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How Design Thinking Can Make You a Better Event Planner


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At a recent event in New York City, we heard a truly inspiring presentation on design thinking. The speaker (David Solsbery, VP of Creative and Marketing at the event production company Hargrove) made the case that event professionals are actually designers, in that we always search for solutions, designing and mapping experiences. The talk got us thinking a lot about design thinking, so we broke down the principles of this innovative school of thought to show you how it can drive results at your next event.

What is design thinking?

First of all, it’s important to note that design thinking is not just for designers. Design thinking has been adopted across major companies like Apple and Google, and it’s a growing field of study at universities, such as Stanford and MIT.

event planners design thinking

Design thinking is a process that works across industries. It will help you create better products, experiences, events, campaigns and beyond. It’s characterized by an emphasis on the user, and involves learning as much as possible about the wants and needs of the people that use your product. From user research and discovery, a process of ideation, prototyping and testing follows, producing new and alternative ideas for achieving results.


All it takes is an open mind and a willingness to try something new. The good news is that meeting planners tend to be excellent at both! Now, let’s dig in to some of the main principles of design thinking.

 Phase 1: Empathy

Good design starts with a deep understanding of the person you’re designing for. To craft the right kind of experience, you have to be in tune with your audience and understand their human needs and desires.

So how do you go about accomplishing this? It’s all in the research, and as a planner, you might already be doing a lot of this work as you talk to attendees and other event professionals and collect surveys.

We came across a useful, simple, four-part framework for the empathy phase called the “empathy map.” When doing research and collecting data, be sure to observe these four questions, and write out the answers in quadrants on a whiteboard. Stanford’s design school outlines the quadrants:

  • Say: What are some quotes and defining words your user said?

  • Do: What actions and behaviors did you notice?

  • Think: What might your user be thinking? What does this tell you about his or her beliefs?

  • Feel: What emotions might your subject be feeling?

meeting planners design thinking

Phase 2: Define

After collecting data and observations from the empathy phase, you can move to the “define” stage. Good designers define a “problem statement” that guides their work moving forward. The Interaction Design Foundation provides a template with three spaces: User, Need, and Insight:

[User] needs to [Need] because [Insight].

Example: A baker needs to sample lots of products because taste and smell drive their decision-making.

The “insight” is something you know from talking to your audience; something you learned that will make your solution (or event) unique. At the end of an event, you can compare results with your original problem statement to gauge results.


Phase 3: Ideate

event professionals design thinkingOnce you have a problem statement, you and your team can start the ideation phase. Set up time and space and invite the team to brainstorm solutions. Set a collaborative tone for the meeting and encourage everyone to pitch as many ideas as possible, all outside-the-box ideas welcome. Once you have a long list of the ideas, narrow it down to the ones that respond to your problem statement most directly and effectively.


Phase 4: Prototype and Test

Events have lots of moving parts. You can't build and A/B test them as easily as some other products, like a website. Nonetheless, you can use the principles of design thinking to try things, learn, and improve. Event apps give you an opportunity to build and launch prototypes at an event while collecting lots of data. Develop a plan for building and testing new things at your next event. For example: try a new interactive in-app game, a big ticket giveaway, or an espresso and pastry station. Measure reaction and results, and then move forward accordingly.

It’s important to note that the design thinking process is not linear. Every phase continuously informs the others. When you test, you learn, which informs the define phase. Empathizing and collecting data can happen at any point during the event process. There are lots of resources, courses and workshops if you’re curious and want to join a growing number of event professionals sharpening their skills with this innovative way of thinking.

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