Think about what and who your exhibition is for. What is the problem your design is looking to solve? This should be why you’ve chosen cardboard. You need something that’s easy to transport, disassemble and reassemble, is sustainable, recyclable and offers a contrasting aesthetic to what’s already out there.
Continue this line of thought when designing your exhibition. How can your arrangement and design of the cardboard, what’s illustrated on the cardboard match your core idea or problem this pop up stand is solving. If your business is a tech startup can you make a cardboard laptop, illustrate a browser on one of the boxes, have movable cardboard cursors? The more specific the better.
Our pop up stand was about getting a diverse audience from all backgrounds to be involved and become stakeholders in science. The faces, bodies and legs are all switchable on each face of the box just like a children’s book I used to have. The central body is a scientist, so the design promotes the idea that a range of heads (people) could be scientists.
Think about the journey people are going to come on to get to the boxes. Where’s the entrance? How do people know where your pop up is? What’s the circulation like? Lighting, views, ceiling heights, surrounding colours. These can all inform your response. You can leave cardboard signs and way markers, create colour schemes that complement or stand out from what’s already there.
For our design we had multiple pop up stands and decided to stagger them wrapping round the central staircase in the atrium encouraging people to walk around the stands.
Printing or Painting?
Ok so you’ve got your big concept, thought about the arrangement, now you need to refine. How many boxes do you need? What size are they? What kind, single, double or triple wall?
For me, the more boxes the better, the effect of scale and repetition are increased when you have more boxes to play with. We decided to use double wall boxes as they were the right balance of price and durability.
The biggest factor that will help with this decision is scale. If you're having lots of boxes each with potentially 4,5 or 6 illustrations on then 20 boxes could mean 120 sides to paint by hand. Printing will potentially result in a more faded image but is a must at this scale. If part of your design and making process is participatory then maybe you can paint at scale.
Our design was 40 boxes and 8 desks all painted by hand. I’m hindsight this took far too long and we should have printed them. However it was useful to learn about the process.
The actual painting of the boxes.
To simplify the process I only used two acrylic colours that could be used straight out of the tube, red and blue. No mixing! Remember when producing a lot you have repeat elements of your process hundreds of times so it’s important to keep it as simple as possible. I used stencils for sketching the designs onto the cardboard, I then masked the straights with low tac masking tape and masked the curves with frisket cut with a scalpel. For line work I just used coloured Posca Markers. Cardboard absorbs a lot of paint so using markers for line work was more efficient.
The boxes were assembled using Velcro instead of tape so the pop up stand could be reused. Weights (big books) were used to keep the boxes in place.
On the day we played around with arrangements, adding randomness and variety. Think about your key views, It might not need to look good from behind. Be prepared to adapt and change on the day. It would be ideal if you could put up the stand a few days early and adapt the design where needed.
Voila you have made your first cardboard exhibition. There always will be aspects you wished you did better or want to do better next time but that’s all part of the learning process! I wished we had more boxes and signage to where our pop-up was to make the scale more impressive and attract more people.
If you have any questions or interested in working with me on your proposal drop me an email at
In another post I’ll talk more about the actual sustainability of our project. Physically painting the boxes might have caused a lot more waste vs printing on the boxes.