, and back to small again. Typically, these products are made from metal, wood, plastic and fabric, and utilize clever connections to assemble quickly with a relatively low amount of effort. These frame structures are then covered or wrapped with a branded graphic to create an exhibit, afterwards being repacked and shipped home. The challenge of an Industrial Designer in the Trade Show industry is to create a display that is portable and easy to set up, but still functional, structural and interesting to look at.
For a long time, a white board stood in our design department completely covered with images of inflatables, many of them featuring little post-it notes calling out points of interest. Everyone enjoyed ideating about the concept, but the conversation always halted with the critique, “Yeah, but inflatable’s look so cheesy.” The merits of portability for an inflatable product are obvious. They’re lightweight, efficient to pack, and with the aid of an inflator, set up with the push of a button. As such, albeit unpopular, inflatable trade show booths are nothing new. But for most people, show attendees and booth staffers alike, previous inflatable booths lacked the sophistication and fit and finish that has come to be expected in this industry.
Over the past four years, I have worked with a team of Designers, Engineers and Marketers to create a new inflatable exhibiting system like no other. In one of Skyline’s largest projects to date, our goal was to create inflatable components that are as lightweight and compact as a beach ball, but as low profile, structural and rugged as a bicycle tire. We had high hopes of reinventing the trade show industry. What we didn’t realize was how much this project would reinvent the culture of our workplace as well.
Skyline has a legacy of producing products made from more traditional materials, so understanding inflatable technology was a steep learning curve. In truth, had we known this would take about 4 years to master, we probably wouldn’t have seen it through. In this respect, as elsewhere in the project, naiveté was key. With a subject matter so foreign to us, we explored ideas differently than we had in the past. When a concept failed in the experimental phase, we didn’t abandon the idea but instead asked, “What could we use this for?” An example of this is how we fasten accessories to the displays. Initially the idea was to have pre-determined attachment points for accessories built into to each frame. A major critique among our Exhibit Designers was how limiting this would be to the number of designs they could create. After revisiting an early construction technique, we came up with a less-limiting connection method, an attachable cuff. The cuff, a small patch of material that zips onto the internal frame of the display, features a specialized piece of hardware that interfaces with various accessories. Because it simply zips on, accessories can be placed just about anywhere, on any frame, making the exhibit design possibilities endless. While it hadn’t worked as a construction mechanism, we found the cuff to be the perfect solution for accessories. This transformation in thinking improved the efficiency of development as well as capabilities of the product.
Early participation in the project was pretty much voluntary as everyone was excited to work on something so different from the norm. People felt more inspired and passionate than they ever have in the past. The elevated enthusiasm helped motivate us during the various snags of development, overcoming the many instances where significant compromises could have been made. An example of this came about when trying to reach our goal of fitting a 10′ display into a single carry-on suitcase (which was a lofty goal, since traditional displays that size take two large cases that are too big to even check on many airlines). At first the experience of packing into the carry-on, while doable, was much too difficult for the average person. Had this been another project, the concept may have been abandoned, as a quick fix eluded the majority of the team. But with great perseverance, one of our engineers finally found a solution by referencing his years of packing parachutes. This type of passion and perseverance helped to create a great user experience.
Research also played a larger role than it had in the past. As inflatable technology was new to everyone, we went to great lengths to learn as much as we could in the front end. We soaked up everything regarding manufacturing techniques, flexible materials and textiles (even down to types of fibers). As stated earlier, being a bit naïve was key. With no wrong place to look we interviewed many different people such as technical experts, including an Apparel design professor at a nearby college. In the end we were able to create a material not only capable of providing the necessary structure but also passing some of the most stringent fire retardant certifications recognized in the United States and Europe, a key requirement at most trade shows.
Last July Skyline launched this new product to the world and has since received an overwhelming response of positive feedback. Perhaps the most encouraging response however came before the launch in early product demos to some of our dealers and Alpha testers. Watching people enter a room and mistake the surrounding inflated displays for traditional metal-framed structures assured us that these in no way resemble bouncy houses! I credit the successful development of the WindScape™ Exhibit System technology to the passion and perseverance of the team and the project itself, for had it not been such a large challenge and unfamiliar subject matter, it might not have turned out as great as it did.
The success we have had with this product only reinforces the value of keeping an open mind. This has made us that much more motivated to maintain openness and keep that sense of wonder as we continue to develop new ideas and products in the future.
By: Jim Sommerville –