Conference Organizers Are Space Designers, Cultural Translators And Learning Facilitators

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Meeting space is the body language of the conference host organization.*

Conference organizers have the ability to transform behavior, affect mood and foster learning with their attention and intention to the space’s design. Their lack of intention to that design also has an impact on the attendee.

Your Space Decisions Define Your Beliefs

The conference venue’s form, functionality and final room layout reflect the beliefs, behaviors, culture and priorities of the conference organizer and the host organization.

The subtlety of the space’s design space tells us a lot about the organization and its planner. Attendees know if the organization believes only in a hierarchical, top-down, command and control approach. Or if they encourage collaborative communication, horizontal approaches.

Rooms in theater seating with dim lights are to accommodate as many people as possible. Attendees know they are to passively consume the experience. They know it’s a top-down, speaker-is-more-important-than-attendee experience.

Rooms with pods or crescent rounds and full light provide a different experience. Attendees interpret this room layout to mean they will be involved in collaborative discussion. It’s an all attendees are equal and bring their ideas to the table experience. The presenter acts more as a facilitator of learning.

Ultimately, conference organizers have an opportunity to focus on the actions and tasks attendees will use in each space. Then they can design the space to enhance those actions and nurture specific behaviors.

Four Space Design Categories

Make Space authors Scott Doorley and Scott Witthoft created a design template that identifies four space categories. Each category addresses the who and the what of that space. It serves as a spatial grammar guide to designing space, its culture, the behaviors and learning experiences.

These categories can help conference organizers identify the needs and opportunities presented by an existing space. It also identifies how to configure the space for different behaviors.

1. Places

Places are the “zones” for your space. They range from a communal home base to gathering spaces for collaboration to thresholds and transitions.

Planning broad zones rather than specific, detailed rooms is an important first step in designing space. Conference organizers need to define that area of use first. Then they use details to define and support the space such as carpet and color changes.

Thinking of places as zones that support behaviors helps isolate the fundamental needs. This also can lead to novel and important innovations.

2. Properties

Properties are the specific aspects of people or space that are altered to effect behavior.

The six properties include posture, orientation, surface, ambience, density and storage. Each of these properties can be manipulated to alter attendees’ behaviors and moods.

3. Actions

Actions are attendees’ behaviors and tasks.

Conference organizers can arrange an environment to provoke and support specific behaviors. There are six specific actions that meeting professionals can encourage at their conferences and events.

4. Attitudes

Attitudes are cultural values and habits.

Conference organizers ultimately seek to shape attitudes and their corresponding behaviors.

Designing spaces that foster these attitudes is the holy grail of conference planning. The first step is to define the attitudes that organizers seek to nurture in their attendees. Some organizations use their core values to define the attitudes. Then organizers need to strike a balance between being comprehensive, actionable as well as allowing the attendees’ attitudes to evolve.

*To paraphrase Chris Flink of the and IDEO who says “Space is the body language of an organization.”

Which of these four categories need more emphasis in your conference planning process? What happens when conference planners do not focus on these four categories when planning their meetings and events?

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