Design as a commodity in the POP Industry

I was doing some thinking last night about what direction I want to take as a designer in the POP/Retail industry and part of that thinking included the fact that companies treat design as a commodity in order to maximise manufacturing.

Is there room within the industry for POP design agencies in the same vein as an ad agency or branding agency who charge for their design work at an hourly rate ?
Are brand names and retailers so ingrained with the notion that ‘design is free, why should I pay for it’ that it would be like trying to turn the tide by approaching companies and ask for a design fee.

As a freelancer the majority of my clients pay for me out of their own pockets in the hope they can make it up with a manufacturing roll out.

I’d love to hear of anyone else’s experiences with this issue… it’s something that’s troubled me for a while.

The closest I can see anything ever coming to be an agency strictly for POP design is exactly what you are currently doing… freelance design. Even if it is for a manufacturer and not the end client, it’s still “guaranteed” pay for your design talents.

Rightly or wrongly though, I can’t envision the POP industry as ever being on the same level of prestige and perhaps importance as retail design or product design. So much of what we do as POP designers is simply an offshoot of another companies marketing team or ad agency – we are just not quite as high up on the food chain and that is fact of life in this industry. The good news though is that it does tend to pay pretty well and projects move through fairly quickly (which is awesome if like me, you get bored easily).

To your point of “design is free”, it too is an ugly reality of the industry. There are too many manufacturers and brokers out there who, in order to get jobs on the books, will incur the cost of paying a designer to come up with some images to entice the client to buy from them – or at least be able to measure up to what the other POP companies are doing. There are so many POP companies out there and most of them are doing similar things, going after the same clients, using the same materials etc., that the entire racket is itself something of a commodity.

If you want glory and prestige, POP is the wrong place to find it – however some people in the design community are strange enough to have found a certain contentment and enjoyment out of this odd little segment of the design industry… myself among them.

I love the industry, I really do… and yes, like you I have a very short attention span so the quick turnover of work is great for me.

I’ve read numerous articles over the years telling everyone how important that moment is when a consumer engages a brand in store and then all these companies do is drag out a generic wire rack and slap some graphics on the side as an after thought. If it’s so important and sooooooo many decisions are made at store level why is it treated like this ?

Maybe the ad guys really do talk a better game than us!
I need to get my Don Draper hat on and try to convince these companies to pay me (us!) to design their displays.

This is always frustrated me and is one of the reasons why I am pushing for an IDSA Section for this field as well and why I pushed for this special interest area here on Core77. This great area of ID does not get the respect that it deserves. It is often the after thought of every project and normally there is not enough money to do anything great. But there are some great POP designers and POP firms out there.

I think the key is for people like you Loafer and others to keep pushing the value of POP. This is the first touch point of a product and when we approach it that way we get greater results. It is also not falling into the “I just need a wire rack.” or “I just need this in a powerwing” trap. Yes there are times when that is appropriate, but like any other part of ID you have to push outside the norm to show what can really be done. Now I know that sometime this is not practical, but doing as much as you can shows creativity and relevance. I know if a POP designer came to me with the norm, as well as some creative ideas, as long as they were feasible I would listen and have more respect.

On the flip side I would have to say that the POP industry is kind of their own worst enemy. Like Skyarrow has mentioned there are also A LOT of manufactures and brokers out there that put a CAD guy behind a computer and call him a designer. This annoys the $hit out of me. Because of this it has caused others to see the profession as a generic product that hold little value. When you start doing work for free and put no value behind the creation and design of the product or in this case the display, you devalue the profession. This is what is being done in the POP, and in some ways the PKG world. We are allowing our brokers and manufactures to run the show.

(Disclaimer) This in no way was meant to offend anyone. There are talented people everywhere in every company.

What was the line 2 weeks ago? “We’ll stay at our desks and work. We’re creative. The most important, least important part of the company”

When I was doing POP design, we were in this wierd limbo. The ad agencies would manage the customer’s visual portfolio which included a POP/POS. Most of the time, they wouldn’t know what they were doing from a structural standpoint. As a result, what they presented would never get approved and they’d get in trouble.

For a little while the customers started to come to us directly. However, they saw the design work as “free” because it was part of the larger POP/POS solution for them and were never charged an hourly rate for our work. We did have one design department like ours within the company that did charge for design as a seperate service. Some customers baulked at the idea while others just went along with it. That department that charged for their services did not produce more or better quality than we did. The only thing they seemed to get was additional pressure to perform and meet their financial goals.

There has also been the trend of the customer cutting out the design departments of suppliers. I’ve always heard rumors and see a few companies make the leap to bring that talent in house. I’m not sure how successful they have been, but it is an interest of larger companies to do so.

i worked in the POP industry for a few years. I have a huge respect for the designers and talent in that industry. the project turnover and timelines are THE craziest, hands down. i really didn’t like the commodity aspect, it made me feel trivialized and diluted the quality of the work on many occasions. i had very few projects that allowed me to look at the designs and psychology of the projects beyond cost. however, what i DID learn from it was speed and decision-making. more importantly, i gained a better depth of knowledge for branding and marketing. still, the first good opportunity i had to go back to furniture and product design, i ran for the hills.

I think representation of the industry has a lot to answer for.

Looking at POPAI and websites like or you can tell that design is not really understood. Check those against any graphic design, packaging and advertising sites you can see the POP industry has some catching up to do.

The industry I reside in (Environmental Graphics) has SEGD as our voice to the world. There are many SEGD designers getting paid for their work, many freelance, and many firms dealing directly with EGD. However, manufacturers in the industry also employ designers and manufacturers also never charge for design work (unless the design is taken to a competitor and produced, at which time it’s case by case whether they go after it or not).

I could see the POP industry finding a voice in a group similar to SEGD. Maybe IDSA is too broad because even though the techniques are the same, there are definite differences from your “typical” ID firm and a POP firm.

I can relate to this. It’s pretty frustrating at times, but I agree that I have learned a ton about making decisions quickly which I think has helped my work immensely.

I think a great first step is for all of us to do a better job of representing our industry here on Core - myself included.

So that being said, I’d be curious to know what kinds of POP the C77 community gets into (temporary, permanent, interactive, signage etc). It would also be cool to hear some general observations from everyone regarding their workflow, materials, processes etc. If we need to start a new thread for that I can certainly do so…

While I work mainly in trade show exhibit design / product design I can echo many of the comments made about POP.

I think the difference between our industries is that many exhibit houses cover, or try to cover, all of the market segments in the trade show industry from pop-up commodity type exhibits, to custom modular, to full custom exhibits/events. Some companies only focus on one or two of those segments. Where I work we cover the first two very well, the third is somewhere that we play and sometimes win. When we lose it is less about the lack of design talent, and more about extraneous factors like budget, fulfillment options, etc.

Anyways, the point I’m making is that it seems to me like the POP industry also has different segments, but are there many companies that cover all of them like from standard fixtures, to high-end fixtures, to retail environment design, graphic design etc? Not an ad agency that farms out the manufacturing, but an all-in house capable retail company that can go from design through production? That is the kind of capability that we have where I work, but our business model is set up to play in the trade show world. Lots of the equipment, facilities, people, talent, and distribution here is set up beautifully to provide that for POP/Retail, but because our business model and pricing strategy is based on the trade show industry we are not as price competitive and usually don’t score retail fixture national accounts, although we do pursue them from time to time and have won some.

Our industries are very similar in that design is looked at as a commodity a lot of the time. The whole industry is almost entirely spec design, but we are at least able to recoup some of our design costs even on projects that do not sell because of our business model. It irks the crap out of me when our competitors advertise “free design”, it isn’t free, you will pay for it if you purchase the exhibit. What people don’t realize is that while the design is “free” we still own the rights to it unless you buy it, so if one of our competitors out bids us on our design we will sue them. I would imagine in the POP world this also happens often, but is there any recourse like what we have or are the designs bid on as commodities and go to the lowest bidder? Maybe this scenario is unique to a designer/manufacturer?


Yes, you industry is exactly like the POP/Retail side but with the added recourse of legal action if someone else makes your design. I have seen it happen in the UK when I was working for pieces for Tesco, they would get all their suppliers to come up with designs for something. They would pick the best design and then ask everyone then to quote on that design, if it was theirs or not. They got away with this because if you refused to do it they would cut you out of the loop and lose the potential for some pretty hefty manufacturing contracts.

I haven’t really seen it here in North America but I am sure it happens… some of the bigger retailers know they can get away with it because they sometimes have their suppliers by the balls.

Going back to my original post… I guess my only option to work directly with brand names and retailers is to do spec. work and farm out any production I get to what are essentially my clients at the moment. A strange symbiotic relationship but I am hoping I can get it to work so I can get more control over design direction with the end client. I’ll let you guys know how things work out.


You hit the nail right on the head with your Tesco example. The EXACT same thing happens here in the states on an all-too regular basis. We have done designs and prototypes for clients that will take them into a major retailer to sell their program. The retailer then signs up, but with the condition that they get to farm the display out to their own suppliers. At that point our client is really stuck as they can’t walk away from the contract with the retailer, but they also don’t want to see their vendors get ripped off like that. As you can imagine, at the end of the day they always choose the retailer over the display supplier. There are many many many many reasons to not like the big-box chain stores, but having this happen to us a couple of times really hits home and as a result I have absolutely no love for them and find their business practices to be wholly unethical.

But what can you do about it? If you try to pursue legal action, you will certainly damage your relationship with your client and even if that didn’t matter to you, you can be sure that the big-box boys have much deeper pockets and access to an entire squad of snarling lawyers ready to completely rip your case to shreds. At the very least they can extend the legal process to the point where you, the small guy display maker can’t afford to keep up with the legal fees anymore and you eventually just give up.

It really is a no-win situation and it sucks. However what we have learned through these experiences is to not put as much resources into those projects and to better yet, seek out the smaller clients and retailers to works with. We have found that there are plenty of folks out there that need our services and are more than happy to treat their suppliers fairly – that’s where those solid partnerships start!

I knocked this up more for a laugh than a real ad… thought you guys might find some humour in it.

Anyone wanna chip in and I’ll run it as a full page ad in POP Design magazine… Don Draper-esque :slight_smile:

Tip o’ the hat to you, sir. And could easily be adapted for any of the industries listed in this thread.

ha, thanks.

I have issues with the copy… I am NOT a copywriter as you can see.
I think it needs to be worded in a better way, at the moment it sounds like POP Designers work for free when in reality they don’t, we all get pay cheques, their work is just given out for free.

All submissions on a postcard…