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7 Ways to Design an Unforgettable Event

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Jun 01 2018

Ever attend a conference? Then it won’t surprise you to know that every event planner out there wants to disrupt the panel conversation. (We’ve been experimenting with the format for years and sometimes a panel is still the best choice.) What do you do when a panel is truly the star of the show? Can you still design meaningful participation from your guests beyond the Q&A?

This was our challenge when IDEO CEO Tim Brown, pioneering social entrepreneur Jacqueline Novogratz (Founder of Acumen), and visionary CEO Carlos Rodriguez-Pastor (CEO of Intercorp and Founder of Innova Schools) sat down for a conversation about design and bravery in our New York office. We knew these three would inspire guests with heroic stories of using design to create change at scale and challenging orthodoxies. But could we keep the crowd inspired after the conversation ended?

Our best bet, we decided, was to design a series of activities that would send guests on a heroic journey of their own—from hearing the call to adventure to facing fears to celebrating triumph over adversity. The result? A happy swirl of exploration and discovery, with guests staying late to gather around the hands-on exhibits like family in the kitchen at the holidays.

Here are seven ways to leverage a panel discussion and design an event they’ll never forget.

1. A moment to unwind

Create a ritual to help guests wash away the baggage of the day and be present for all that follows. We invited guests to partake in a sonic shower, an immersion in music that stretches the ears and awakens the senses. Here’s the playlist and liner notes from that night, courtesy of Alex Gallafent.

Try this: An aromatherapy bar for deep breaths of invigorating or relaxing scents.

2. Active imagining

Even the most thought-provoking panels amount to a type of passive contemplation for listeners. Follow a panel with a prompt to actively imagine. We asked guests to hear the call of service, by imagining they were a person they serve and writing in that person’s voice in response to questions like, “What would it take for you to feel confident about the future?”

Try this: A finish-the-doodle mural wall or a listening booth with a guided meditation.

3. Space to be vulnerable

Offer your guests the surprising jolt of inspiration that comes from being vulnerable and naming your fears. We designed an anonymous confessional, tricked out with blacklight and digital wizardry, where guests wrote their fears on a private screen, then watched their words magically appear on a monitor in type for party guests to see.

Try this: Pair strangers up using matching name tags and asking them to find each other and swap secrets.

We designed an anonymous confessional to help guests embrace vulnerability.

4. Fast-tracked inspiration

Inspiration can also be fast and light. We sent guests on a tour of themed rooms devoted to New York’s legendary cultural movements—Punk, BeBop, Hip Hop, the Beats, and the Harlem Renaissance. Each room was chock-a-block with images, sound, and strips of paper bearing anthemic words from the movement. It was a blast of culture felt through the senses.

Try this: Give guests a deck of cards created from your favorite inspirational Instagram memes.

Guests were invited to tour the most iconic cultural movements in New York history.

5. Skin in the game

Putting one’s body on the line—through movement, physical sensation, or embodied action—is the ultimate form of engagement. For our biggest test of bravery, we dared guests to stick their arm through a hole in a black screen to blindly receive a semi-permanent Jagua-ink tattoo from an artist on the other side. No requests or restrictions permitted.

Try this: Ask guests to enter a space through one of two thresholds marked by declarations of identity, like “I’m an artist” or “I’m an activist.”

The ultimate trust exercise—blindly allowing a stranger to draw on your skin with semi-permanent ink.

6. Making

Who doesn’t like to roll up their sleeves and craft something fun? Making gives your guests an outlet for any new, creative ideas your event has inspired. We handed guests shortbread cookies, pipette bags full of icing, and examples of exquisite cookie decoration to emulate.

Try this: A collage-making table with old magazines, construction paper, scissors, and glue sticks.

7. Silly celebration

Even the most buttoned-up among us appreciate the chance to let their hair down. We gave permission to get silly with an IDEO designer’s GIF Dance Party, accompanied by another designing spinning live music. Guests grooved in front of a camera for a few seconds, then watched their avatar populate a digital dance floor on monitors throughout the space.

Try this: A box of masks and capes and the promise of a free drink for anyone who orders as a superhero.

We asked guests to get jiggy with it, and they obliged.

To summarize: Get creative. Get physical. Get weird. Your guests will thank you for it.

Got an idea for an out-of-the-box event activity? Share it with us on Twitter using the hashtag #DisruptThePanel.

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