Creating Better Events with Design Thinking

Post authored by Cynthia Hornketh, Word Experience in a dictionary
Vice President Experience Design, Experient

Supporting any large, complex project—particularly re-designing a conference or convention—is a daunting undertaking. If you share this vocation and challenge, here are a few foundational tools we recommend using in your design thinking process.

Generally speaking, there are numerous stakeholders influencing and executing an event. Leading a collaborative and cohesive team toward a common vision can be tricky without clear beacons. Our methodology uses an organizing principle as a guide in the process. The organizing principle is one to two words that are laser-focused on the interests and needs of the event participants. It’s referenced when making decisions for every participant-touchpoint in the event lifecycle and unifies stakeholder action plans. The organizing principle is not the event theme or tagline, but rather a directorial light for the decision making processes. One of the very powerful benefits of this tool is the ability to say “no.” If a recommendation or element of the program doesn’t address the organizing principle, it can be eliminated or tweaked into alignment.

Francis Ford Coppola uses this technique when directing movies. In an interview he states, “When you make a movie, always try to discover what the theme of the movie is in one or two words. A tight focus—this is what makes a film more effective. If you don’t have anything driving that focus, you’re not directing. You’re guessing.”

For additional guidance, we identify 5-6 key impressions which cascade from the organizing principle. The impressions are the ‘residual’ left on the brain as a result of an event touchpoint. They are the feelings and perceptions we want participants to experience and the words they would use to describe the event journey.

With this framework in place, our team and the event stakeholders identify actions plans and program features for each of the eight event phases from the initial invitation stage (attraction) though post-event communications (extending). The resulting event blueprint drives consistency and innovation while helping avoid negative cues or attributes that would detract from the event goals—and it’s a powerful tool for slaying sacred cows.

During one of our recent innovation labs, the organizing principle of ‘Clarity’ was identified along with the key impressions of Innovative, Worthwhile, Different, and I am Understood & Valued. Below are a few samples of actionable tactics developed to align with the principle and impressions from the event blueprint:

  • Cellophane invitation cards and envelopes
  • Glass place settings used for meals
  • Plexiglass signage with simple fonts and colors
  • ‘Unstructured’ sessions to share the good, the bad and the future
  • Use of real time polling in sessions with results visible to everyone

A mission of our experience design team, and an objective of the Maritz Travel Company Innovation Lab, is to move events beyond the ‘zone of nothing special.’ If you’re interested in learning more about these design thinking tools and our Innovation Lab, please contact

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