Dragon Lore: Chinese Exhibition Design

by Sharp | October 2, 2012

Recently, our client Sotheby’s charged us with developing the theme, visual cues and design for an exhibition launching an important partnership for them in China. The process, which required a deep understanding of a remote market, a tight turnaround, and a design to be executed solely in Chinese characters, was a challenge, but one we found that we relished.

Now that the event has passed, it has provided an opportunity for us to step back from the project and evaluate the steps and key considerations that define our approach to experiential design.

  • Goal Setting: As with all communications work, our first task is solidify our goals and key messages. What do we hope to accomplish? What do we want our audiences to come away with? In the case of this project, Sotheby’s was looking to share their history and commitment to the region, and so we knew we needed to demonstrate that commitment through a carefully crafted design.
  • Statement of Purpose: To help condense and distill a range of goals and approaches, we focus our efforts with a Statement of Purpose. This statement is a written narrative that tells the story we want to convey visually. It is reviewed and agreed-upon by all parties to make sure we’re all working from a similar core.
  • Visual Exploration: Our visual design process is founded in extensive research. In this case, our team dove into Chinese history and culture, identifying key visual elements that could translate in subtle and interesting ways to help tell our story. You can see here how historic Chinese screens became a grid layout for our timeline and storytelling device, how we translated the symbolic Year of the Water Dragon into textures and integrated design themes, and how we considered Sotheby’s brand colors in conjunction with meaningful hues within the Chinese culture. It was critical to create images that would resonate, that avoided cliché, and that were visually appealing.




  • Project Execution: Once we’ve agreed upon the core Visual Cues, we begin the process of program execution. Key considerations for translating themes and designs into an actual experiential design include elements like Scale, Place, Purpose and also an understanding of location logistics (like lighting), and audience experience (we needed to edit our designs with consideration for “eye-level” placement , and also think about audience behavior and how they would travel throughout the exhibit and they would stand in relation to the work). Execution in this case extended from the design of the actual exhibition panels (13 panels at 17.6′ W x 8′ H) to print collateral and event invitations.
  • Flexibility: The final element to our design process is less a defined stage and more an approach that is extended throughout the entire process. For experiential design in particular, flexibility and nimbleness become key. There are always changes in venue and expectations, there are issues that come from working across multiple time zones, and there are processes and adjustments and edits come in throughout. Our process allows us to remain strategic and focused throughout, but also keep us nimble throughout the design and execution.

And thanks to the Sotheby’s team for showing us how it all come together on site. A complete circle that makes the process even more worthwhile.


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