What do you teach?

What do you teach?

It’s a question I’m often asked, especially in relation to workshops like the one on Saturday.  I usually fudge some kind of an answer, because really, it’s not always easy to explain in a single word or phrase.  I have been known to teach all kinds of things (including children, who are not things at all!) but of late, most of my work with the WI centres on display skills.


Depending on the scenario, it might be called “visual merchandising”, “window dressing”, “promotion”, “staging”, “exhibition skills” or simply, display.  It broadly involves putting together some kind of visual arrangement to tell a story or convey a message.  On Saturday, the workshop focused on promoting the WI, the Women’s Institute and a large number of enthusiastic women were eager to gather some new ideas to promote their own WI in their community, but also to increase their own skills and maybe feel inspired to learn more.


Because one of the few organisations still offering qualifications in “display skills” (or “Staging and Interpretation” is the WI.  Woohoo!  Last year, I worked with a professional colleague from the British Display Society to deliver a dozen or more workshops around the country, doing our best to inspire WI members to learn more and yesterday was a direct result of one of those days.

So, what is there to learn?

More than you’d think!  But as my WI had been invited to participate in a village event next month, here was a great opportunity to put something together for my demonstration which will be of real use.  So, after showing a few quick and easy ideas and one rather more elaborate design, I worked through my ideas for promoting Avening WI and put a tabletop display together.  This morning, I recreated the display on our kitchen table and photographed it so that my WI colleagues have something to refer to if I’m not there!


I began with our tablecloth.  We made it for a competition to celebrate the centenary of the WI in 2015 and it’s used at every meeting.  It’s just a panel of cloth which drapes over any size table and is the easiest means of identification.  It also gave me a colour palette to work with.


I was going to need some coloured paper for the backdrop so chose a few possibilities in the art shop last week.  Two of them were immediately rejected – the purple is too blue and not red enough, the yellowish green not yellowish enough.  So, I chose the blue-green sheet and used a Pritt stick to adhere it to a piece of foamcore board.


I use foamcore board a lot, because it’s cheap, easy to get from any art shop or Hobbycraft and being lightweight, it makes it simple to work with.  It cuts like butter with a knife, using a cutting mat and ruler and will stand straight and not bend.  What’s not to love!?


This was to be my backdrop then.  My apologies for the “real” backdrop of our kitchen wall which goes some way to illustrating the importance of having a backdrop to any arrangement.  The brain needs a visual clue to know where to stop; a kind of punctuation mark to set the limit of the arrangement and in my example, it’s this green board.


It’s held upright by means of two more pieces of foamcore with slots cut in them.


You know the kind of arrangement where two things slot together like this?  It works well and the whole thing is sturdy and won’t fall over in a breeze.

My next task is to design something to put on that background.  I’d normally choose a photograph; a close-up of something relevant, perhaps.  But on this occasion, I didn’t want to include a picture of someone recognisable and couldn’t quite decide what image would provide the best information about what Avening WI does.


I decided to make a “picture” from some words.  From a long list of words taken from our programme and website.  I decided it needed to be bigger than A4 though, so the challenge to print it began.  Though I could have taken it to the local print shop, time (and budget) was limited, so I decided to see what I could do about printing it in two parts.

Would it be acceptable?


Well, to tell the truth, I’m not sure.  For a quick demonstration/single use for an hour or so, perhaps.  But really, if I were going to use it over and again, I’d get it done properly. 


I printed it out at 50% opacity, so it wasn’t quite so dominant and used blutack to attach it to the backdrop.  I’d actually prefer to use sticky velcro pads to blutack, but knowing this arrangement would be taken down and repositioned, I didn’t want to risk damaging the paper and went for the “gentler” option.  It does need a good, hard press to keep the blutack in place though.


So far so good.


Oh yes, I’ve got a bit of spare foamcore to put over those supports to create a kind of shelf, which will also give me somewhere to add a bit of weight to hold the whole thing together.  I’ll cover it up later.


So, what story do I want to tell?  What important information about my WI might inspire women to come along and find out more?  Well, one thing about which we are very proud is that Avening WI was formed in 1930.  We have the minutes of the first meeting, too.  I decided that the minute book would prove a bit of a talking point and since there would be someone standing there the whole time, taking care of it, something precious like that was fine to include.  I added an old pair of specs as an accessory, but also as a visual clue to stop people turning the pages!


It fits nicely together and provides a bit of a starting point for the rest of the display.


What next?  A pink scarf not only covers up the foamcore “shelf”, but also draws the eye and links the backdrop to the front design on the tablecloth.


Maybe that’s where to continue the story and place a copy of our programme for the year? 

But how much information to include?  Should I add something about Gloucestershire Federation?  The many campaigns and opportunities for learning offered by our National Federation?  Something about Denman College?  At this point, I knew there was not room for everything, but perhaps there was a way around that?


All of that information is on our website of course, so I’ll simply include the address of that and print out an image of our header.


I was sure I could persuade our printer to print a long image if it was no wider than A4 but sadly, it resisted my efforts.  So, another join was needed.  Aaagh!  In my defence, I think it looked better in situ than it did in isolation.


Now, we were getting somewhere.  A bunch of pink tulips brought life to the arrangement and linked the colour, drawing the eye up from the tabletop to the web header image.  I added a WI centenary mug on the “shelf” and placed the programme alongside, thinking that it had obscured some of the label in the previous position.  I also added a small label backed with foamcore (of course) with the details of our next meeting, which provided a visual balance to the web header which was flying out to the left.


But I wanted something to tell of the 21st century WI, of capable and IT-literate women who embrace modern technology in style.  I also knew from my own experience that a “live” screen, however small, is a real eye catcher.  I retrieved an old mobile phone from the cupboard, accessed my WI website and took a screenshot of the most recent page.  I switched off the screensaver and, to make sure the battery would hold out, I plugged the phone into my little battery clutch bag.


Another change of plan with the mug and programme then, and the phone/battery bag were given centre stage on the shelf – actually the darkest spot of the arrangement, so a great place to put a light source.


Just a couple of finishing touches then – our national logo, an easy identifier and something we’d been chatting about the whole day.  I found the perfect place up there in the top corner.


The other thing was the usual invitation – important to include and a good means of balancing the arrangement too.


I didn’t include a copy of our monthly magazine (sent to members as part of the annual subscription) nor did I include our Avening WI newsheet (because that’s online to read, too).  I’m assuming that whoever stands by the table will have a ready supply of programmes to hand out and hope that any woman who visits the village tea party will feel tempted to find out more and maybe come along to a meeting.

Next one, “From Lamb to Loom” on June 8th at 7.30pm.   87 years later, the women of the village are still getting together on the second Thursday of the month in the Memorial Hall to enjoy an evening of fun and friendship!

I love my machines

I love my machines

Over it

Over it