Back to top

Why You Should Stop Planning Events & Start Designing Them

By Matt Alderton, Successful Meetings

In a world that’s full of fun and flavorful breakfast cereals, Kellogg’s Corn Flakes seem awfully bland and boring. But the truth is: Corn Flakes aren’t insipid — they’re innovative.

Created in 1894, they were the brainchild of John Harvey Kellogg, who worked as a superintendent at Battle Creek Sanitarium in Battle Creek, MI. In his job at the hospital, he witnessed patient after a patient struggle to eat toast. So, he came up with the idea of boiling wheat, then rolling and baking the softened grains into cereal that patients could ingest more easily. When he applied the same technique to corn instead of wheat, Corn Flakes were born.

Today, countless beloved brands have followed in Kellogg’s footsteps, including Apple, Airbnb, Warby Parker, Nest, Pinterest, and Uber, just to name a few. Although they sell vastly different products in vastly different verticals, each has earned a cult-like following of passionate customers by embracing a principle known as “design thinking.”

The concept is simple: Like Kellogg did with Corn Flakes, companies that practice design thinking create products and services with their end users in mind. They don’t design for the sake of design; rather, they look for problems and then they engineer solutions, all the while keeping in mind the people who must ultimately benefit from their creations.

A few years ago, Dutch meeting professionals Roel Frissen and Ruud Janssen theorized that they could drive better meeting outcomes by taking the same user-centric approach to events that successful brands take to products. In 2014, they launched the Event Canvas, a visual tool with which to apply design thinking to meeting and event planning. A pictorial chart that helps meeting professionals document their events’ challenges, opportunities, and objectives, it has since spawned a book, “Event Design Handbook: Systematically Design Innovative Events Using the #EventCanvas”; a consultancy, Event Design Collective; and a training curriculum: the  Event Design Certificate  (EDC) program, an immersive three-day training course after which participants receive six months of #EventCanvas coaching and a “Certified Event Designer” (CED) designation that symbolizes their competence in design thinking.

To find out how design thinking can benefit meeting professionals, Successful Meetings recently spoke with Frissen about the Event Canvas and the EDC program.

Where did the idea for the #EventCanvas come from?

In those 15 to 20 years that I have been working in the meetings industry, I have seen always the same discussion going on; everyone wants to know: How can we elevate the meeting professional? How can we elevate the industry? How can we elevate, elevate, elevate? There’s a reason that conversation is still going on after so many years: because it’s not going anywhere.

We were at a conference in Berlin when we heard a guy named Alexander Osterwalder speak. He’s the inventor of the Business Model Canvas. He said, “You’re not a serious profession without serious tools.” Right away, we thought, “Whoa! What kind of tools do we have? Excel?” We couldn’t name more than that.

There’s no language for people to speak to each other about events in a meaningful way. Everybody has an opinion, yes, but there is no language for having a meaningful conversation and elevating it to a strategic level where you can define what events should deliver. So we immersed ourselves in two years of research and development. We wanted to make a tool to help people understand events better and talk about events differently, but also to help them design. Because after some years we understood that what this was, really, was applied design thinking, which is thinking from the user perspective — putting yourself in the shoes of the user, empathizing with them, and developing a design from there.

And the result of your R&D was the #EventCanvas — the goal of which is what, exactly?

While the #EventCanvas is a trademarked name, the idea and the methodology is available under Creative Commons. We give it out so people can use it however they want. They can download the canvas and play with it, for example, or print it out in the form of a big chart and hang it on the wall. We encourage that.

At the end of the day, design isn’t a solo sport. Design is a team sport. So what does this do? It aligns the team and allows you to take time together to consciously design in a very structured way. Another thing is: Some people have great ideas, but don’t know how to articulate them and sell them to decision makers; Event Canvas helps you do that.

So the #EventCanvas is as much about the meeting-planning process as it is the meeting-planning product?

Yes. There’s constant friction between event owners and event planners because they don’t necessarily speak the same language. We try to bridge the gap between them. Because you can design something brilliant, but what good are brilliant ideas if you cannot execute them? Many planners want to evolve in their career and do something more. What we give them is a methodology and some skills, but also a different attitude in terms of how to talk about events to senior executives. They don’t want to be burdened with nitty-gritty details; they want to validate your design at a more strategic level. That’s only possible if you speak the right language.

And yet, it’s got to be about more than just communication, right? Ultimately, design has to be about improving the final product — the meeting — as well. To use your own vocabulary, how does the #EventCanvas “elevate” meetings and events?
After two years of development we discovered two basic principles. The first principle is: Successful events change behavior. We’re not looking for 180-degree change, but for small, incremental change — small steps people do different as a result of having attended an event. When you create an event with the #EventCanvas, there are 14 building blocks, and the last two are: Experience Journey and Instructional Design. Those two components create learning, which results in behavior change.

The second principle is: Successful events are designed for more than one stakeholder. It may sound obvious, but it’s really that simple. Design thinking is all about empathizing with the user and trying to develop something for that user. But when it comes to events, there is not one user; there are many users, and that makes it complicated. A sponsor, for example, can have a different and conflicting stake in an event compared to an attendee; you have to carefully design to make both parties happy. The other 12 building blocks in the #EventCanvas are about doing a deep stakeholder analysis — putting yourself in the shoes of stakeholders and looking at your event from their angle. We have another tool, the Empathy Map, which also helps with that; we use it to review for each stakeholder what they see, hear, feel, see, and do, as well as what are their pains (e.g., fears, frustrations, obstacles) and gains (e.g., wants, needs, measures of success).

It’s clear how the #EventCanvas benefits planners and their meetings. But how about the EDC program? What’s the case for getting certified?

It’s the same as starting a business without a plan versus starting a business with a plan. Those with a plan are more successful.

I must say, 80 to 90 percent of meeting planners already design meetings well without even using this methodology. The problem is: What happens if you’re not there? What happens if the organization takes a different route, or you get a new CEO? How do you ensure your event stays on track? One of my first projects was with a client who planned a $40 million event every year. Then they got a new CEO. I asked the vice president of marketing: What happens to your event if your new CEO says, “Your event costs $40 million? That’s a lot of money. Do it for $6 million. What is your response? What are your arguments?” Because they know how to look through different stakeholder lenses, and how to talk about changing behaviors instead of throwing a nice party, Certified Event Designers are better prepared to have that discussion with the CEO.

Any final thoughts? What else do meeting professionals need to understand about event design in general, and the #EventCanvas in particular?

What we try to challenge people to do is to put their events on a timeline, because you ultimately want to change [attendee] behavior over time. I’m a sailor. If you’re a good sailor, when you look back at your sail you don’t want to see a curved line; you want to see a straight line because that means you are on course. It’s the same thing with events. When you look back on your past events, you want to see a straight line towards your end goal. So, we try to get people to design today for an event in 2025; ask yourself what you can implement in 2018 or 2019 that will keep you on course to 2025.