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Diva Works’ 10 most memorable exhibits from World Expo Dubai

Stunning tree made with paper leaves

In 2021 (a year later than originally scheduled) I travelled to the 2020 World Expo in Dubai to gather ideas and inspiration for sales offices and client projects. At this event, each country (192 countries to be exact!) markets itself by producing a display that focuses on an important topic, such as mobility, sustainability or opportunity. It’s always intriguing to see how designers communicate big ideas and themes to a culturally diverse audience who might not speak their language. As a sightseer, I enjoyed geeking out on displays and architecture without having to put my business partner hat on.

I wanted to give my take on the Expo in true Diva-style… by giving awards to my 10 most memorable exhibits. Drumroll:

1. The “Really, is that it?” Award: Australia

As we know, Australia has such a rich story to tell, and what started promisingly with an immersive Dreamtime story told by our First Nations people, quickly devolved into being shuffled out of the first theatre and into another theatre showcasing kangaroos and beaches. After that, we were booted out to an outdoor area circled by a couple of cafes and a souvenir store selling Australian swag… made in China. As an Australian, I was left ruing the missed opportunity.  Special mention goes to the seating designers in this theatre. They obviously hate humanity, because it was like sitting on a cheese grater.

2. The “Bittersweet” Award: The Women’s Pavilion

This was a really beautifully designed and interesting pavilion where you could marvel over amazing stories such as women warriors. You then moved to another display that talked about the poor school participation of girls compared with boys across the globe. So many girls and women are involved with securing basic needs like water, rather than attending school or work. Women have come a long way, but we still have a long way to go before we reach parity on so many fronts. The most memorable display was an AV screen of graphics depicting women across the world.

3. The “biggest let down” Award: Italy

At the Shanghai and Milan World Expos, the Italian Pavilions were standouts. Not in Dubai – it was a hot mess. It seemed like every idea that was raised as a possible display got the green light, with no thought of how to bring all the ideas together. There was the intriguing idea of having no solid walls to the pavilion and using ropes instead – a brave move not having air-con during the desert heat of a Dubai Summer, but understandable in Covid times to rely on natural ventilation. But internally, WOW… what? Crazy, impenetrable displays lead to other dead ends. I don’t know what to tell you. Italy is known for its stellar design, but it was out for an Aperitivo and a cannoli. Wish I’d taken that option too!

4. The “Punching above its weight” Award: Uzbekistan

I love visiting pavilions from countries that you’re unlikely to visit in person unless you quit your job and backpack around the world (I have heels and a mortgage, so that pipe dream is not happening in the near future). The Uzbekistan Pavilion was a beautifully designed space with a strong focus on seamless design and creating a calm oasis where the emphasis was on strong imagery.

5. The “Oil Countries still have the best pavilions” Award part 1: Kuwait

When the World Expo is held in the Middle East, it’s natural that the best pavilions are the ones awash with jaw-dropping displays funded with rivers of cash made from oil. Oman was no exception. Stunning displays with spaces that inspired awe and wonder in a seamless display between the reserved exterior and the content-rich internal spaces.

6. The “Oil Countries still have the best pavilions” Award part 2 – Oman

Got oil money? Then you got a good looking pavilion. Oman’s Pavilion used lovely design features, interesting displays, and content that you actually wanted to learn more about. They did a great job of integrating AV presentations into static displays, and at no point were you overwhelmed by the number of screens or information being presented. The best part happened about halfway through the display where they featured the names and faces of people who were involved in the design and production of the Pavilion. As someone whose designs have not been always properly attributed (cough, blatantly copied / used without payment, cough) this was a really lovely touch, and recognised the hard work of the designers and producers. You have my heart, Oman.

7. The “Surprise! This pavilion is actually very good!” Award – Poland

The Poland Pavilion was always heaving but I managed to avoid the queues by enduring a very emotive piano recital in the entry hall that got me rocketed to the front of the crowds wanting to explore the pavilion further. The large timber wall that framed the entrance displays had LED lights interspersed through it so the wall design could feature text, patterns and symbols in an ever-evolving display. Timber featured heavily in the materials used and it gave the space a lovely natural warmth.

8. The “The best, consistently” Award – Korea

Korea always BRINGS it to the World Expo. I’ve been delighted / confused / bemused / in awe every time I’ve visited Korea, and this time the surprises started before even getting inside. On a sprawling facade, a series of cubes rotated and changed the external pattern every minute. Apparently, at night, it was even more impressive – but hell, I wasn’t hanging around no matter how good it was. After 10 hours of crisscrossing the site, 19kms of striding it out, I needed a cooling sherbet back at the hotel. Korea really came to play with a vertical cinema and personal devices that allowed you to participate in augmented reality around the pavilion – including a K-Pop surprise performance – and flicker panels like on airline departure boards with an ever-changing display of graphics.

9. The “Not just chocolate, Belgium bought the FUN” Award – Belgium

Upon entry to the pavilion you get a cookie so already, I’m your biggest fan. You entered the display via a strip LED illuminated escalator tunnel and I felt like I was in a Notorious B.I.G. video (Mo money, Mo Problems) from 1997. Belgium nailed the graphic element – fun, interesting and informative. For me, they had taken notes at the German pavilions of the past, as they had a bunch of interactives that weren’t screen-based so people could use more than just their visual sense, and when more than one of the senses are engaged, there is a greater chance of your message being remembered. They also did some really interesting things with projection too. Well played Belgium.

10. The “I can’t even” Award – Denmark

Danish Design is held up as a world leader. That design prowess was nowhere to be seen in this soul-crushing pavilion. For the love of sandwiches, they had a “lucky troll” at the entrance to the pavilion, and it got progressively worse from there. We might be coming out of a pandemic, money might be tight, but if you’re going to turn up as Denmark, then you better bring the design you’re so renowned for. This pavilion was the sound of design dying.

To sum up my time at the World Expo Dubai, I have SO many great ideas for my clients’ sales offices; including new ways to use graphics, using unusual finishes, incorporating interior architecture to produce an engaging customer journey, customer-targeted audio-visual and interactive displays, and ideas to communicate effectively and memorably through displays.

Reach out if you want the benefits of this fresh design inspiration on your next sales office project. I can be contacted at fiona@divaworks.com.au  Event URL: https://www.expo2020dubai.com

Fiona Jefferies
Fiona Jefferies
https://www.divaworks.com.au/
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