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Sustainability in Exhibition Design: Much to consider

September 22nd, 2023


Environmental impact must now be at the heart of everything we do. Designers, in particular, hold a significant responsibility in this regard.

Every single design decision has a knock-on impact. Graphic designers have been thinking about the environmental impact from traditional forms of graphic design for years. For example, using only FSC Certified or recycled papers; looking at eco-friendly printing techniques such as soy inks; printing locally if economically viable; EDIT THIS. There was a period where it was felt that the move away from printing to digital communications was a panacea, but we now understand that digital technologies and internet usage are two massive players in polluting the environment as they use a considerable amount of electricity. There will now be a huge drive to build low impact digital communications (link to Dan post).

One field of design with a huge (and thus the opportunities for reducing it) footprint is exhibition design. Exhibition design is a broad church. From a weekend long exhibition with a few boards to a beast of an exhibition like the 3,700m² immersive digital experience, EPIC (The Irish Emigration Museum).

Sustainable exhibition design represents a crucial shift in the way we approach and execute exhibitions, aiming to minimize the environmental impact while still delivering engaging and impactful experiences. At its core, sustainable exhibition design prioritizes the reduction of resource consumption, waste generation, and carbon emissions.

Key considerations

  • Material selection is hugely important, favour renewable, recyclable, and low-impact materials over resource-intensive ones.
  • Explore the possibility of using salvaged materials
  • If your exhibition is temporary, use materials like honeycomb (essentially cardboard) that are easy to recycle.
  • If you must use materials like MDF, use MDF that is made without formaldehyde and uses recycles wood.
  • Opt for locally sourced materials to minimize transportation-related emissions
  • In the design process, focus on modularity and reusability, enabling components of the exhibition to be repurposed in future installations or events, thereby extending their lifecycle and reducing overall waste.
  • Integrate energy-efficient lighting systems, such as LED lights, and use natural lighting whenever possible
  • Explore technologies like motion sensors to ensure that lighting and other systems are only active when needed, minimizing unnecessary energy use during periods of low attendance or when certain areas of the exhibition are unoccupied.
  • Minimizing the distance that materials and components need to travel: partner with local suppliers, sourcing materials from nearby regions, and employing efficient transportation methods
  • strive to create modular and lightweight structures that are easy to transport
  • Think about lifecycle.
  • Plan for dismantling and disposing of materials from the outset.
  • Focus on creating exhibits that can be disassembled with minimal waste generation and can be separated into recyclable or compostable components.
  • Talk about how your exhibition embedded sustainability – educate and inspire attendees about the importance of sustainability.
Recovered waste MDF fibre can be used in new MDF boards or into insulation boards

Recovered waste MDF fibre can be used in new MDF boards or into insulation boards

A case study: Ireland at the League of Nations

We recently worked with the National Archives on a touring exhibtion: On an equal footing with all: Ireland at the League of Nations, 1923–1946.

A key consideration for the Archives was that the exhibition would be as sustainable as possible. Working with our partners John McLoughlin Architects we explored how we could embed ‘reduce, reuse, repurpose and recycle’.

One iteration of the exhibition was to be for the Ploughing Championships. We saw that the National Archives had used the same space for their exhibition on the Treaty last year. The decision was made to reuse the framework that was created for last years exhibition. While we could not reuse the previous year’s boards, we would use reduce the environmental impact by using honeycomb (Easy to recycle cardboard) instead of Dibond (aluminium with a solid polyethylene core – hard to recycle).

Furthermore, the two-day exhibition at the Printworks would just use a totem-like honeycomb structure.

Reduce & Reuse
For the two overseas exhibitions, there was an exciting solution. A bespoke and modular framework was to be designed.

Build a bespoke mnodular exhibition system that the Archives could use again in many different manners. This modular frame system would be built out of longlasting