The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of exhibition design procurement

Mark Magidson

Mark Magidson, creative director of Exhibition Plus, likens the UK exhibition design procurement process to a Spaghetti Western. Here, he outlines the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly…

The Good

There aren’t a lot of these critters around at the moment. One recent design brief (from a new visitor centre in the South West) stands out in this category and contained these rarely seen words: ‘To encourage and mentor good interpretation practice in line with Tilden’s interpretation principles’  and: ‘Despite setting out all the above features of the exhibition, we do not wish to appear prescriptive in its approach to the new galleries. We recognise that it is the design team’s job is to design the exhibition.’

All within a brief of nine pages. This is what a brief should be… brief.

The Bad

More of these varmints than you can shake a stick at, with a clear winner among recent projects coming from a castle up North. It started with a showdown PQQ  (Pretender Questionnaire) – ten pages long. The lucky many who got through to the tender stage were issued with a ‘brief’ and background material that extended to an unbelievable 30 separate documents.

Ten (yes ten) lucky design companies were then selected to go head-to-head out for the project prize worth just over £100k. Lots of (free) creative work was required (each with its own question – for the box tickers). Answers had to be in hard copy triplicate with the final three-to-four still left standing invited to shoot it out at interview.

Sadly the very contradictory ‘brief’ had escribed in minute detail almost every aspect of what the new visitor experience should be, with the competing designers expected to mind read and mimic this in graphic form.

The Ugly

These darn no-good hombres are hard to spot, but are non-jobs, disguised as tenders.

They are usually forced on to the client, by the procurement process (usually, in this neck of the woods, a European dressed in a black suit). The plot runs as such. A design team, after a more simple tender process is forced by ‘the system’ to re-tender for the same job. To the unwary designer this is a huge waste of time and money.

How can you spot this ambush? Hard! Sometimes an honest question such as, ‘Are you happy with your existing proposal?’ leads to interesting and sometime revealing results. Often the “brief”, is lavished with easily recognisable ‘brands’ of other design companies’ hard work. If you spot this stakeout, turn round and ride like the wind!

And what does this situation say about this industry today? Well, next time I need another professional (perhaps an accountant or solicitor?), I may try some of these quick-draw solutions on them.

It could be along the lines of getting maybe ten companies to look at my problem, then I’ll ask for a selection of solutions (a legal opinion or set of books) and price – and then just maybe select a winner. Or I may be told to take my two-timing, no good son of a gun, out of town… and scram.

Mark Magidson is creative director at Exhibition Plus. A version of this piece first appeared on the Exhibition Plus website and follows a conversation on the Museum Design Linkedin group.

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  • Swiftly November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    There’s a simple solution to this epidemic! Graphic designers and agencies should NOT work for free! should NOT pitch for free and should NOT consult for free! If we all stood our ground and did things right the people commissioning would have no choice but to assign a design company based on portfolio and reputation! I go hungry and struggle to feed my family but I would rather have it that way than bow down to those bastards!

  • Ric Vieira November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    @Swiftly, “So be it; truly”

  • Mark Magidson November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    For a related posting- check out

  • Mark Magidson November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    We are calling for entries!
    The (Rubbish!) Procurement Process of the Year 2014.

  • Giovanni Guarino November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    It was ever thus, many years ago during the deregulation of Independent TV designers were deluged with ‘pitch’ requests. We soon got wise, most calls would be terminated soon after being quoted the comprehensive price list for pitching.

  • Mark Magidson November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Recently within the exhibition interpretation design procurement process has arisen a new phenomena, that being the inclusion of a suggested design fee within the briefing documentation. Before this the tried and tested method of tendering was to obtain the exhibition budget from the client brief and then calculate proposed fees as a percentage of this – all very reasonable with the competition arising on how large a percentage the designer was willing to tender set against a clear set of outputs.

    So why include a suggested fee?

    This question was highlighted to me by two tenders we participated in, one which suggested a design fee well below the industry range (we quoted our usual percentage) and more unusually one set eye wateringly high. With the latter, I double checked with the client in writing and face to face, if they were sure that this high figure was indeed correct, and was assured that this was the case. Besides this the entire procurement process seemed to be exemplary with a well defined brief and well organised site visit where all participating teams were granted unlimited time and access to an enthusiastic client team plus the offers of cups of tea (unusual!). We were amongst at least six other design teams that did not win the tender and it was whilst getting feedback on our performance that something odd happened. I was told that the winning designer had the lowest fee and that the suggested fee range was based on the neighbouring project which happened to be worked on by the very same winning designer. Now I am no conspiracy theorist but since this event have gone back with a magnifying glass to see if there was indeed a “second JFK gunman” on the grassy knoll.

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