Ask any layperson what a meeting planner does, and you’ll receive a long list of operational tasks—marketing and promotion, budgeting, site selection, negotiation, travel arrangements, catering, reservations, registration, etc.
While these are certainly important responsibilities (meetings can’t take place without them), they only play a supporting role to why most people attend meetings and events: education and networking. Making sure logistics support this higher purpose is the domain of Meeting Design.
Planning vs. Design
Everyone knows TED. It’s one of the most successful meetings in the world, by any measure. Why? Because of its design. Orchestrated by Richard Saul Wurman, an architect, graphic artist and pioneer in the practice of making information easily understandable and who coined the term “information architecture.” This is Wurman describing how he came up with the design for TED:
“I started by subtracting, reducing it down to its most essential elements. I subtracted the lectern, which was just there to protect your groin. I subtracted speaking time to 18 minutes to better focus on the message and the messenger. And I subtracted PowerPoint to focus on the spoken word and storytelling.”
The TED Conference is attended by the greatest minds of our time across nearly every discipline, inspiring millions of lives. It does not employ a single meeting professional.
Wurman’s quote above is based on the design principle “less is more,” championed by architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and the unofficial mantra of the Minimalist design movement, which began in the 20th century and still thrives today. The movement set out to strip things down to their essential ingredients. It was a reaction to more ornamental design practices that added details and decorations to objects for no particular purpose, other than aesthetics. Likewise, Meeting Design limits resources with sight on what matters most: the attendee experience.
No one is quite sure who coined the term “Meeting Design,” but MPI RISE Award winner Maarten Vanneste is widely credited with popularizing it in his book, Meeting Architecture, a manifesto (2008), in which he proposes a new way of thinking about meetings and events that focuses on alternative formats, delivery styles, content and other overlooked and underutilized elements that contribute to the attendee experience. Vanneste says that by embracing a more inclusive and comprehensive vision of meetings and events, their true business value and potential as change agents can be realized.
A close look at this emerging discipline reveals that widespread adoption of Meeting Design has been hindered by a lack of popularly accepted models, methodologies, tools and techniques that typically characterize other design disciplines. The term itself is not widely known outside a relatively small group of committed individuals and others who have heard the term but do not know much more about it.
Still, many agree that Meeting Design represents one of the few opportunities that enables meeting professionals to do more with less, which has become the “new normal” in the meeting industry. Meeting Design has proven to reduce costs and increase value by focusing on what matters most to both participants and stakeholders.
As with any product or service, designing a meeting demands the exploration of the aesthetic, functional, economic and sociopolitical dimensions of both the meeting process and its outcomes. It can also involve considerable research, thought, modeling or prototyping, adjustments and redesigns.
The design profession itself has diversified in recent years, branching into new disciplines that offer tremendous opportunity for meeting professionals in terms of experiential, environmental, sensory and emotional design.
Meeting Design has often been used synonymously with “Meeting Architecture,” which has contributed to some confusion in the marketplace and likely hindered adoption. “Meeting Architecture” is used more commonly in Europe, where it was first introduced, while the term “Meeting Design” is more commonly used in North America.
Vanneste defines Meeting Architecture as “the discipline concerned with objective-based design, execution and measurement of content and format of meetings and events.” Design is one stage of Vanneste’s meeting architecture process, which includes the following.
- Identify meeting objectives
- Design the meeting based on those objectives
- Execute the meeting
- Assess the meeting results
There is no agreed upon definition of Meeting Design. However, business consultant Mary Boone proposes the following:
“Meeting Design is the purposeful shaping of both the form and the content of a meeting to deliver on crucial business objectives.”
According to Boone, Meeting Design incorporates methods and technologies that connect, inform and engage a broad range of relevant stakeholders before, during and after a meeting. Good design integrates the meeting with other communication activities, maximizes interactivity and results in a significant return on investment.
Meeting Architecture treats the identification of meeting objectives and design as separate stages. For Meeting Design, these steps are inclusive. The Meeting Architecture process also separates out meeting execution, but defines it as implementation of the design strategy. In Meeting Design, execution or implementation is assumed.
Followers and practitioners of Meeting Architecture have committed to developing a theory and practice-based curriculum for educational institutions to train the next generation of meeting professionals. Meeting Designers, while supportive of these efforts, are not actively pursuing them, focusing primarily on practice and implementation.
Business Goals & Meeting Objectives
Regardless of nomenclature, the value of determining business goals and meeting objectives is indisputable. This process is a key differentiator between Meeting Planning and Meeting Design—and it’s the starting point to designing a meeting. Traditional meeting planners indicate that they typically do not identify goals or objectives—despite the emphasis on this in industry textbooks and coursework and the significant and long-standing efforts to educate the marketplace regarding the importance of calculating return on investment (ROI).
In practice, identifying goals and objectives requires meeting professionals to engage with stakeholders and ask them about their expectations beyond creating a satisfactory experience. Often these conversations simply don’t take place. Meeting stakeholders and professionals take refuge in repetition, and the former often treat the latter as little more than order takers. When pressed, attendees aren’t any better at articulating their own goals and objectives showing up at meetings and events.
But, powerful forces are introducing change. New economic realities demand that meeting owners ask what they’re getting for their investments of time and money, and the relentless march of technology challenges meeting professionals to be more strategic and less tactical in order to answer questions of value and ensure they’re not outsourced or replaced by an app.
Attendee expectations are also evolving. Standards for engagement are influenced by the just-in-time, personalized experiences they enjoy every day as consumers. With so much competing for attendee mindshare, the meeting industry is in a race for relevance.
The Meeting Design Process
While there is no universally established and adopted process for Meeting Design, and much variability still exists, most practitioners agree upon the following steps.
- Identify stakeholder needs. Successful meetings and events require the involvement of a wide variety of stakeholders— from participants/attendees and exhibitors to partners, sponsors and owners. While all stakeholders share an interest in a successful outcome, each group has its own needs. The more meeting professionals understand about their stakeholders’ unique needs, the better they can design a beneficial event.
- Define goals and objectives. Stakeholder needs must be translated into business goals and meeting objectives. This helps in designing the meeting experience, and it’s indispensible to determining the value of that experience.
- Focus on a meeting phase. There are many ways to design a meeting experience, and most designers focus separately on each meeting phase (before, during, after). Some design interventions (or action items) will be specific to a phase, like communicating with your attendees in advance. Others may apply across phases, like engagement or interactivity strategies. Designers make sure their interventions are complimentary across phases and don’t conflict or compete with each other.
- Select a classification or design principle. Meeting designers need to organize their design interventions. Design principles helps focus attention and minimizes the risk that some opportunity might be overlooked.
- Choose a meeting element. Selecting a specific meeting element allows meeting designers to explore all possible options for leveraging a particular element or combination of elements.
- Develop design interventions. Here, meeting designers combine the steps above in traditional and novel ways, creating unique experiences that help them align with their goals and objectives.
While not the only way of approaching Meeting Design, these steps make the task of developing design interventions easier and increase the likelihood that meeting professionals consider all possible options.
The manner in which meeting professionals plan and execute events have not changed much in decades, due mainly to the traditional emphasis on logistics. Now, if your objective is to feed an army, logistics provides an appropriate solution. If, however, your objective is to feed the minds of that army and improve its performance, logistics is woefully inadequate. Meeting professionals are well versed in the “gather,” but remain weak in “purpose.”
What is clear: Regardless of ownership, meeting professionals are positioned to assume credit when meetings go well and assume blame when they don’t. As long as meeting professionals define themselves by their ability to manage logistics, they will remain marginalized by a largely self-imposed, limited scope and vulnerable to criticism for not delivering on a meeting’s unspoken promises. This is the dilemma most meeting professionals face today.
Meeting Design Principles
All design professionals, facing similar tactical versus strategic dilemmas, rely upon principles as guides. These principles dictate how elements should be treated or arranged in order to accomplish a particular purpose or effect. A meeting design principle is a rule or standard used for creating gatherings of people with a common purpose.
The following meeting design principles can be used as building blocks for design interventions.
Principle of Assessment & Evaluation
Set clear, measurable goals before you begin designing your meeting so that after- wards, you can determine your return on investment. Assessment and evaluation are bookends that give meaning to all other meeting elements. Without these, other fundamentals will be at risk or fail.
Principle of Meaningful Engagement
Connect with other people, physically, intellectually and especially emotionally. Emotionally engaged people perform better and have higher job satisfaction. Meetings should not be impersonal affairs during which strangers are thrown together and left to fend for themselves. We are social beings who need connections, especially in times of challenge.
Principle of Distributed Learning
Provide people with the information they need to know when they need to know it in a manner that’s convenient for them. The top two reasons people attend meetings are the educational programs and the networking. In the language of education professionals, that’s formal and informal learning, and the latter trumps the former when it comes to knowledge retention and transfer—which is really what it’s all about. Also, think about distributed learning in terms of when it occurs: before, during or after the event.
Principle of Collaboration
Tap into the collective intelligence of the group to better understand its needs, generate new ideas, determine best solutions and put plans into action. One of the key reasons people meet is to address some goal, challenge or problem. And in that pursuit, the wisdom of the crowd is an invaluable resource. Inherent in every meeting, is the opportunity for change, progress and innovation.
Principle of Experience
Design a meeting with the participant in mind—not just in selling a product or providing a service, but also in creating a meaningful and memorable experience. The world is awash in bad design. Meetings are no exception.
Challenge the Status Quo
Meeting Design challenges the status quo. It represents a paradigm shift—a profound change in the fundamental meeting model that sees every meeting challenge as a nail for the proverbial hammer of logistics.
Despite its obvious appeal to meeting stakeholders, meeting professionals have been slow to embrace the Meeting Design. The good news is that meeting professionals are process-oriented, and Meeting Design is simply a new process that can be taught, learned and applied in ways that can greatly enhance the meeting experience.
There will always be a need to focus on logistics. No meeting of consequence should be undertaken without logistical experts who do what few others can. Planners absolutely save stakeholders significant time and money.
But meeting participant needs are evolving beyond satisfying their basic needs for food, shelter, safety, proximity to others and exposure to information. Attendees want innovative, unique experiences that challenge their senses, their expectations, their knowledge and their ideas. Fulfilling that potential is the ultimate value of Meeting Design.