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Design the future you want to see

In my Preparing for the Future – Part  One blog, I referenced my participation in a UFI Global CEO Summit that explored the sustainability of the exhibitions industry. This blog picks up with the need to adopt a design-thinking approach to planning for the future.

Design forward.

Bruce Mau – designer, author, visionary and Freeman’s Chief Design Officer – has taught us the value of looking at events the way a designer does. He says, “We need to design forward, because when we live and work in a world of constant forward momentum, standing still is going backwards. What does not evolve, dies.” Our attendees are going forward. Every year they arrive at our shows with a new set of expectations. They want to see new technology, new ideas, and new applications. If we don’t design forward we are going to be left behind. Without innovation, we are destined for the boneyard.

Define what beautiful looks like.

No matter how many anniversaries a show or convention is celebrating, the planners need to look at it objectively and consider the opportunity to add more value. Examine what worked and what didn’t – and articulate a vision for what the show could ultimately offer. Remember to be intentional about metrics, and design-in a plan to measure success in a meaningful way that helps you design it better next time.

We call this “defining what Beautiful looks like.” What will it take to ensure that each stakeholder in the event is going to achieve their objectives? What about the super stakeholders – the anchor exhibitors who have invested in the show and have put their own brand equity at stake? And don’t forget the other audiences: press, attendees, and the host city. As planners and strategists, we must define what success means to each of them – what beautiful looks like for every distinct audience group – and then design a plan that takes us from here… to there. If we always design for the gap, we can achieve continuous improvement (and avoid the death spiral) while remaining relevant even as audience needs change. Revisit the plan every year – wash, rinse, repeat.

Break through the noise.

Once we commit to the habit of continuous improvement, we can seize the opportunity to innovate. Bruce Mau urges us to “break through the noise.” Many things are competing for the attention of our intended audiences – not just other shows and other media channels, but other demands on their time. We live and work amidst a cultural hubbub that obscures the messages we are trying to put out there. We can try to outshout the other guys. Or we can focus our resources in a way that helps us rise above the din. This is the sweet spot – the place where you find the money to do new things and still protect your margins. When we strive to make the experience personal, we help participants tune out the white noise and fully engage with us.