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Steal These 8 Design Tips for Thanksgiving

Nov 22 2016

How do we throw a Thanksgiving dinner for 400 employees and their families? Very carefully. My team, who focus on our collective experience in the IDEO San Francisco office, plans all of the logistics and details for the night and then execute fast and furiously. As with most event production, it’s part creative exercise, part leap of faith. Hosting your own feast of gratitude this year? Go ahead, steal these ideas.

Flower Mart 2

Frisco crew picks up bay laurel and berry branches at the local flower mart (right); Palo Alto crew arranges the goods.

1. Hit up your local flower mart

Go to where your neighborhood florists get their flowers. Arrive early and look for things which will give you bang for your buck such as large bundles of greens which can be trimmed and pulled apart, put into vases, laid on tables as runners or even piled around candles. Buy a smaller quantity of more expensive branches which have colored buds or leaves and use them as accents. Stay away from live flowers which need water and you can set up your table and other decor starting on Wednesday.


When you're entertaining many, a non-fussy handmade centerpiece works best.

2. String lights aren't just for winter holidays

Place small fairy lights in mason jars, string them around your mantel flanked with pumpkins and bay leaves, and even add to the walls of your bathrooms. Warm glowing lights go a long way to make your space feel celebratory.

3. Use inexpensive butcher paper as a table runner

For fun, you can stamp the paper with festive images or sayings. Leave a glass jar of colored pencils or crayons on the table and watch your guests color, draw and let their creative confidence shine. Butcher paper over a white table cloth looks more refined, or you can use just the paper as your entire table covering for a more rustic look.

Chideo Pies

4. Hold a pie contest

Everyone loves a little friendly competition. And pie. They love pie! Why not combine both and off load some of the baking? Invite a few outside friends to act as “judges” and whip up some awards like these cute Le Creuset pie birds to up the ante.

5. Set up a bar outside the kitchen

Setting up a designated spot for the bar is a big plus to keep people out of the kitchen while you are cooking or serving, but don't forget to have wine and water on the table where people are seated for dinner. This allows your guests to have that toasty communal feel even if you aren't serving family style.


A collective way to give thanks (and decorate your wall). Use some free online art to create flash cards for people to fill in.

6. Design something that all your guests contribute to

Have everyone write an "I am thankful for ____" card and hang them from a clothespin on twine (shown above), or put a Polaroid camera and a bowl of thumbtacks on a stool let people create a photo wall. A communal craft or experience brings people together (even when their politics don't).

Nico 2

Walking away with a high-res family holiday card was a major perk, but an iPhone on a tripod would do the trick at a house party.

7. Set up a photo booth

Our resident photographer, Nico, invited us all to pay a visit to his "fish locker" on the way out to get our portraits taken. But you don't need a professional setup to create great snapshots. Simply mount an iPhone on a tripod, reserve a wall, and fill a box with a stash of fall props like turkey hats, a cornucopia, giant utensils, a plastic drumstick, and maybe a bonnet (yes, there's a pilgrim costume category on Amazon).


An extinct guest graced our Chicago studio meal.

8. Invite a T.rex to dinner

Our Chicago Managing Directors gave the studio’s traditional Thanksgiving toast wearing an inflatable dinosaur costume. You don’t have to go to such Mesozoic extremes, but it never hurts to throw some random, unexpected sumpin’ sumpin’ in the mix to make an event extra memorable—and Instagrammable.

  • Kim Powers

    Director of Experience, IDEO San Francisco
    Kim Powers is the Director of Experience for IDEO in San Francisco, CA. She focuses on designing extraordinary physical, emotional and thoughtful experiences for every aspect of employee and guest interaction.