Innovating a Better Conference: Part Three – Using Design Thinking to Enhance Association Conferences, Meetings and Events

Graphic showing inventions and innovation

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Molly Marsh Cropped Photo

Molly Marsh


Design thinking has emerged as a major force for transformation in the association industry (don’t believe me, see how pervasive it is in industry publicationsconferences and research). When you see the results, it should be no surprise that this is where we’re headed. Applying principles of Meeting Design to conferences can transform a meeting from a list of activities on an agenda to an immersive experience that drives learning, professionalism and ongoing engagement.

Incorporating design-inspired steps, questions and considerations into conference planning empowers organizers to innovate new and better conferences. Each part of this series will explore a different aspect of the design process, demonstrating how the conference experience is enhanced by one simple shift in planning methodology: do everything with the end in mind.

View Previous Entries In This Series here: Part 1Part 2

Part Three – The Design

This is where things get fun. Not only is it likely the most familiar phase for planners and conference organizers, it’s where you get your hands dirty and start working on the actual planning of the event. Association meeting professionals spend countless hours on the myriad details required to execute a flawless production, ensuring every box is checked, i is dotted, t is crossed…

But how many times have you put in all this time and energy, tried new ideas, carefully crafted scripts, selected delicious menus and proofed (and re-proofed) conference materials, just to have the on-site components fall flat? The AV is good, the meal service on-time and as ordered, speakers arrive and perform as contracted; you’ve checked all the boxes, but something is missing.

Think of it like a puzzle. Each piece has a unique shape, with each curve and corner having to line up perfectly with the piece next to, above and below it. Even though you’re looking for one piece, with that one specific shape, you end up looking at the picture on the front of the box, right? It’s because that one piece doesn’t really have any significance on its own, it matters because of how it fits with the pieces around it and because without that one piece, the image on the front of the box will never be realized.

That’s design thinking. Realizing that one puzzle piece, or element of the conference, can’t exist or have any meaning on its own. Each aspect of your conference – from your food and beverage selection, to the design of your name badges, to the seating arrangements, to the format for education sessions – should be seen and planned as an essential opportunity to help your association actualize conference goals. For example, if one of the goals of the conference is to ensure everyone leaves the event with three new contacts, that vision for the attendee experience drives how you put together each piece of the puzzle. Planning a luncheon isn’t just about checking off the details for that event; it’s looking at how you can use the food as a discussion piece to get people talking, how the seating could be arranged to allow for more one-on-one conversations, how the printed menu or table cards can include conversation starters or reminders to share their contact info with one another. That meal isn’t really a meal, it’s a small portion of the overall conference experience you’re trying to create.

So, take those moments to look back at the “front of the box” throughout the planning process. If you do, you’ll have a complete puzzle when you’re done. Nothing will be missing or out of place and the conference experience will leave participants with a unified, cohesive and purposeful image of your association.

Molly Marsh Cropped Photo
Molly Marsh

Degrees and Credentials:
Certified Meeting Professional (CMP); Bachelor of Arts, Transylvania University

Association Management Professional Since:

What inspires you about your work?
I have a passion for the world of professional associations and the essential support, resources and connections they provide for members. I am an adult learning and meeting design nerd –I am continually inspired by the chance to design face-to-face meetings and innovate content strategy with new techniques, technologies and ideas.

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