Monthly Archives: November 2016

What if… (Design Thinking + Live Events)

Letting Go

We’re still talking about our experience attending RGD’s DesignThinkers 2016 conference a few weeks ago, in part because design thinking has been on our minds for some time now. It’s easy, in the world of live events and communications, to do things as they’ve always been done, especially when you’ve built a solid reputation for doing them that way.

But what if we took some time to reflect on what it is we do, as if we were designers tasked with rethinking the concept of live meetings? This calls to mind Leland Maschmeyer’s discussion of reimagining lip balm (for EoS): letting go of the traditional tube shape and structure was, as it turns out, a risky but necessary first step. (EoS’s round, pastel lip balms have taken the market by storm, knocking ChapStick out of its market dominance.) When you move away from how something’s always been done, you open up possibilities that can strike deeper resonances with your target audiences.

And given that, well, audiences are our thing, we’re curious about what it might mean if we looked more closely at events from a design perspective.

Unknowing the Meeting Experience

As the events industry is now into its second century, we’re seeing interesting shifts and an appetite for change. More interactivity, fewer PowerPoint slides (Rule #1: you always have too many PPT slides), shorter sessions. But it seems like even when we try to change the way meetings happen, we always end up in the same place. We can call a meeting a “Summit,” but unless it does what a Summit does—coming together to discuss things as equals—then it’s just a conference by another name. Ditto for forum, colloquium, symposium.

But our two days with designers have us thinking that even those arrangements might still be within too narrow a paradigm. Rather than focusing on what we know, what would happen if we spent time with what we don’t know about meetings? This brings us necessarily back to Kenya Hara’s “Exformation” theory: that we let go of what we think we know about meetings, and explore the concept of “meeting” by consciously entering into a position of unknowing.

Paved Path   Trodden Path

It’s a bit like walking-paths, which inevitably seem not to be one’s natural walking inclination—as evidenced by the proximate grass-worn paths that people make as they walk where they are inclined to go. The corollary to this is Sheila Heti and Misha Glouberman’s The Chairs Are Where the People Go, which pushes us to rethink something as simple as chair arrangement. Rather than placing chairs and directing people to them, as we’ve always done, why don’t we see where the people go, and place the chairs there?

We’ve become so accustomed to prioritizing a set of things (chairs, stages, slides) rather than the people we want to engage. Focusing on the experiential aspect of “meeting” as idea, exformation—which is really the idea of setting aside all we think we know, and approaching the concept as if we’ve never encountered it before (think of this as the opposition of “information”)—gives us the space to reprioritize and open up to possibilities.

The Answer is in the Question

So … if you could design the first meeting, ever, what would it look like? What would it sound like? How would it feel?

What if, like the strongest relationships, meetings weren’t one-off events—but approached as part of a series of integrated, continuous communication pieces?

How could we create an experience that felt more like one of your most compelling life experiences, and less like an obligation?

What would we be willing to risk to find out?


5 Things to Bring for Presenters

Hardcore presenters always arrive with their bag of tricks, and you should do the same. Like the Scouts, your motto should be “always come prepared.” Here are 5 Things to keep in your kit:

1. Countdown Clock

Going overtime is a sin, full stop. Ending just before your allotted time is over leaves them wanting more. Because you have rehearsed, you know how long each slide takes, but onstage it is easy to lose track. Bring a device with a countdown clock and set it for the REAL time left for your presentation (reducing time if the previous speaker went long). Set it up where you can see it (floor, front row table or podium all work well) and keep yourself on track.

2. Wireless slide advancer

Don’t count on them providing a clicker. Bring your own and arrive in time to make sure it works with their laptop if you are not using your own. If you have no slides and therefore don’t need a clicker, top prize goes to you!!!

3. Black Magic Marker

The extra thick kind. Combine with a flipchart, and you have the most versatile form of “speaker support” known to humankind. Try this great opening: ask your audience, “what are your key questions or concerns about my topic?” and make a list as they call them out. You now have an audience needs assessment and content checklist to connect with their interests.

4. Index cards

For last minute notes, like the names of the people you wish to thank or the audience’s products or services; for distributing as question cards to your audience; for listing the start and stop times you need to manage (agenda at a glance); for capturing quotes from the previous speakers; for folding into squares to raise the broken leg on the projector. The possibilities are endless.

5. Toothbrush

Most of us get nervous before we present, which can cause dry mouth and bad breath. Just before you go on stage, sneak away to wash your hands and face and brush your teeth. You will feel like a million bucks.

RGD, DesignThinkers 2016 – confessions, Part Two


The Thing About Great Ideas

While much of RGD’s DesignThinkers 2016 conference necessarily focused on the visual, there were also integral moments on communication and conceptualization. That’s where Mark Higgins stepped in, to moderate a panel on one of our particular areas of interest: “Where Do Great Ideas Come From?” Panelists Erik Kessels, Leland Maschmeyer, Fredrik Öst, and Erik Kockum drew a full crowd, and the 45-minute session offered a fitting combination of humour and serious thought, with a solid dash of imperfection and spectacle thrown in.*

Higgins opened the discussion with the necessary question, “What is a great idea?” The answers were intriguing in their range and focus, because that question and their follow-ups drew back the performative curtain and gave us real insight into how some of the most successful creative minds work.

The Gardens


Erik Kessels: Dutch artist, designer and curator with a great interest in photography. Erik co-founded Amsterdam-based communications agency KesslesKramer in 1996, where he works for national and international clients.


For Kessels, working towards a great idea is the process of moving from back garden to front garden: the back garden is a freer, more private space. You can do anything back there, protected from the (critical) eyes of the world; you can make a mess, you can tear things down, you can be more yourself, however that looks. But it’s not until you feel ready to take an idea from the back garden through the house to the front garden, Kessel says, that you’ve come close to something like great. That creative free space and its correlated vetting process (can I take this into the house? what will people think if it’s on my front door? can it survive in the front garden?) ensures that you’re not simply enthralled by the production of your brain, even if you need to give it free rein in order to arrive at what works.

The Emotions

snask_roFredrik Öst & Erik Kockum: Founder and Creative Director at Snask, Fredrik Öst’s love for design began with a job he took on creating posters and cover art for a local record label. Erik Kockum is Partner and Creative Director at Snask, who found his passion for creativity through music. The Snask team see the “old conservative world” as their biggest enemy.


Öst and Kockum approached the question from a more affective angle. For them, great ideas are intrinsically emotional: they make you feel something (love, hate, fear, anger—they genuinely don’t seem to care, so long as it gets past polite indifference). Your own responses can be an initial test: is it uncomfortable, is it scary, does it make you insecure. You have to, says Öst, be afraid of your own idea—but be confident in your fear. Because that gut-twisting, shivering emotional response is the sign that you’re close to what you’re looking for.

The Logistics

leland_roLeland Maschmeyer: Chief Creative Officer of Chobani. Prior to joining Chobani in 2016, he was the co-founder and Chief Creative Officer of Collins, a brand and design consultancy with offices in New York and San Francisco. 



Maschmeyer offered his vetting process for the great idea: you don’t want to have seen it before, it should connect to something, and it should always feel new. His stories about conceiving, modifying, and perfecting ideas also noted that there is no “perfect” moment for the great idea, no practice or skill you can acquire in order to produce more of them. As with most creative endeavours, a solid amount of time is spent working on/with the “good enough” ideas—because you can trust that when its time arrives, the great idea will happen. We just have to cede control over it.

And Then There’s the Bad Ideas

Perhaps one of the most valuable threads in the panel conversation, though, was about bad ideas: what you do with them, how you manage them, why they might actually be intrinsic to the entire creative process. Öst and Kockum spoke at different points about how necessary it is to be able to let bad ideas go. Öst’s practice is to keep a notebook and pen beside him at night, so that when he wakes up with that flash of genius!, he can capture the idea rather than lose it to sleep. Of course, the next morning, the flash of genius! is not at all genius, but a kind of concept clearing house, and while Öst wipes away tears at not yet becoming a millionaire, the process is worthwhile because it clears out space for the good ideas.

There’s real trust in that process: hear/see the bad idea, give it time and space. Commit it to paper (or the back garden, Kessel would say), and know that even this frustrating, perhaps even agonizing part is necessary for creativity. This is why Öst advocates for the “yes, and” (an intrinsic part of the improv sketch), so that even if the idea looks and sounds as horrible as it likely is, giving it some airtime might just open up into something else. Something better. Something maybe even close to great. (Higgins offered an interesting counterpart to improv’s “yes, and” by suggesting that in the communications world, “no, but” might be as—if not more—fruitful.)

As much as the Audience team was keen to hear about the latest design trends and thinking, attending DT 2016 reminded us of the necessity to simply be in creative spaces. Not working. Just experiencing.

img_0720*Throughout the panel, Barney (the purple dinosaur, not the suave playboy of HIMYM fame) wandered throughout the room. It sometimes stood facing into a corner. Sometimes walked up and down the aisles. It walked up to the stage and stroked a presenter’s hair.

RGD, DesignThinkers 2016 – confessions, Part One


Audience did a new thing last week: we sponsored and attended the RGD (Registered Graphic Designers) DesignThinkers conference. This 17th incarnation of a two-day immersive dive into the world(s) of design was everything we could have hoped: mind-expanding talks, difficult questions and interesting responses, rock-star antics. While there were some “interesting” moments and a few challenges (no hot drinks in one of the session venues? really? but … creatives!), overall our team left inspired and still talking through some of the most compelling ideas and examples of contemporary design.

The Highlight Reel

It’s impossible to give any kind of concise summation of the experience (although our writers are certainly itching to try), but we wanted to note some of the highlights:

  • Paola Antonelli’s “Are We There Yet? A Road Trip Through Utopia” asked us to look for the positive in design via entanglement and the elemental, complexity and contradiction, ambivalence and ambiguity. From Krebs Cycle of Creativity through to Silk Pavillion and Armpit Cheese (yes, they really did that), Antonelli opened up spaces of thinking and curiousity. This is where fluidity and hybridity are not only the focus of positive design; they are also the key to creating positive design.
  • Emily Lessard’s “Branding & Authenticity: Building Visual Stories” offered three ways to negotiate a project that required refreshing/rethinking over innovation. Lessard drew on her portfolio to highlight Restoration (rebranding aperture magazine; the word mark and logo were under her direction), Preservation (digitizing some of aperture’s most famous photo books), and Overhaul (an extensive re-branding of NYC tourism).
  • Kenya Hara’s “Visualize & Awaken” was like a conceptualist poetic project that asked us, as all good conceptualist poetic projects do, to let go of the idea that we, like, know “Ex-formation” is the antithesis to “information” in an age where we all believe we know more than we actually do. As a design experiment for his students, “Ex-formation” involved re-encountering ideas (Plant, Woman, Camouflage, Nakedness, etc.) as if we didn’t actually know anything about them. It turns out, if you put a tiny pair of underpants on literally any object, it looks human; our understanding of nudity is actualized by clothing.
  • Ashleigh Axios’ “#ThanksObama” gave us a glimpse into the digital creative team at the White House, and how they’ve used digital communications to engage citizens in entirely new ways. Axios calls the goal of her work “real engagement”: focusing on people, and offering purpose. Axios also talked through how her team seeks out both acquired and inherited diversity (what you’re born with/as; what you learn and develop), and the incredible outcomes such a team is able to accomplish. This seems particularly necessary in the design world, where the majority of speakers were still the old status quo.
  • Jake Barton’s “The Future of Virtual is Physical,” like Axios, was invested in the digital for its capacity to bring people and purpose together. The first half of Barton’s presentation walked us through the process of designing and building NYC’s 9/11 Memorial Museum. Equally profound and fascinating, Barton’s design overturns the idea of the museum as a curation of the past by historical experts—and makes the museum an emblem of American democracy: by the people, of the people, for the people. What might be trite in other contexts is rendered intimate and immediate here, as was Barton’s work on the ARoS art museum.
  • The “Working with an In-House Brand” Panel, with Emily Lessard, Bob Calvano, Albert Shum, and Adam Shutsa focused on the practicalities of branding: how to deal with brand guideline documents, ways to ensure consistency across many brands and products (communication!!), working out a brand’s “origin story,” how to deal with internal clients who aren’t designers

Resonances across and between sessions:

  • Authenticity: it’s everyone’s buzz word, but a few speakers did the work of defining it in particular contexts—a moment of connection, it taps into the unexpected and positions itself in relation to something else.
  • Personalization: everyone (Adobe’s Loni Spark, Dan Makoski, Jake Barton, and Connie Birdsall, among others) was talking about the idea of allowing people to personalize their different experiences with brands. You see this approach in consumer-facing software/apps a fair bit, with the creator/maker revolution: it positions everyone as a creator, which in turn deepens their interactions and engagement. Spark contextualized this as the decentralization of branding: it’s no longer a one-way broadcast.
  • Design Doing: Pushing past simply thinking about design and moving into processes that develop deeply engaging experiences. This approach seems to focus more on the moment of communication/action, than on the aesthetics or thinking that went into a brand, design, product.


Later this week, we’ll share Audience’s exploration of “Where Do Great Ideas Come From?” with Mark Higgins (VP Creative) and panelists Erik Kessels, Leland Maschmeyer, Fredrik Öst, and Erik Kockum.