On a practical level, a corporate exhibit design warms the hearts of facility managers because they are a lot less expensive than fine art and architecturally they can fill any space. But what they capture more than anything else is the voice and culture of a company.
When we produced an anniversary exhibit for Subaru in 2003, we pulled out important objects from the company’s history and asked employees to comment on them. One particularly illuminating find was an ancient teletype machine, which turned out to hold a great deal of meaning to many people in the company, especially early employees.
Because Subaru of America was the upstart marketing organization for Fuji Heavy Industries, half a world away in Japan, production orders were delivered via teletype machines, often in the middle of the night because of time zone differences.
When we showed early employees one of those teletype machines, they immediately started spinning great yarns — including how everyone rushed over to the teletype machines first thing in the morning.
If there was a lot of paper on the floor, they knew the day was going to be rough. If there wasn’t a lot of paper on the floor, they knew things were going to be relatively placid. In their minds, that little machine had real power.
And yet it was the creative and impassioned ways these men and women told these stories that spoke volumes about the culture of Subaru. So we made the decision not to write our own captions but to let company employees tell their own stories in their own words.
Their comments set the tone for the entire exhibit, giving it the kind of authenticity we wouldn’t have captured if we had written the exhibit copy ourselves. When early drafts of that copy were circulated around the company, contemporary leaders were amazed at what they were hearing. “Wow,” they’d say. “We didn’t know any of this.”
Our early efforts were so successful that we started digging around for things like design drawings of concept cars that were never built. Soon, engineers, designers and even office staff members were talking about these designs. They told us what they liked about them, what they were missing, and why they never came to fruition. These were deep insights, not just from management but from employees across the company.
The best part is that the commentary kept coming in, even after the exhibit design was complete. When people visited the exhibit and saw that we were interested in capturing insights from across the hierarchy, people started emailing us and company leaders to fill in gaps and add greater detail.
It was proof that an exhibit design can deliver value from within, while generating an equal amount of interest from the outside world as well. And it was all a product of being authentic to the company’s own story and employee perspective.