SPACING OUT: Proxemics and the Art of Being Close Enough

You don’t have to be an astronomer to be an expert on space.


Proxemics, a term coined by anthropologist Edward T. Hall, is “the study of human use of space and the effects that population density has on behaviour, communication, and social interaction” (thanks, Wikipedia), and it’s a practice that professionals in all industries should work to understand and utilize to their advantage.


As a follow-up to Echelon’s 12 For 12 audio podcast episode on the subject, we’re offering tips on how to work with space in your environments, experiences and interactions and harness the power of proxemics in your next exhibit.


Strap in, space cadets. Here we go!


Keep Your Space Easy and Open


When building your exhibit, you want to create a space that’s open and inviting—not cramped and claustrophobic.


“When people come up to an exhibit, they take it in visually,” explains Professor Natalie Warren of the Illinois Institute of Art, who focuses on social psychology. “They’re looking at the space and whether there’s some open area or whether they’re going to be constrained… if they could be cornered by a sales rep could be a concern.”


Though conference attendees are sure to be curious, they’re also bound to be wary, having likely been stuck listening to one too many long-winded sales pitches. So while making it more difficult for a prospect to get away might seem like a clever idea (“I’ve got you now! Let’s talk software solutions…”), it’s far more effective to create and maintain a more open, free-flowing space in which people don’t feel trapped. Then they’ll actually be listening what you have to say—rather than focusing on plotting their imminent escape.


Administer Crowd Control


A crowd storming your exhibit obviously sounds like a good problem to have — and it’s definitely preferable to being the ignored booth with the dusty prize wheel and untouched pile of branded stress balls. However, popularity can be a problem when you don’t have the necessary space, people and resources available.


An uncomfortably crowded booth can severely lessen the quality of both experiences and conversations, and if people feel crowded and uncomfortable, there’s a good chance they’ll leave—and probably never come back. To avoid this issue, we suggest implementing some crowd management tactics to keep things more pleasant and efficient for everyone involved.


Now, this doesn’t mean breaking out the velvet rope and hiring a bouncer (though that would, admittedly, be pretty cool). Instead consider methods that facilitate quality interactions and experiences for each individual. If people are eagerly waiting to try out a game or installation, for example, take their phone number so they can roam free, and then page them when their turn is approaching. If it’s knowledge you’re trying to impart, be sure to have hard copies on hand with your key points and contact info so that if it’s crowded and someone doesn’t end up returning to the booth, they’re at least leaving with information and the opportunity to follow up after the event.


Remember: It’s not just about quantity of interactions; it’s about quality. So get organized and get creative to ensure that people have the time and space to enjoy your experience—without being so tightly packed together that all their lanyards get tangled.


Ask, WWMKD? (What Would Marie Kondo do?)


Okay, the whole Konmari craze isn’t exactly geared towards the exhibit space, but that doesn’t mean your booth shouldn’t, as the lingo goes, spark joy.


If you’ve been setting up and breaking down basically the same booth at countless conferences, have you thought about what parts of the set-up are really working? What’s useful and what’s a waste? Have you considered which elements are inducing stress and which could, and should, be replaced—or even eliminated entirely?


When designing your exhibit, it’s important you’re doing with your space, and, just as importantly, what you’re not doing. What we’re referring to is the design concept known as white space, or negative space—the portions that are left unmarked and untouched.


“People get frustrated when information bombards them,” writes Mads Soegaard in a piece on the power of white space for the Interaction Design Foundation. “We’re humans, not machines. White space calms us, letting us ‘breathe.’”


Before your next event, take the opportunity to properly examine your current setup and consider what in your space is adding to the experience and what is simply serving as visual or physical clutter. You don’t have to go full minimalist, of course, but be selective and intentional with your content (and the lack thereof) to create a space that makes people feel more comfortable and less overwhelmed.


Don’t be a “Close-Talker”


This tip has less to do with booth design and more to do with behavior—specifically the way we converse and interact with the people we’re trying to persuade.


While the idea of personal space differs around the world, we can all agree on its importance and relate to the feeling of extreme discomfort we feel when ours is violated (a concept illustrated hilariously by Seinfeld’s “Close-Talker”).


While this is clearly important in our daily social and professional interactions, neither your coworker nor your Trader Joe’s cashier wants you so close that they know what you had for lunch. This is especially critical in a scenario such as a conference, where you’re trying to get make a good impression and get your message across effectively.


According to Albert Mehrabian, a pioneer researcher of body language, the total impact of a message is as follows: 7% verbal (words), 38% vocal (tone, inflection, etc.) and 55% nonverbal.

This means that it’s not just about the content of your pitch, but the way you deliver it.


“Is this person getting too close to me to feel comfortable? Are they too far away from me so they don’t feel trustworthy? All those sorts of things factor in in terms of whether I receive or completely reject your message,” says Reggie Townsend, a senior manager at Knowledge-Advantage and certified Project Management Professional.


So when thinking about space, consider the personal, and keep your distance accordingly. After all, you want the audience to remember your brilliant sales pitch… not the secondhand smell of the egg salad sandwich you just ate.




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