Why Design Thinking Is the Future

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The key to meeting success in the future lies in design thinking. Case in point: When worldwide shipping firm Maersk met with Maritz Global Events about planning its 2015 North American sales meeting, the agreement came with a caveat. “We told them, ‘You can have our full meeting if you can do the design work around it,’” says Timothy Simpson, then head of marketing and communications with Maersk Line North America. “We’d had a pretty tough year in 2014 and needed to galvanize our people to underscore how important they were to the company’s success.”

Until then, Maersk, like the shipping industry in general, had been sliding down a recession-made slope, buffeted by layoffs, erratic revenues, cautious buyers and low employee morale. What they didn’t need, says Simpson, was another event that required a lot of work and went way over budget with mixed results. Instead, Maritz steered Simpson’s division through an entirely different channel to its annual event, crafting a program that came in $60,000 under budget, ranked highest in Maersk post-meeting evaluations and turned 2015 into one of the division’s most profitable years ever. 


More than ever, attendees are better educated and more aware of their purpose both within an association as well as the world around them. They are demanding better meeting results from their boards and management. Thus, the experiences of Maritz and other incentive houses that have embraced design thinking can serve any planner well, no matter what type of group or meeting they plan for.

For those unfamiliar with the concept, design thinking, or DT, isn’t necessarily a new or particularly novel idea (see “By the Book” sidebar). A brief Google search will uncover many websites defining and discussing DT, brimming with buzzwords like ideate, empathize and rapid prototyping. You’ll also easily find enthusiastic proponents and practitioners of design thinking, notably Stanford University’s Institute of Design and design thinking site IDEO, whose CEO Tim Brown has written and spoken extensively about the subject.

For planners, design thinking essentially boils down to personalizing a message. That means thoroughly understanding the “ends” of a meeting or incentive program (e.g., the employees, attendees, top performers) to develop the most effective “means” to achieve the clients’ (corporations, associations, faith groups) goals. Like Dorothy looking to leave Oz, design thinking has been with us all along. It simply needed someone to recognize its usefulness, brand it (Maritz calls it experience design; at USMotivation, it’s clarity research; for IDEO, human-centered design), and apply it in a meeting or incentive setting.

For example, a home appliance manufacturer is concerned about why revenues from its 400-person sales team have dropped for two successive years. A traditional response might find the C-suite requesting an incentive that rewards its top 20 yearly performers with five days at a luxurious resort, to be announced at the company’s annual meeting. While not necessarily writing off that option, design thinkers would remind the client that the award alone doesn’t determine why the overall sales team isn’t performing better. Questions are critical: What’s behind the falling revenues? How do the salespeople truly feel about their roles? How do they think things can improve at their company?

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“You need to think about what intrinsically motivates the employee, the attendee, the recipient, and put tangibles around why you need to change what you’re doing,” says Maggie Wenthe, marketing strategy leader at ITA Group, an event management firm. While not yet entrenched in the industry, she says, “motivology” (ITA’s term for DT) is where meetings and incentives are headed.

The good news is any planner, no matter the group, its size or its purpose, can apply design thinking principles and enhance a meeting for the better. “You learn by doing, and yes, that’s a little risky,” says Wenthe. But by getting deep into the mindset of your audience, she adds, you can better understand what truly makes them tick—job satisfaction, community service, earning power, quality of life—and thus design a meeting or program that delivers the most productive results.


When Maritz Global Events President David Peckinpaugh joined the company in 2011, “not much was being done in design thinking for meeting and events,” he says. Determined to change that, he set about implementing the concept at his new company. “Our basic goal was: How do we creatively solve problems in a very different way with our customers?” says Peckinpaugh. Working with speaker and author Jim Gilmore (“The Experience Economy”), The Maritz Institute and Maritz’s Vice President of Experience Design Greg Bogue, Peckinpaugh came up with Maritz’s own methodology. They called it experience design, described on the company’s website as a people-centered, science-based approach to producing meetings and events.

While reluctant to reveal much about the nuts and bolts of the proprietary process, Peckinpaugh describes the system as twofold, covering both design-thinking skill sets practiced internally by Maritz employees and the framework used to create meetings and events for its customers. Five years later, he says, the process has proven transformative. “We’ve looked at things internally—how it has assisted in new client acquisitions and retention for existing clients—and it’s been an incredible accelerator of our business,” says Peckinpaugh. “We’ve doubled our bottom-line results since 2011.”

One key element of how experience design works is the company’s soul-searching innovation lab, where Maritz employees meet up with various members of the client’s team to hash out their work-environment challenges and meeting/incentive expectations. Prior to its 2015 sales meeting, a dozen members of Maersk’s North American sales team, from top execs to sales reps, spent two days with Maritz, talking over their hopes and concerns. The process was intense but ultimately cathartic. “It gave people a platform to speak freely in front of our sales leader,” says Timothy Simpson, then head of marketing and communications with Maersk Line North America. “He listened and took what they said to heart.”

Maersk’s management team found the experience beneficial, but given how each customer’s needs are unique, there’s no guarantee on a consistent corporate willingness to buy into any out-of-the-box philosophy. That said, should a client’s attitude be, “Hey, at least they’ve got jobs; let’s get on with our meeting,” DT enthusiasts are prepared to respond with an appropriate pushback.

“Making safe decisions is the antithesis of any good meeting or incentive program,” says Bill Karwoski, vice president of sales and marketing for USMotivation, an incentive marketing company. One reason Karwoski joined the Atlanta-based firm in 2016 was to foster more creative decision-making for clients. Clarity research, USMotivation’s process to do that, analyzes a subject’s emotions using brain research to measure workplace enthusiasm, and thus develop better reward and recognition programs. Karwoski, along with Dr. Stephen Curtis, Ph.D., developed the concept at Sherpa Insight, the marketing research firm he founded in 2010, where he remains president.

Clarity research, says Karwoski, is designed to elicit employees’ most candid assessment of their workplace: How do they feel about it—their boss, co-workers, physical environment? What would their ideal job look like? Once tapped and recorded, those emotions are then quantified into an ideal subject profile, part of a road map companies could use to better hire, engage and retain their employees. “When you compare that profile to what they’re doing currently, you’ll get some deep data to help improve the quality of their employees’ lives,” says Karwoski.


Given how incentive companies have welcomed DT into their own strategic thinking and corporate client programs, there’s no reason it can’t work equally well for associations, faith-based groups and the SMERF community. “The point of design thinking is to make sure all the messages align,” says ITA’s Wenthe. Associations, like corporations, represent a brand, she says, and they need to know who their people are. Planners can use DT to educate board members and executives about why attendees should engage in and remember a meeting and, by extension, their organization. “If you did a product launch at your annual meeting, are you following up with information attendees can use later in their own work?” asks Wenthe. An in-depth, post-meeting evaluation quiz on what people retain and digest helps associations understand their attendees’ expectations and limitations. “If they can’t pass a quiz afterward, then you didn’t do something right,” she says.

RevvCrew is a two-year-old consultancy that uses design thinking to help associations grow membership and non-dues revenues. Co-founders Keith Chamberlain and Garth Jordan honed their current DT skills while on staff at EDUCAUSEwhich represents some 58,000 higher education IT professionals working in 1,900 universities and colleges. In 2011, they developed a blueprint to transform the group’s four disparate regional meetings into a single planning template that would work for each region. “They each had their own infrastructure, their own politics,” which proved expensive and time-consuming, says Chamberlain. The goal was to save money, time and energy and refocus the meetings on the attendees. “We went from stale, hourlong speaker talks to 45-minute roundtable events with content facilitators,” he says. For the first time there was continuity in each event for the planners, vendors and attendees; the meetings (now known as EDUCAUSE Connect) and the messages were in sync. Since that first year, Chamberlain says, attendance and revenues have risen.

Design thinking can also be used by any planner as a tool to educate attendees on how to improve and broaden their quality of life, especially given the number of young people in the workplace. More millennials and Gen Xers are filling meeting seats these days, and they tend to view career and life choices differently from their older co-workers—a trend not lost on some DT enthusiasts.

“They want to be a part of something much larger than themselves, about what it’s really like to work somewhere,” as opposed to what the association brand exudes, says Michelle M. Smith, CPIM, CRP, vice president of marketing at O.C. Tanner, an incentive firm. Smith cites the influx of Gen X employees now reaching middle management and higher and their concerns about economic equality, social responsibility and protecting the environment as a reason to develop congruency in all aspects of the corporate and structure, including meetings. “Try to think about user empathy throughout the meeting,” says Smith. What do attendees want to get out of this meeting, and how can you deliver that in a delightful, surprising and meaningful way? “The message should be uplifting and confident,” adds Smith, “because their purpose is bigger than the task of their daily job.”