Beyond the Grid Display

Beyond the Grid

Table Set Ups and Display

In the ever-expanding sea of tables and booths in Artist Alley and Vendor Halls, first impressions are super important. In addition to figuring out what’s practical AND looks good as far as setting up your table, you also have to make sure it doesn’t look exactly like your neighbors on either side. So whether you are getting ready to set up your first table or you’re looking for some fresh ideas to spice up your existing display, read on!

The basics

Usually, artist alley tables will come with a plain white cover and some skirting, like this:

Skirted Trade Show Table

Hopefully there will be at least 1 chair and a trash can, as well. If you’re in a booth, you may have pipe and drape behind you. However, if you’re in a booth you’re likely to have no chairs, and any tables probably look like this:

Plain Convention Table

This leads me to the first item you should have – a tablecloth! Even if the show does have skirted tables, having something of your own that’s a little more durable and in colors that complement your brand or look helps you stand out and makes your table look that much nicer. It doesn’t have to be an actual tablecloth, it can be sheets, or curtains, or just large pieces of fabric. Now that the table is covered, it’s time for the basis of the display.

If you’ve been IN any Artist Alley ever, you’re probably familiar with these wire cubes:

Grid Wire Storage Cubes

Yes, they are everywhere. The reason is – they’re relatively inexpensive, they pack fairly compactly, you can put them into multiple configurations based on your needs, and, well, they work! They’re pretty easy to find, too – available at Target, Walmart, Amazon…just search for Wire Storage Cubes or similar. You can use them as cubes, or create angled walls and towers. The connectors they come with are a bit bulky and sometimes annoying, so you can also use zip ties to secure grids together – this works especially well for corners and angles.

Instead of wire grids, some people build their display wall out of PVC pipe and connectors. You can move things off the table too, by hanging artwork from PVC pipes or photography backdrop stands behind you. You can attach the artwork by hanging it from small metal binder rings from the office supply store or even metal shower curtain hooks/rings. Be mindful of space and height! Many shows have rules about how tall displays can be, and you don’t want to be the rude person overflowing into your neighbor’s space.

Other fairly common options to see are postcard spinners and tiered plywood displays, but they do tend to be more expensive, not to mention the more 3-d your display materials are, the more tricky packing everything is, which again is more of a concern when flying to far away shows.

What else?

So you’ve got the framework for your display, what else do you need?

First, you’ll need some way to attach your products or prints to the display! We use binder clips for just about everything, but I’ve seen everything from frames hung on small s-hooks on grids to painters tape and command strips.

Here’s my list of essentials for all table vendors:

  • Small binder clips: you’ll use them for everything from hanging art and signs to holding your table cover, and you can get them in multiple colors and metal finishes.
  • Table covers: In addition to your tablecloth, you need one (or more) to throw over your table and it’s contents at night when the show floor is closed. Again, these can be actual tablecloths, or sheets, or curtains, or just large pieces of fabric.
  • Various tapes: Painters tape, gaff tape, duct tape, scotch tape – trust me, you’ll need one or more to hold something or fix something.
  • Scissors, zip ties, safety pins, sharpies, paper, sticky notes (get shaped ones for extra fun!)

Banners and signage

These get their own section because they are SUPER important!

Pricing signage! Have visible prices on everything! Have a big list of all your prices! Depending on the look of your table and your brand/style, these can be printed and laminated or hand drawn/written. Of course, no matter how well labeled everything is, someone will still ask “how much is this?” while pointing to a clearly marked item, but at least you did your best. This is also why it’s a good idea to pack paper, sticky notes, and sharpies – you may forget a sign, or need to change a price, or want to highlight a signed item, etc. 

Hannako Display

Hannako has laminated signage with pricing and descriptions, as well as a fun light up sign!

Banners! This is one of the easiest ways to visually represent yourself and your art! They can be vertical behind the table on a stand, or horizontal across the front of your booth or above it. There are plenty of places to get these made, but we have a lot of friends who say good things about the low cost and good quality of their banners from Bannerworld.com. Of course, you can also hand paint a banner!

Ashwicks Display

Ashwick Creations uses a hand-painted banner, old luggage for a display case, and other unique display pieces!

Ways to customize and level up, even on a budget

Once you’ve got your basic set up, it’s time to customize it and really make it your own! There are lots of small things you can add! Get small wood or wire easels to showcase books or larger art pieces. Use inexpensive corkboard squares attached to the grids or standing on easels to showcase charms, buttons, and more. Get string or yarn and hang things across your space. Battery-powered string lights or small light up signs can make a fun addition.

jellimakes artist display

Artist jellimakes uses corkboard, a chalkboard sign, and jewelry display trays.

And to prove that this doesn’t have to be expensive, here is just a partial list of the things we’ve gotten from stores like Dollar Tree and Daiso for Harrison’s table:

  • Sticky notes
  • Decorative baskets/bins
  • Small wire easel stands
  • Frames
  • Paper sorters/accordian files
  • Binder clips
  • Washi tape
  • Creative signage (whiteboards, etc)
  • Tablecloths
  • String lights
Leigh Jones Display

Leigh Jones combines grids with covers, ribbon, string lights, and more for a visually diverse table.

For a little more money, search vintage markets and thrift stores for creative ideas like vintage suitcases instead of bins! If you have the funds and tools, you can even build your own custom displays.

Dragons Lair Creations display

Dragon’s Lair Creations built a custom display (with the help of a Glowforge), but also uses inexpensive wood crates and fabric bins.

YOU

Yep, you’re part of your table! Don’t hide behind your display, be an interactive part of it! So look up. Engage with the audience. Smile. Make eye contact! And when building your display, be careful that you don’t build up and over so much that you’ve only left yourself a tiny hole to hand change through. Believe me, I’ve seen it…in fact, I have been startled by people I couldn’t see, trapped behind their display, when they greet me.

There’s no one right way to set up your Artist Alley display: get creative and see what looks good, what feels right, and what brings people to your table! Click To Tweet

Behind the Scenes

Don’t forget that you want under/behind your table to be organized too! There’s nothing worse than someone wanting to buy something from you and having to scramble for 10 minutes under your table to find the right print or to get a bag for them! Look for file boxes, accordion files, plastic document storage boxes, anything that will help keep you organized on the back side too.

Some thoughts from friends

Rebecca Hicks Little Vampires Display

Rebecca Hicks uses multiple banners, her own pipe & drape art wall, and custom engraved tiered shelving.

One key thing I’ve learned is to keep experimenting! Every show is different. Even the same show is different year to year. I’ve learned to keep evolving, even during show hours. For example, for this table set-up at Rose City, our magnets weren’t selling. They’re usually one of our best sellers! We took some time to analyze the flow of traffic around our booth, and what parts of the booth people noticed first. We moved the magnets to the other side of the table and sales took off! – Rebecca Hicks

Valentine Barker Display

Valentine Barker does well with his simplistic “buffet style” set up, and bonus, it’s easy to travel with!

One key thing I’ve learned is to have everything out and easily accessible.  When I was starting out I had the portfolio that people could flip through, but I quickly noticed that people kind of mindlessly flipped through — often skipping pages or huge chunks of the portfolio.  I refer to my style of setup as “buffet” style which, I mean, kinda is what it says on the tin. I find it’s easy for multiple people to browse and make selections without feeling too cramped. All while keeping the general feel of the table open and inviting. The only real downside to this is people who insist on putting their bags down on my table (which is just gonna happen), but I’ve never noticed any real damage from it.  The trade off is that people are more likely to buy something if they can hold it in their hands, so when people walk up they can easily pick up the print that they like and shuffle off happy.  Because of this I don’t have too much under-the-table storage to worry about.

Under the table I keep bags, snacks, and any of the prints that are on the upright display board.  I like the upright display board because I can single out and showcase a few of my prints (usually my con exclusive and anything else I think will grab attention from across the room) and because I don’t have a giant wall of prints it serves more as an exclamation point than a whole sea of images. The prints just live in a box — usually the kind of box you’d buy reams of paper in.  I can also tuck my bags/art sleeves in the same box just to help keep things tidy.

The best thing I think I’ve gotten for the table, beyond the hollow art board I use for the upright display and the frame stands I use for the back row of upright prints, are tablecloth clips. (similar to these)  They allow me to clip the tablecloth on my side of the table which makes getting to things that are under the table a breeze.  I suppose safety pins or binder clips could work equally well, but these are just so simple to install and remove and I can throw them in my bag or con kit without worry of stabbing myself in the future.

The best advice I have to share is to find a set up that’s flexible and travels well.  My whole set up, prints and all, can usually condense into a single suitcase when I need it to.  And it will remain under the weight limit for most airlines. I know a lot of people that use the grid wall and, while they are versatile and handy to have, they’re also heavy, cumbersome, and the connectors often break — which makes flying with them a nightmare. Plus staying flexible helps you adapt to new shows.  This year alone I’ve done shows with 3′ of space all the way up to 8′ and I don’t have to stress or change too much about my display no matter the size.

The second small bit of advice I have is to keep the space open and inviting.  As much as people may like your art/book/wares/whatever they’re very interested in meeting YOU. So make that a pleasant experience. – Valentine Barker

Final thoughts

This is by no means an exhaustive list of display items and ideas. You can search “Artist Alley Displays” on Pinterest and Google to get tons of articles, pictures, layout drawings, and youtube videos with ideas and suggestions and layouts. Also check out How to Be A Con Artist on Tumblr and look at the posts with the tags “displays” and/or “table setup”.

Of course, you don’t have to use ANY of these things. There’s no one right way or one correct style. Mix and match. Combine grid cubes and backdrops and risers! I’ve seen everything from wooden boxes and woven bins to risers made of cardboard with a sheet over them. The goal is to catch people’s eyes, find out what works for you and what you are selling. Obviously displaying books or clothing or jewelry will be different than art prints. It will take a few shows and some trial and error. Almost everyone I know changes at least one thing about their setup at each show, to see if something new works, or to maximize space based on their table location and the crowd flow. Get creative and see what looks good, what feels right, and what brings people to your table resulting in more money in your pocket!

If you’ve done this already: What’s your favorite way to display your wares? Have you found a great way to maximize behind-the-scenes/under-table storage? What’s the best item you ever bought or made with your table in mind?

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