A career in exhibition design

,  18 May 2011

Justin Southgate has forged a reputation in the field of exhibition design. His company, Southgate Design is known for exciting, innovative concepts.

Justin worked on the revamp of The Ideal Home Show at Earls Court.
Justin worked on the revamp of The Ideal Home Show at Earls Court.

Southgate Design’s exhibition credits include, Grand Designs Live, Pulse, Emap’s Spring and Autumn Fairs, and the womenswear show, Pure. Justin's ethos is mixing ‘innovation and practicality’ and he strives to be 'a master of all trades, bringing 'originality, intelligence and elegance' to enhance the brands of his clients.

A career in the field of exhibition design is complex and challenging, yet hugely rewarding.

Getting into exhibition design

Justin studied Interior Design at Kingston University, and worked for a number of companies, eventually becoming creative director for an interiors firm.

Many ‘one-off’ projects have turned into ongoing associations stretching over years.

Setting up his own company was not part of a grand plan. It developed from a sideline venture called ‘Kitch & Chic’ - an eye-catching stand to showcase their imported products at the ‘Top Drawer’ interiors fair.

This immediately impressed a visitor from the huge global company, Clarion Events, and the connection led to a commission.

The relationship has developed and strengthened over the years. Justin set up Southgate Design in 2002. Clarion Events remain a key client of the company, along with Emap Ltd, Media 10, the BBC and Earls Court and Olympia.

Skills needed for exhibition design

CAD design skills

“Initial ideas may be still drawn by hand, but 99 percent of the development and creation of the exhibition design is then done through CAD (computer-aided design) with specific software programmes used in the industry. Good skill levels here are an absolute must.”

Degree level interior design courses cover this, and work experience will undoubtedly enhance the application of these skills and help with your ‘foot in the door’.

Problem solving and practical knowledge

These are essential qualities. Problem solving calls for creative thinking, together with a real practical understanding of how various material components will actually work together.

Communication and people skills

“You need an ability to get on with everyone from a Managing Director to the guy laying the carpet.”

‘Hands on’ attitude and a keen eye for detail

“When a project is underway, I am always on site. I have a very personal, ‘hands on’ attitude.

"The high quality of what we do is incredibly important to me. So if at the eleventh hour there is a need for a spot of painting in a specific colour – I’m very likely to just get on with it and do it myself!”

Highlights of being an exhibition designer

Justin loves the huge variety in his day to day work, and the thrill of the new. "Every job is different and challenging, there is literally ‘never a dull moment’.

"I love the excitement of the ‘mayfly’ aspect of our industry. Like the mayfly, we spend the majority of our time ‘underground’, in developing and planning, waiting for the moment when we emerge for a couple of dazzling days, before disappearing again.

"You get the chance to see your work the size of football pitches. It’s fun! I also love the fact that you get to work with lots of different people, but from an essentially small sector, so you can form great friendships.”

"We spend the majority of our time developing and planning, then emerge for a couple of dazzling days, before disappearing again."

One of Justin's most fulfilling recent projects has been the much lauded revamp of The Ideal Home Show at Earls Court. This show was a particular favourite of his late grandmother - 'her big day out'.

He has relished the opportunity of re-vitalising this iconic British event, which saw its heyday as a cutting-edge consumer show in the 1950s.

Drawbacks to running a creative business

The stress factor can be enormous, “I’m aware of the massive responsibility I have, with huge teams of people to manage, both directly and indirectly.

"Also, inevitably, things will go wrong. So even with the best laid plans, deliveries sometimes don’t arrive, trucks break down. We are usually working to incredibly tight deadlines - so last minute contingency plans are quite often called for.”

Building a career in exhibition design

Create a point of difference

Southgate Design has created a distinctive ‘handwriting’ and is known for pushing the boundaries of what is expected in exhibition design, often creating a ‘wow factor’.

Clients come to him and are prepared to invest in the look and feel of a show, recognising how much his clever concepts can ultimately enhance their own brand.

Always fulfil the client’s brief exactly

In Justin’s book, this is essentially what good design is all about. The delivery of great products to an agreed budget, he strongly believes is the main key to success.

Problem solving calls for creative thinking, with a practical understanding of how material components actually work together.

He has three simple questions when analysing initial ideas and concepts:

  1. Can it be built?
  2. Can it be built to the budget?
  3. Will it work?

When these questions can be answered with a resounding 'yes', then he can proceed.

Create a strong team that works in harmony

Justin has a tight, trusted team at Southgate Design, with just one other full-time person and some freelance input.

When on-site, making the exhibition plans a reality, creating a big team who all pull together is essential.

Forge relationships and build client trust

Justin has built up trust and good relationships with some significant businesses, developed over a number of years.

Many initial ‘one-off’ projects have turned into on-going associations, now stretching over a number of years.

Future challenges and opportunities

Technical innovation is one of the areas that Justin finds most exciting about the future.

For example, the large-scale printing of huge banners and signs in an amazing array of colours is now speedy and affordable. Walls, floors and ceilings can now be transformed with relative ease, opening up fascinating possibilities for exhibition designers.


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