Pathable : Event App Technology Blog

Design Thinking and Event Planning: How To Get Started

This guest column is dedicated to exploring design thinking as a business strategy in the MICE industry. In it, John Nawn continues to explore common challenges facing meeting industry professionals and share how they can address those challenges. 

Why are companies of all shapes and sizes embracing design thinking as a business strategy? Because design thinking is more than “experience”; it is making decisions based on what future attendees and customers want instead of relying only on historical data or gut instinct instead of evidence.

What does this mean for MICE professionals? You might be surprised to learn that many in the MICE supplier section of our industry are already using it. For instance, Pathable’s team uses design thinking in creating great mobile event apps and marketing websites for their clients. Others, like GES and PSAV, use design thinking use it in stage and AV design.

But those are technology and creatives, you say! Not event planners. What’s the relevance to our meetings day to day?


First though, let’s explore design thinking as a business strategy.

Design as a Business Strategy

Design as a business strategy is not new. It’s been around for some time. It’s just that it’s really starting to pay dividends now. There are academic-based programs going back to the 1930s that spawned today’s leading design schools at Stanford, Rotman
(Toronto), IIT (Chicago, my alma mater), Parson’s (New York), and the London School of Business in England, to name just a few.

Graduates of programs like these entered the business world and began plying their craft to very little effect, at first. It wasn’t until the 1980s when the 3rd Industrial Revolution (digital) was accelerating when the need for more innovation to solve increasingly complex problems that the role of designer evolved from that of a lowly craftsman to a truly professionalized discipline complete with established principles, methodologies, tools, and techniques.

Today, perhaps the best example of a design-centric company is Apple, the most successful company in the history of the world. Indeed, taking design as seriously as most companies take strategy creates more value for Apple in a year than most companies create. Its product design has been described as beauty, delight, and amazement that separates rapidly commoditizing ‘product’ (like phones) from stuff that’s treasured, adored, loved, and envied. They designed a functional eco-system from which you interact with the world while making it aesthetically pleasing to boot.

Starbucks is another design-centric company. They were not content to simply provide customers with a coffee product (and an expensive one at that) or even a service. They give you with an experience. It’s that leather sofa, the Norah Jones in the background, and the most sought-after resource in the world: unlimited Wi-Fi. They designed the “third” place (after home and work). IKEA representatives visit thousands of home each year (as they have for decades) to find out what people want and need. They watched closely, scrutinized, and analyzed, and found out what worked and what didn’t. They designed a global lifestyle (and got you to assemble it yourself).

A third example is IKEA, the Swedish furniture megastore. IKEA representatives visit thousands of home each year (as they have for decades) to find out what people want and need. They watched closely, scrutinized, and analyzed, and found out what worked and what didn’t. They then designed a global lifestyle (and got you to assemble it yourself).

How Does Design Thinking Pay Off?

What do these companies have to show for their efforts? How’s “design thinking” working for them? Funny you should ask.


The Design Index tracks the value of publicly held companies that met specific design management criteria and monitored the impact of their investments in design on stock value over a ten-year period, relative to the overall S&P Index.

The index companies include Apple, Coca Cola, Ford, Herman-Miller, IBM, Intuit, Newell-Rubbermaid, Nike, Procter & Gamble, Starbucks, Starwood, Steelcase, Target, Walt Disney, Whirlpool, and others. 2015 results show that over the last 10 years design-led companies have maintained a significant stock market advantage, outperforming the S&P by an extraordinary 219%.

The promise and value of design thinking are actually quite simple.

Design as a business strategy allows these companies to reduce their costs while simultaneously increase their value proposition.

Reducing costs while adding value is the Holy Grail of business (and meetings!). Some companies are better at one than the other (more often, reducing costs). But if you can do both, you can develop a sustainable competitive advantage in the marketplace. And if it’s one thing these companies have in common, it’s a sustainable competitive advantage in the marketplace.Pursuing design as a business strategy is a primary reason for that.

What Does Design Thinking Offer for Event Managers?

Imagine lowering your meeting and event costs while simultaneously increasing the value of that meeting and event to your organization or your client. Instead of meetings being seen as a cost center, you instead would be the architect of a profit center. Thinking strategically about how to design and execute the meeting, while saving money and increasing value goes a long way in securing that proverbial “seat at the table”.

How to Get Started with Design Thinking

How do you usually start a meeting re-design? Examine the two largest meetings that you manage by breaking them down into different sections, pulling out that trusty spreadsheet and starting to calculate the actual costs for the last two to three years. Seeing areas you can save money. Then, start writing out ideas for the future based on your need for cost savings?

Stop for a moment in unpacking your normal process and ask yourself these questions: How would that help you preserve your budget? Would that help improve your job security? More importantly, would that help you increase your earning potential?

Not necessarily. You’re simply retreading old ground with some probable cost savings. That likely won’t increase the value of the meeting for your clients by giving them the same experience again. Your attendees are facing new challenges in the new year. The new meeting needs to rise to that.

Instead, think about the numerous planning sessions you’re having about those two meetings. And if you’re not having planning (or brainstorming meetings), then schedule them. Talk about what is the goal you’re trying to accomplish by having the meeting? What are the issues and problems that your prospective attendees are trying to solve through attending your meeting?

Take those goals and ideate around them. Draw out some concepts, go get feedback to test your concepts, fail a bit, and grow the strongest ideas.

Design thinking and failure walk hand in hand. Sounds scary? Perhaps.

But 219% payoff above the average sounds like success. Incorporating design thinking in your meeting planning process gives you and your organization a better chance at achieving those results and creating an amazing attendee experience.

Till next time.

John Nawn is the CEO and founder of the Perfect Meeting, a design firm specializing in optimizing the attendee experience. John is a leading authority on Meeting Design and determining the business value of meetings and events. Learn more at

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