Business Display Case

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One of the local incubators in town has a series of three display cabinets in their lobby. They rotate new local businesses in every three months or so. We were asked if we'd like to give it a shot and we jumped at the opportunity. It was something different and sounded fun to us. It got us out of our desks and took our focus off of business software and put it on a physical object and forced us to hone in our messaging and marketing in new ways.

Putting together a business display for a display cabinet can be as involved as you want it to be. We took it seriously, probably overdid it, and didn't really see a return for the time investment. However, it was fun and we learned a lot. We'll cover the steps we took, and hopefully it'll be helpful to anyone looking to do a display of their own.

Step 1: Measure the Space

You've probably heard the saying "measure twice, cut once"... we measured four times and hoped to cut twice. We actually got it right the first time, so it worked out well.

We measured width, depth, and height. Not all spaces are the same – some displays only have a depth/width limitation. Ours was in a glass cabinet with shelves that we could adjust, which sorta proved to be a problem as it gave us more options that we wanted with configuration. We opted to leave the shelf where it was and take advantage of that constraint so we wouldn't spend a bunch of time trying to figure out where to position it.

Step 2: Brainstorm and Concept

We spent a lot of time on concepts. We had a few different vague ideas, but the one that we kept coming back to was something with pegboard and tools. Our software is geared towards the professional services industry (landscapers, cleaners, window washers, handymen, etc.), so we wanted to grab their attention, and also make it clear who we were targeting to anyone else that might know or be related to someone that was a service professional.

Eventually we landed on a theme that we thought would feel like a workshop, garage, or tool van. We liked the idea, but hadn't really come up with a messaging concept yet.

One of us had the idea of painting outlines around the tools to bring our yellow brand color into the display and then it hit us. We'd outline all of the tools, and then show one of the tools missing: workweek.com. We were pretty proud of that and decided to roll with it.

Step 3: Prototype

We do a lot of prototyping in the software development world, so we thought we'd do the same with our display. Our design team did a great job of mocking up some different concepts for us based on our initial ideas.

Graphic design isn't the only way to prototype – it could have just as easily been done with cardboard, sharpies, duct tape, construction paper, and/or anything else.

You could also skip this step, but it helped us bring life to what we had in our heads and stir up some more discussion on other ideas.

Step 4: Refine the Concept

Once we'd had a visual aid to help us discuss the concept further, we kept refining the ideas. We landed on the fact that we wanted to display the industries we specialize in, call out some of the features that make us unique, and give people something they could take with them if they were interested.

Step 5: Begin the Build

The primary feature was the pegboard, and I didn't have that on hand, so we made a trip to Lowes, and picked up a 4'x8' sheet of it.

We had to cut the sheet down to size. I put this off for a while, mostly because I wasn't confident in Step 1: Measure, so make sure you're confident in your measurements. Eventually, I started making some cuts. I got the pegboard cut first, which gave us some idea of the visual space we'd need to fill up with the tools. I laid some of my tools out to get a better sense of the space.

I had some plywood laying around from pervious projects, so I cut some small pieces to serve as a placeholder for our industry listing boards.

Once we had the pegboard and other boards cut, we were sorta at a stopping point until we made some final decisions about staging and layout.

Step 6: Layout

Now that we had a better idea of the visual space and sizes of things, we needed to decide on which specific tools would be hanging, which service industries would be listed, and some of the final messaging and text sizing.

We began by making a shopping trip to Home Depot, Lowes, and Hobby Lobby. We walked through Home Depot and Lowes and looked for tools that would be ideal for the display. We wanted iconic tools for each job: hammer, pipe wrench, squeegee, paintbrush, wrenches, etc. We did use some of our own tools, but we also picked up a few specifically for the display. We also considered the shelf and the bottom of the display and looked for items that might look good sitting on the shelf: finishing nails, tape measure, cleaning gloves, etc.

Once we'd exhausted our small tool budget, we stopped in at Hobby Lobby for a few quick items. We needed paint (which we attempted to match to our brand colors), and some stands for our board signs.

Step 7: Paint

We had originally planned on cutting vinyl negatives of the lettering to make stencils for much of our lettering, but one of our designers has some experience doing hand lettering and she wanted to give it a try. I handed over the boards I'd cut and she got started on the industries.

It didn't take long before we realized we only wanted to hand letter the display. It felt real, and timeless in a way that we didn't think we'd get with a stenciled, hand-lettered font.

Something interesting happened when we decided to do hand lettering all the way... we got more creative. We decided on the "Missing Something" arrow. Our designer drew something out, I taped it to an old piece of pine board that I had, and cut it out using the jig saw. She went to work with the paint, and what we ended up with felt great. It can be a little hard to read, but it was different, fun, and added a third dimension to the pegboard.

Step 8: Continue the Build

While the painting was being finished, I had a few things to do. I needed to figure out the headline sign, and the backing board that was going in the bottom half of the display case.

I started with the backing board because I wasn't sure exactly how it was going to end up. I knew we wanted a metal look, and that we'd be taping some additional flyers/collateral to it. I had some aluminum flashing from another project, and I assumed I could tack it to a piece of plywood and distress/scuff it to give it an aged look.

I started by cutting the aluminum and hand forming it over the plywood. It was difficult to shape until I got some tacks in and could walk the edges with the hammer. It ended up working well, but it did take a while to get the corners looking good and shaped in a way that they wouldn't slice into someone's skin if the sign were mishandled.

Once the aluminum was formed, I just started roughing it up with a hammer, some punches, various grits of sandpaper, a wire brush on a drill, and a few other trade secrets I've developed. It looked good; I was happy. I turned my attention to the headline board. I used another piece of pine for this... it was 1"x6" scrap from the baseboard in my house. Initially we were going to leave it natural and paint directly on it, but we did a test, and of course, you couldn't see the yellow paint. We tried blue paint, and then black... neither felt great, and it felt like there was too much natural coloring in the display. I was looking around the garage trying to find answers, and then I noticed my propane torch. I knew that burning certain types of wood could weather seal them and that I liked the look of it, but wasn't sure how it would look in this context. I figured it was worth a try, so I fired up the torch and just as I noticed the first chars, the smell of burnt pine hit my nose, and I knew we had the solution to our problem.

Step 9: Final Staging

Now that we had all of the pieces, we loaded everything up and took it to the lobby for setting up. The measuring paid off: It all fit, just barely. We set everything up, played with the positioning some, moved things around to account for lighting, etc.

We closed the display, locked it up, and the final step was to add business cards to the business card holder.

Step 10: Final Thoughts

We were all very happy with the end product. A display wasn't something that we'd ever considered doing, and initially we weren't even excited about the opportunity. I think in the end, we were glad we did it, because it exercised our minds in ways that we don't get while doing our day-to-day gigs working on software at WorkWeek. I don't think we expected moving out of the 2d digital design world to be as difficult as it was, but it was great experience. It also taught us some valuable lessons that will likely apply to things like booth and design for trade shows, etc.

If we had to bullet point out any advice or pro-tips, they'd probably look like this:

  • Measure, measure, measure
  • Brainstorm, but start prototyping as soon as you can.
  • Prototyping can generate ideas in ways that brainstorming alone just can't
  • Use what you have (we probably had less than $40 invested in our display)
  • Refine your concept

We hope some of this was helpful to you! Good luck with your own display!

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    workweekDIY Hacks and How Tos

    Reply 4 months ago

    Interesting, hadn't thought about that. We found it very challenging to think the layout and messaging through without physically laying things out, and making stuff. I'd imagine with a museum display, you'd focus less on messaging, and more on layout and featuring certain items.