Meeting Mentor Magazine

December 2023

Design Thinking and Events:
Learning From Google, ASAE

Planners hear a lot these days about the importance of design thinking in delivering events that meet and exceed the expectations of attendees. But what exactly is design thinking?

“Design thinking is a proven method of producing desired outcomes and managing disruption by applying design principles to affect and transform the world around us,” according to Bruce Mau, chief design officer for Freeman, in a blog post on the company’s website. “Whether the outcome is a performance metric, a system, or an experience, design is the method for envisioning the result and systematically executing our vision.”

An example that Mau uses: Cell phones can be a distraction at meetings, but by applying design thinking Freeman integrates second-screen technology to use cell phones to boost engagement rather allow them to compete for attendee attention.

Over-relying on design thinking, like over-relying on any good thing, can create negative rather than positive effects. This is something that Google learned following its annual developers conference last year. Deciding that attendees were looking for surprise and excitement, the company rolled out a major redesign of the 2016 Google I/O conference, taking design inspiration from music festivals. Post-event surveys, however, showed that attendees found the layout confusing. It was too hard to find sessions and other program experiences.

For the 2017 I/O conference, Google used a city design concept at the event venue, the Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View, Calif. “Main Street” cut through the parking lot and led to four color-coded zones. Street signs with large numbers on the session tents and several eight- by eight-foot maps made it easier for the nearly 10,000 developers, partners, and Google staff to navigate, according to an article in BizBash.

“This audience cares about functionality and making sure things work and are situated in a way that benefits the learning and the technology over the aesthetic, which sometimes as event marketers we like to focus on,” Amanda Matuk, executive producer of Google I/O, told BizBash.

Design thinking played a big role in the reinvention of the annual Springtime trade show of the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE). The event was relaunched as the Experience Design Project (XDP), held in May in Maryland’s Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center. Not a traditional trade show but a conference built around collaboration, XDP was created from the get-go as a new model for buyer/seller events. The two-day conference brought together more than 1,800 association executives and industry partners to work on common issues and co-create solutions.

The set-up: A hub-and-spoke design in which a round stage in the center of the ballroom split into five sections that radiated out onto the ballroom floor. Each color-coded zone was facilitated by a captain serving as thought leader on the five topics ASAE believes are essential to an effective 21st century conference: Experience, location, learning, marketing and technology.

Throughout the conference, ASAE integrated music and performing arts as an experiential element that evokes emotion and triggers memory of the event, according to a post-meeting press release. Artists included: Live DJ Jamie, Saul Paul, a musician who co-created a song with the audience and performance painter David Garibaldi, who created three original paintings during the Closing Experience.

It’s too early to tell if the reinvented event succeeded in its objectives, and what if any modifications might be coming next year as a result of attendee feedback. But major event reinventions like Google I/O and ASAE’s XDP point to some basic rules of the road when applying design thinking to events:

• Make sure what looks good on paper works in real life. Logistics must always trump pizzazz.

• Be clear on the overall objectives of why people are coming to your meeting, and make those objectives the integral driver of design. Don’t give attendees a boatload of fun if what they are really looking for is new information.

• On the other hand, don’t be afraid to take calculated risks, using design thinking to lead your attendees in new directions or unexpected discoveries. A good way to mitigate risk is to test pilot the concept — especially important with major meeting redesigns. This is exactly what ASAE did a few months before XDP debuted. The association held a dress rehearsal: a one-day pilot version of XDP. More than 80 association meeting, marketing, programming and technology professionals, as well as industry partners, came together to test and fine-tune the new format. — Regina McGee


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