We often encounter someone who is designing an event (let’s say….a gala or reception), and for them, design consists of table centerpieces and an entry arch. Or a few gobo projections on the wall. Or linens and chair covers.
While all of these things may enter the purview of the event designer, they really aren’t “design” by themselves; they are elements of design. How do these elements interact with each other, how are they composed in the space, and how will this composition impact the guest’s experience?
Good spatial composition not only allows for practical concerns like crowd flow or sightlines, it helps set the tone for the attendee’s comfort, their experiential understanding of the event’s messaging and theme, and so much more. With this said, you can’t just think “floor plan” and be thrilled that you squeezed all the tables in. You need to be able to compose in all three dimensions.
Here are a few basic pointers. In lighting, we use these guidelines as religiously as we use the concepts of color, brightness, contrast, shadow, and texture….often more so. The best events we light are the ones where ALL of the event crafts (rentals, floral, scenery, video, lighting, etc) are seamlessly blended together and composed using many or all of these strategies.
- First Impressions
Few of us can nail an event design from every viewing angle. If nothing else, budgets will frequently limit you. Try to remember that you make most of your living when the guest walks through the front door. This is where “ahh” happens. And getting that “ahh” is critical: Immediately putting your guest in the mindset to experience the event’s story is one of the most important parts of telling it.
- Framing, Leading Lines, and The Rule of Thirds
If you’ve ever taken an art class, you’re probably familiar with these concepts. Jog your memory, because they matter a lot in event design. Here’s a refresher:
“Framing” is the method in which subject matter is presented with a surrounding element that draws attention to that subject. This can be large or small, the whole picture or small elements of it, like the way guest seating might surround the dance floor, or a proscenium might surround the stage.
“Leading Lines” is a technique that uses linear objects or just linearity itself to draw the viewer’s attention to the subject or guide them through a visual story. Lots of these exist in root-level event design, things like aisles and table layouts are obvious examples.
“Rule of Thirds” is my favorite. This is the technique of dividing the viewed tableau into vertical and horizontal segments like a tic-tac-toe board, then distributing your design elements into or across the resulting spaces. This creates a soothing and easy-to-experience visual canvas….viewers spend less effort subconsciously sorting out the picture they see, because you’ve done some pre-compartmentalizing for them.
- Symmetric or Asymmetric
When choosing one of these general approaches, there is no absolute right or wrong in event design. But, you need to know which way you’re taking your event, and apply your strategy consistently. With asymmetry, there are many more ways a composition can go wrong….I suggest a modicum of all of these compositional pointers if you’re going this route.
- Balance the Elements
While it should seem like an obvious concept, it’s surprising how many people miss this one. Balance, don’t clump. And if you do, make lots of clumps and spread them around fairly evenly. Fill spaces, but leave margins so the space doesn’t feel bloated. Move away from the walls a bit, because walls are part of the composition too.
- Massing and Weight
Where possible, keep the heavy colors, materials, and big scenic elements toward the bottom of the picture, with elements becoming lighter and smaller as you reach upward. This keeps the scene from feeling oppressive and over-heavy. We are challenged in lighting by requests for busy pattern projections on the ceiling….it can really make it feel like the roof is caving in if we don’t compose carefully. We lean towards lighter, theme-specific treatments overhead if at all possible, but when we can’t, we really have to amp up the eye-level lighting to keep the massing lower.
- Respect the Space
If you must bury your ornate ballroom in walls of drape, fine. I’ll assume the more plain venues were already booked, and your client is not a classicist. But if not, and the space’s architecture isn’t going to squabble with your theme and colors, then make your design work with the architecture, not against it. Don’t truncate a 25’ tall column with a 12’ tall drape panel. The same goes for lighting. Why not make your projections fit the architecture? Every space has a compositional rhythm of its own, and it will behoove your event to let this rhythm call at least some of the shots.
- Blending Opposites
For most, this is a difficult trick. But, if handled deftly, you can make a centerpiece out of old phones, stuffed ponies, and miniature Corinthian columns.
Everyone has a different approach to blending disparate design concepts into a palatable and effective presentation. For me, it’s about remembering that you are telling a visual story….and you are telling it to people who may be drinking, or at the very least are concerned about spilling soup onto their evening wear. In other words, you may not have their undivided attention. Thus, bigger counts. If you’re going to present it, own it. Over and over and over. Don’t be afraid to repeat a point in the story.
- Distract to Conceal
Love the venue but hate the wallpaper? This is where the old “hey, look over here” magician’s trick comes in handy. For lighting folks, when asked “I hate this carpet, can you do something to it?” we say “Yes. Let’s light something you like instead.” Lead the viewer’s attention where you want it.
- Color Choice and Composition
Really, any discussion of event coloring is it’s own article, but I’ll just make one quick point about color as it relates to composition: A monochromatic color scheme may make your theme easier to execute, but it will completely eliminate the reason you chose the color in the first place by bombarding your guests with so much of it that their brains stop processing it as that color. So, pick a secondary, complimentary accent tone (no, grey and black are not colors). Use the above rules to work the secondary color into the design, and you’ll be fine!