Conference Design: Focus on Function, Not Just Form

“In most people’s vocabularies, design means veneer. It’s interior decorating. It’s the fabric of the curtains or the sofa. But to me, nothing could be further from the meaning of design. Design is the fundamental soul of a human-made creation that ends up expressing itself in successive outer layers of the product or service.”
—Steve Jobs, Founder and CEO, Apple

It used to be that most American homes came with a formal dining room, a room designated for a specific purpose, but rarely used beyond it.  It was a waste of space.

More contemporary home design begins with an understanding of the way the homeowners live and the activities their space must support: eating, socializing, consuming media, sleeping, working, exercising, gardening, and many more.  Just because you will be eating doesn't mean you need (or want) a room for that purpose alone.  The same is true for the home office.  At one time, you may have wanted a specific room for office purposes because you needed the designated space for a desk, a desktop computer, a printer, a filing cabinet, and much more.  Now you can get by with just a few shelves or a small closet given our adoption of laptops and tablets.

Just as this trend in home design can inform the design or remodel of office space, so can it inform our design efforts for multiple-day leadership and learning experiences.  Begin with gaining some clarity around the activities/functions people will want to engage in as a part of your event and the value those activities presumably create.  Then identify ways to infuse and integrate the activities and the throughout the experience, not just in an isolated timeblock specific to one purpose.  Having a networking reception is nice, but creating multiple networking opportunities in general sessions, breakouts, and at meals is even nice. 

Once that is accomplished, dig deeper into the value being sought behind the activities that attendees will want to engage it at the event.  Networking, for example, embraces multiple value propositions: finding someone who can give me a job, finding a business partner for a service my organization needs, diversifying my professional network in general, et al.  Once possible value propositions for any specific function/activity have been identified, look at all the various forms you can leverage to help attendees acquire that value beyond your usual defaults.

In addition to this general emphasis on functions, the value behind them, and diversifying the forms you consider in your design, the following more tactical design questions can help develop a more valuable conference and learning experience.
  1. What are the "must includes" in the gathering?  Think from both a content and a people standpoint: we need to cover this information/these topics, provide these types of learning opportunities, make sure these people have visibility in front of the entire group, involve these folks as presenters, etc.
  2. What are the "it would be nice to includes"?  Example: 10-minutes of comments from the organization's president.
  3. What are the logistics constraints we need to operate under (start and finish times each day, meals, budget, etc.)?
  4. What would you most like people to be saying about their conference experience after it concludes and how they feel about the organization and their role within it?
  5. What might be possible/desirable to do before the event and as a follow-up to strengthen the experience and the overall results you'd like to achieve?
  6. What are your overall desired learning outcomes, the knowledge you want people to leave with, and the actions you want them to feel capable of taking?
  7. Are there any "wild ideas" you've been thinking about that we should introduce into the mix?
  8. What are the unique characteristics of your attendees that should inform the design and delivery of the leadership conference experience?
  9. How can we maximize the interaction among participants, support any collaborative endeavors, and increase their retention, sharing, and application of the content covered? 
  10. How can technologies (both electronic and in other forms) be used to help participants connect to each other, the conversations they value, and the insights they seek?
 What are some other conference design questions you find most helpful?