Consider this: Artist Alley table setup variables

I’ve been attending artist alleys/events since 2005, and through these experiences (as well as being involved in running the AAtoast! artist community) I’ve seen and tried a lot of different table setups. Like probably every artist who does this, I have many stories. Most are super hilarious after the fact, but immensely stressful and frustrating during.

Fortunately, there are so many great resources online, and lots of information shared about presentation and what kinds of displays people use (e.g., overhangs, backdrops, etc.). I do find, though, that most of these posts tend to assume you already want to create a certain kind of display.

Variables can show the way~

Before you set your heart on a particular path, I think it’s good to break down key considerations for setup. That is, determine the specific variables involved that have an impact on choice of setup/display and effectiveness. A reference list like that can help be a bit of a “road map” and guide you to the most appropriate solution for you, based on your particular circumstances.

Some of the most obvious considerations are:

  1. Product type. What are you displaying/selling? For example, prints and books versus plushies and jewelry.
  2. Display quantity. How much can you fit onto your display? For example, only using the table surface area versus dimensional displays, like backdrops or shelves, that extend your useable surface area.
  3. Impact. How visible is your setup? How attractive / appealing does it make your work?

The product is definitely the star of the table, so most people already start off thinking about these things. It’s why you see artists selling prints often using overhang displays to show off lots of giant posters, or artists who have dimensional crafts employing shelving, racks, and props to tell a story.

I wanted to illustrate a few other variables, particularly event-driven variables (that is, dictated by the circumstances of the event), that may not be discussed as often.

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I found this doodle while going through files on my tablet. It’s a bit messy – I think my original intention was to redraw it later, but looking at it now, I really like the expressions on the little people. Plus I’m lazy, so here it is :D

This doodle covers some of the common event variables that I’ve encountered. It’s split up into things you will probably know going into the event, and things that you may not know till you are actually physically there at the venue.

Event variables: what you will probably know

Length and width (or depth) of your table. As part of applying/purchasing your vendor space, most events will tell you how big your table is (e.g. 2′, 4′, 6′, 8′ etc.) The problem is, usually you’ll only have one dimension – the dimension that will be facing your audience (labelled as “width” in my doodle, but some people may call it length). 90% of the time the table will probably be about 2′ deep, but that’s not guaranteed. All this tells you is the approximate amount of real estate you’ll have in terms of table surface area.

Event variables: what you may not know till you get there (hint: probably everything else)

Table thickness. This is important if you have something that must clamp to your table. I’ve been to events where the tables were unexpectedly extremely thick. I watched some artists with small clamps struggle and either end up with dangerously wobbly displays or give up and not use an overhang.

Height of table. For the most part, this is mainly important in that it affects the next item …

Audience viewing angle. This describes the eye level and angle at which people will see your table as they pass by. It’ll vary depending on the height of the person, but what it means is that depending on the height of your display, people may not easily see signage or products. Say you have a vertical sign holder like this immensely popular IKEA photo frame:

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If the height of an item puts it outside of the viewing angle, what will happen is your audience will see the top of the sign instead of the front. Not helpful in catching anyone’s eye, or making them inclined to read your information! (Then again, based on experience, a lot of people don’t read signs … but still!) You may as well just have put the sign flat on the table since it’d be easier for them to read it there. Thus, signage with adjustable viewing angles (e.g. a slanted frame or a tent card) may be more useful.

Space behind your table. In 2008 and 2009 I did FanExpo. To call it crowded would be a gross understatement. Similarly, I’ve done Canzine since 2010. Depending on the room artists were placed in, you could be packed super tight with other vendors, mere inches separating the backs of your chairs. There was barely any room to maneuver! People who brought displays that had to be set up behind their table, or many boxes of things that didn’t fit under the table, really made things difficult for everyone, including themselves.

Some events are better than others at managing space and taking accessibility into consideration for their vendors (Anime North, in my memory, has pretty much always given a generous amount of space behind the table for artists), but it varies.

Light source(s). Last year I did Zine Dream. The room I was in had no particular interior lighting. That was okay since it was during the day, but my back was to a wall with a window, and one of the biggest things on my table was a board display. This meant that big shadows fell across everything and you couldn’t see my products as easily.

It seems the obvious solution would be bring your own lighting, like a small clip-on lamp. Depending on the venue, however, access to electric outlets can be iffy, and depending on the contracts in place at the event, you might have to pay for it. Most large convention halls will have overhead lighting.

Traffic flow. People are here! Which direction are they coming from as they pass by your table? It’d be nice to optimize your display so that something striking is facing them. This is usually a judgement call I’m making while I’m setting up, and something you’ll likely be adjusting for day to day and tweaking throughout the event. It’s a long running joke I have with my artist friends that by the time we perfect our displays, it’s the last day.

Oh, and by the way …

There are three important things this doodle doesn’t show that are also important to think about:

  1. Ease / complexity of setup. How easy/quick is it for you set it up and take it down? How high is it? How many components do you have? How many people do you need? How much time do you need?
  2. Portability of setup. How easy is it for you to transport your setup from place to place (e.g., home to hotel / hotel to event / home to event)? How heavy is it? How big? How bulky? Are you going to run into problems depending on your mode of transportation (e.g. size or weight restrictions)?
  3. Security and stability of setup. How much can your setup take before it topples? How secure are all the components that need to connect or support each other? What if someone bumps into your table? What if there’s a wind/draft (from being outdoors or from a door being opened/closed or even just from lots of people walking around)?

Obviously, testing your setup in advance is always a great idea – be kind to your future self and don’t leave yourself hanging at the event, when you have very limited ability to back out of a particular scheme, or to source alternatives. There are lots of ideas that sound great on paper, but upon execution you might realize there are aspects of engineering and physics that were left out in your tests.

But even then, setting up in practice and doing it for real in the conditions of the actual event venue can be quite different from testing on the floor or in your room. The draft of people walking by, for example, is a variable I never even really thought of until one year my super lightweight board displays went flying everywhere!

Ultimately, as they say, you don’t know until you try. The more you try, the more experience you’ll get as to what works for you and the particular events you go to. And the more great con stories you’ll build up in your repertoire :D Hopefully this doodle/list gives other artists a good starting point for planning and creating your artist alley table, and helps to reduce the number of hilarious-for-the-wrong-reason stories!