Title treatment for the exhibition Celestial City. Image Bruce Smythe © Sydney Living Museums
Ever wondered how a designer develops and delivers an exhibition? SLM's senior graphic designer Bruce Smythe reveals the inspiration behind Celestial City's design concepts and 'supergraphics'.
This is a digitally rendered image of different fonts used in the exhibition. It shows the heading font of Morgan Poster, the Chinese characters in S T Kaiti regular and body text for labels and theme panels in Stag medium
Samples of the typography used in the exhibition graphics, labels and publicity material, inspired by traditional Chinese woodblock prints. Image Bruce Smythe © Sydney Living Museums

The art and craft of visual communication

The graphic designer’s role in exhibition design is to give form to the exhibition’s content; primarily through the use of typography (fonts and lettering), image, colour and materials. It is the art and craft of visual communication – stylising and problem-solving in order to most effectively convey the curator’s messages to the visitor. Working closely with the exhibition’s 3D designer, the graphic designer interprets the design brief to help create memorable, compelling and meaningful visitor experiences. The designer’s responsibilities also include project managing the production of the exhibition graphics to ensure they are produced to the highest standard and arrive on time to be installed with the rest of the exhibition. 

When it comes to designers, it’s a total team effort. The  graphic designer collaborates with others in the Marketing and Communications department to create the exhibition’s branding – the look and feel that will entice visitors to come and see the show. This collaboration between teams ensures consistency between the visitor experience and all marketing communications including print and on-line advertisements and editorial pieces, and museum signage.


Research is essential to effective graphic design for exhibitions.

This is a photograph of a building banner advertising the Celestial City exhibition and a large scale poster featuring a portrait of Quong Tart
Some of the exterior signage and advertising for the exhibition on location at the Museum of Sydney. Photo © Jamie North for Sydney Living Museums
This is an image of a digital rendering of a blue outline of a cloud in the Chinese style, and photograph of a Chinese surcoat and a detail photograph of the original cloud motif from the surcoat
The auspicious cloud motif was derived from the formal surcoat loaned by the Powerhouse Museum. Image Bruce Smythe © Sydney Living Museums

Celestial Inspiration

The catalyst for the graphic design process for Celestial City: Sydney’s Chinese Story was the title of the exhibition. Thoughts turned to the sky and all things ‘celestial’. Extensive research eventuated in the creation of a repeat pattern based on the ‘auspicious cloud’ motif found in traditional Chinese prints, textiles and carvings. This was applied to the exhibition’s visual identity, theme banners and entrance feature. Another touchstone was the Chinese surcoat from the Powerhouse Museum collection featured in the exhibition’s theme ‘Merchants and Mandarins’. This surcoat informed the overall palette and inspired research into the use of the ‘auspicious cloud’ motif.

Purposely refraining from drawing on communist red and yellow (which denotes China’s more recent history), the exhibition’s palette was derived from Chinese temples – principally the Temple of Heaven in Beijing whose rich blue roof was an inspiration for the theme banners. The greens, violets and coral colours of the text panels were similarly drawn from the temple’s intricate paint scheme.

This is a collage of two colourful detailed photographs of the Temple of Heaven in Beijing on the left, and a series of circular colour samples on the right showing both primary and accent colours used
The Temple of Heaven, Beijing, served as inspiration for the colour palette used in the exhibition. Image Bruce Smythe © Sydney Living Museums

The typeface for the title treatment was chosen to echo the characters found in traditional Chinese woodblock prints. The typography in the gallery also took cues from vernacular typefaces found on signage from 19th century goldfield shopfronts featured in the exhibition’s theme on ‘Goldminers’. 

The use of hanging banners to carry the theme text is a reference to Chinese hanging scrolls – one of the many traditional methods used to display and exhibit Chinese painting and calligraphy.

This is a photograph of a hanging blue theme banner with text next to a small framed artwork
The Goldminers theme banner next to View of Canton: the Western Hongs artwork (oil on copper). Photo © Jamie North for Sydney Living Museums

The Supergraphics

To help create a visually powerful environment, the team decided to include a selection of 'supergraphics’ – monumental reproductions up to 3 metres in height and many metres wide. As the majority of the graphic content was reproduced from black and white original material, bold saturated colours were chosen to colourise these massive images in order to activate the space. These supergraphics were often not confined to one surface, but were bent around corners, and split across structures to create a completely immersive visitor experience.

In order to create these supergraphics we required high resolution digital copies taken from the original material. Some of these were over 10,000 pixels on their longest edge. This allowed for the best possible detail and clarity for each image. To prepare the file I would retouch the digital image as required and resize to fit individual measurements for each supergraphic. To produce these at a sufficient size and print directly on to painted boards, we outsourced the production process to a supplier.

This is a digital rendering of a section of the Celestial City exhibition showing a large, flat historic photograph of people outside a tea house in Sydney with a blue hanging banner adjacent to it
The design created for the Merchants and Mandarins theme. Image Bruce Smythe © Sydney Living Museums
This is a photograph inside the exhibition showing a large black print on a blue background of people standing outside a tea house in Sydney. This supergraphic has a display case built into featuring ceramic objects and the graphic forms a a corner
The realisation of the design for the Merchants and Mandarins theme. Photo © Jamie North for Sydney Living Museum

Every exhibition is a new and exciting challenge for graphic designers. They have to present history in inspirational and imaginative ways to provide visitors with a memorable experience and leave a lasting impression.

About the Author

Man in blue suit in front of sandstone wall.
Bruce Smythe
Senior Project Designer, Interpretation & Exhibitions
Interpretation & Exhibitions
Bruce Smythe is a graphic designer who has specialised in design for cultural institutions for over 20 years.