From Models to Install

From Models to Install

Our impetus for EGD in the classroom is the alchemy of bringing together projects with social purpose, meaningful narrative, and collaboration. But the focus of From Models to Install is to present a specific course of action that relies on the use of systems: grid and hierarchical structures borrowed from typographic layouts for the exhibition models and fabrication frameworks for the installations.

From Models to Install: The Models

Designing an exhibition is a vast undertaking, yet from the perspective of a graphic design student, exhibit design utilizes many of the fundamental components and strategies they are exposed to in a traditional graphic design curriculum. Formal considerations of grid systems used in print and screen design also apply to exhibition design, with additional factors of physical scale, materiality, lighting, sound and interaction. As our program does not have a formalized EGD degree, exhibition design is introduced in a variety of ways. At the Junior level, our type and grid course, Grids in Narrative Spaces, teaches the tenets of organization, structure, hierarchy, flow and pacing in three contrasting contexts: book layout, interactive apps, and exhibit design. In exhibit design, students investigate masterplanning strategies that include grids and organizational structures as well as flow, arrangement and visual hierarchy of data/content (headings, subheads, texts and supporting imagery). Issues of context, spatial circulation, qualities of light (man-made and natural), materials and their relevance, and structural concepts of narrative are also addressed. Along with technical and method-based analysis, the course includes techniques for concept development and research to practice skills in content creation including writing and editing.

The history of exhibition design is presented beginning with The Uffizi Gallery in Florence from 1581; one of the first modern museums to evaluate how objects and paintings are displayed. Other early exhibition display techniques include the traditional, hierarchical salon-style presentation of The Great Exhibition of 1851 housed in London’s revolutionary Crystal Palace, a milestone of arrangement to promote industrial and technical accomplishments. And finally, the modern exhibition design movement of architects and designers reconceived by the Bauhaus to highlight function and aesthetics.

A good exhibition is about telling a multi-dimensional and interactive story with broad and balanced media. It begins with a story, a lesson to be demonstrated, a collection of objects or artifacts one must display. The challenge is to communicate complex information in a narrative that creates meaningful experiences and appeals to a wide audience. Exhibition design involves the editing and retelling of a story. Students work collaboratively to establish an account based on the exhibition’s theme. They map the narrative/exhibit flow, grid organization, and all stationary and moving elements. The production of a final 3D model serves to demonstrate an overall view of the exhibit’s narrative along with a visual and typographic identity, grid, image tone, and interactives. Final exhibit design concepts evolve into a three-dimensional composition to be experienced and absorbed.

The brief for the exhibition design project varies from semester to semester. Students select a topic that is meaningful to them and to society. They work in teams to research specific topics and develop content for a larger permanent interpretive exhibition. Teams define the narrative, develop a rough outline, flow/circulation map and spatial layout. Each person within the group selects one storyline excerpt from the overall topic to develop a more detailed narrative/text for one wall of the larger exhibit. This wall model presents the exhibition’s concept and visual identity and includes grids, headings, subheads, texts and supporting imagery, interactives and artifacts as well as color, typography, 3-D forms, surfaces, texts, graphics and images.

The process involves exercises that compare grids used in print and on screen to the effect of scale and context on graphics in an exhibition setting. They examine typographic scaling within the underlying grid structure, visual hierarchy, contrast, and compositional balance. Each student prototypes a 3D wall model, their first exposure to thinking three dimensionally, with attention to location, spatial circulation, cabinetry, interactives, imagery, qualities of light, materials, and structure.

Another project explores mobile exhibition concepts. Using the same team and research strategies of the previous assignment, this version extends the challenge to include mobility. Each student constructs a 1” to 1’ scale model of a 13’6” x 45’ semi-trailer and are responsible for interior and exterior considerations.

The exhibit narrative considers headings, subheads, texts and supporting imagery, digital technology, video, physical interactives and related artifacts but with the added constraint of flow and overall spatial relations considering a beginning, middle and conclusion. The design and model production process for each of these exhibition projects gives students an immediate visual and critical awareness of issues related space, scale and context and the experience provides a helpful resource for future more complex exhibition and environmental graphics projects.

From Models to Install: The Installation

In the classroom our fabricated EGD projects share these common practices:
a. Site analysis
b. Public input and research
c. Team based concept proposals
d. Presentations to stakeholders
e. Consensus and refinement
f. Fabrication
g. Deployment: public engagement

While each EGD project follows a complex course of action with many processes and strategies, the methodological details emphasized in the following three case studies demonstrate how the graphic design students’ knowledge of grid and organizational systems learned in the typography and exhibition models are valuable tools for site-based installations. Employing a three-dimensional “grid” creates cohesiveness, ease of construction, and consistency of form. The structural framework, as in any grid system, defines a set of constraints with room to riff on the nuances. As these team-based projects involve 20–35 students, this tactic provides a blueprint for success and efficiency yet allows autonomy for each team to create unique distinctions.

The Welcome Center: Mapping Community Stories

The Welcome Center was an interactive installation housed within a non-profit art center that serves one of the city’s oldest African-American communities and functions as a cultural hub for the neighborhood. The installation used mapping as part of a larger initiative to collect stories, dreams, memories, experiences and ideas from the community to promote future neighborhood improvements.

From the project’s inception, a structural system was established to enable the class of designers unfamiliar with the process to: develop concepts, present proposals, fabricate and install in seven weeks. The devised framework consisted of a hanging panel system on a steel pipe along the 29’ west wall. The panel components allowed for ease of installation, flexibility of use, and a variety of opportunities for community activity and input.

Each of four teams developed sets of 30 x 40” panels based on specific aspects of the mapping project. These were constructed in the classroom at the University of Houston and easily hung on site. They included two panels for the Maps of Possibilities: a series of maps to highlight significant aspects of the neighborhood. Materials and templates for make-your-own-maps were provided and included questions to encourage visitors to map meaningful moments and neighborhood memories. Two panels were devoted to Community Stories: a multi-card display rack about people, politics, places and events. Blank cards and materials at mobile workstations enticed visitors to write or draw personal stories about the neighborhood. The focal point of the hanging panel system (8 panels, 15 x 40” each) was devoted to the Large Interactive Map. This rusted metal and hand painted map inspired the local community to indicate important personal locations in the neighborhood using magnetic icons. The Resource Center, installed on the 20’ east wall, employed a matching panel system.

Another challenge for a class of 24 students was establishing a stylistic consistency to the installation. The hand painted signage found in the neighborhood inspired the overall aesthetic. This expanded into a larger branding strategy of materials, palette, typefaces, iconography, grid system, method of construction and voice.

WorkingShop: An Historic Exhibition

This collaboration partnered MFA graphic design students with Professor Patrick Peters’ 5th year students from the University of Houston Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture for the design, fabrication, and installation of an exhibition that focused on the history of a predominantly African American community as told through the influence of a middle school. Installed in the former woodworking shop of the school, the location formed the impetus for the materials and approach.

With three months from start to finish, the first challenge was to design a site plan that divided the large room into separate historically themed nodes. A simple armature of 4 x 8’ walls was proposed to maintain fabrication ease and provide a consistent framework. The pine 1” x 1” frames were not only cost effective; they were in keeping with the techniques of a woodworking shop. The scale of the modular structures allowed for the primary construction to occur at the University, which reduced on-site efforts.

WorkingShop was comprised of a dense amount of content. With over 3,000 words, numerous videos, maps, architectural models and artifacts amidst large-scale woodworking shop tools, the exhibition relied on a modular construction system and a content layout grid for legibility, flow, and hierarchy. The narrative was divided into four main themes: The People: shaping the community socially and politically; Community History: organizations, businesses and churches; The Building: academic architecture in relation to the city; School History: how key figures shaped the future of the neighborhood. The shop tools, still in their original positions, were incorporated into the scheme and story of the exhibition.

Overall aesthetic cohesiveness of materiality and form were linked to brand development—a palette of colors and materials, typographic and iconographic systems. That said, each team worked very hard to differentiate their aesthetic and architectural approach within the prescribed parameters.

Reframe x Frame

Reframe x Frame is another collaboration with the UH College of Architecture with a more robust structural outcome. Allsteel, the world’s second-largest manufacturer of office cubicles, asked us to consider a use for the 22 billion pounds of metal discarded office systems that enter the waste stream. The idea they posed was to create a test case for disaster relief housing. A second client posed an unrelated proposition—the creation of a micro pavilion to house the work of a local artist to be placed in Hermann Park during their Centennial celebration.

We toured the warehouses and witnessed just a small portion of the huge amount of stored office cubicle systems. Product installers demonstrated assembling the kit of parts used to create a wide range of structural office configurations. A catalogue provided specifications for each component.  The architecture students conducted a range of constructions, floor plans, and load tests utilizing the Allsteel products. In this case the grid system was very specifically based on their storeroom of components.

Reframe x Frame emerged with the strategy of combining the two concepts. The final solution for the pavilion was a dual sided covered passageway entered from the north or from the south. The south entrance celebrated the centennial of the park and triggered the work of local sound artist Abinadi Meza. As you walked through the space, motion sensors activated the sound art.

The north entrance depicted the story of steel office framing as potential disaster relief housing through a timeline of information graphics displayed on a Coroplast skin. The skin was partially removed to expose the steel framing inside. On the framing were facts and statistics on disaster relief housing and steel furniture waste. When lit at night, the pavilion served as a beacon with its internal framing structure  (subtle by day)— revealed through the translucent glow of laser cut Coroplast. This beacon called attention to the story of steel waste and its potential reuse.


The students in our advanced typography courses segue into EGD and exhibition design through the world of typographic grid systems. This helps them to think of physical space hierarchically using a systematic approach that is made dynamic through contrast of negative space, structure and form. At the senior level this knowledge is applied through the use of modularity and systematic frameworks for fabrication ease and to create cohesiveness to the structures and the overall narrative messaging.


Cheryl Beckett, Associate Professor, University of Houston, Katherine G. McGovern College of the Arts, School of Art, Graphic Design

Fiona McGettigan, Associate Professor, University of Houston, Katherine G. McGovern College of the Arts, School of Art, Graphic Design