Are You Designing for Goosebumps?

Two design-thinking experts talk about an evolving model for high-impact events.

Allie Mahler and Scott Weiss, partners at consulting firm Community by Design, spend a lot of time thinking about the marriage of design thinking with community design, designing for movements, and experience design, Weiss said.

“While design thinking is a powerful process tool, we feel strongly that there needs to be certain behavioral and emotional conditions set in order to catalyze action beyond the conference and experience,” he said. “If we’re not inspiring communities on an emotional level, it’s impossible to achieve the outcome you want. How are you designing for goose bumps?”

They shared some of their best practices for each:

Think about the conference before the conference. We believe that the conference actually begins long before the attendees arrive. Innovation and creative behaviors are seeded through pre-conference questions, conversations, and inspiration. An active community dialogue should be primed and facilitated in advance.

Define realistic (and aspirational) success metrics. In order to inspire continued engagement, it’s important to set up an action plan with tangible goals and milestones. We like to design accountability activities where participants physically pledge their contribution to the community beyond the event (e.g., having participants write their commitments on a Jenga block in a collective structure).

Tell stories of success and failure, often. Good storytelling can create a ripple effect throughout a community or organization. It’s important to establish a fluid cycle of knowledge sharing, feedback capture, and experimentation in order to push initiatives forward and enact change.

Inclusivity and diversity — No matter how powerful the tools or experience, if it’s being administered to a homogenous collection of attendees, it’s likely to have an echo-chamber effect. It’s vital to ensure that there is a diversity of perspectives, backgrounds, and expertise in the room.

Thoughtful conversations — Language and dialogue are the building blocks of innovation and implementable design. We feel strongly in the power of artful facilitation across teams in order accomplish a few things: steering insights into opportunities, ensuring that all voices are heard and valued, and strategically pushing towards a successful output within clearly defined time constraints.

Consider the environment.
It’s important to stimulate both the intellect and the emotions of the convening participants. The content of the conference is directly influenced by the environment that it’s being shared in. The more thoughtful the design of the space, the more emotionally resonant and elevated the experience. If every touch point of the attendee experience is thoughtfully considered, the results are typically more powerful and rich.

Does it feel safe? In order to drive toward a shared goal, the conversations that take place throughout the conference need to feel free from judgment and respectful. The more intimate the setting, the more comfortable participants will feel. We’ve often housed teams in individual “living room” pods across a cavernous conference room space to create more intimacy within groups.

Creative confidence is key. The design-thinking process is only successful if there are creatively confident voices driving it. Therefore, the early stage of any engaging conference should inspire participants to unlock their creativity. There are multiple activities and icebreakers that spark new ways of thinking and behaving — both as a designer and a radically collaborative teammate.

Read our cover story, “Design Thinking: An Event Strategists’ Toolkit.”

Barbara Palmer

Barbara Palmer is senior editor and director of digital content.