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Design thinking for Event Planning, with Roel Frissen

Posted on 10/29/2019

Design thinking methods became one of the trendiest strategic tools of the last decades. But, besides using it for business models, did you know you can apply it for your event marketing strategy too? Roel Frissen, the creator of the method Event Canvas, talks to us about how he mixed Event Design with Design Thinking in a revolutionary piece of paper.



1 – Who is Roel Frissen when he is not designing the next event, training the next generation of leaders or doing a consulting session? I mean, who is Roel Frissen when he is not working?

I`m married to a lovely wife. I have two sons, one is 11 and the other one is 13 years old. I`m 45 years old and living just outside of Amsterdam.

I’ve studied hotel management and ended up in a PCO – Professional Congress Organizer – which is quite similar to hospitality, but a few times a year instead of every weekend. That’s why I chose the field of events and congresses and stayed in it ever since.

I got involved in Meeting Professionals International, where I became active and also a Board Member and later on Chapter President, and then International Board of Directors. I loved it – doing voluntary voluntary work and to be able to help this industry in growing.



Roel teaching the flow of EventCanvas method.


2 – You’re the creator of Event Design Collective, with your business partner Ruud Jansen. It’s become one of the most acclaimed Event Design certification programs in the world. Can you tell us a bit more about the method: how it works? Where’d you get the inspiration from?

Me and my business partners, Ruud Jansen and Denis Luijer, are the founders of Event Design Collective. That’s a company based in Switzerland which is actually based on one piece of paper: the Event Canvas. Event Canvas is what we call a strategic management template to design events.

First of all, we got the inspiration from a guy called Alexander Osterwalder, the author of the book Business Model Generation. And we had the privilege to meet this guy a few times in person. Actually, we were super geeky about this one piece of paper showing the whole value of everything, being able not only to sketch it, but also to change it a little. 




An event is a temporary business model

I remember we were consulting some event clients to show them how they’re event works. Any event is a temporary business model, so we used the business model canvas to describe an event. It was possible for a certain state, but we could not really prove what the value was.

What is the value of an event, how does an event create value? 

We said let’s do something like that. We were in an event from Alexander, in Berlin, about Business Model Generation. At this stage, he did a call for tool-smiths. So, if this is a tool (Business Model Canvas), then he was looking for more tools like this to reinforce this product as well. The more canvases, the better. So I said: let’s do that.

As long as we came back from this event, we started to build it from scratch. We were like: it’s gonna be easy. But it wasn’t. We took almost two years. Then, on the 14th of Feb 2014, we launched it. Then we realized “hey, that’s our present to the industry, to the world”. Back then it wasn’t the process, just the canvas. And then people were like: this is super cool, but how do I use it? People were super interested and saying: we get it, but we want you to show us how it works. So we did the first training, but we let people know they would have to pay for it. And they were OK.

So, we didn’t start it as a business. We started it just to create a solution for a certain problem. And then the problem was how events create value and how we can help people in the industry to design it.




3 – What does it mean to be an innovative event designer? How does that differ from a normal event designer? And what it takes to be one?

The two basic principles of design thinking for events:

You have to think about two basic principles. (You can see that in this video that explains Event Canvas):

  1. Successful events change behavior.
  2. Successful events have to be designed for multiple stakeholders.

Words such as “strategy” and “innovation” are being repeated everywhere, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that people know what they’re talking about. 

And these are concepts that have on strong thing in common: the perspective of time. You can only understand strategy if you place things on a timeline.

Regarding strategy, an organization board cares about how they can achieve their long term goals and how an event helps them with that. Events are not a goal itself. It’s a means to accomplish something else.

I’d say the same thing goes for innovation. Mainly, it’s about building better solutions and better fits for the challenge ahead. And what’s the challenge ahead? You want to constantly change behavior. And the exiting behavior of one event, can be entering behavior for the next event. If you look to the 21st, 22nd, 23rd event, over the years you can actually change behavior overtime. It’s gonna be a small change in the next conference, but a series of four years can present something huge. And I think innovation is actually bring it to perspective, creating the ultimate fit and change it overtime.

You have to be creative to change that behavior, but also make sure you fit in the frame. Strategy and innovation come together. And for all of that, you first need to understand what’s the problem.



Noetic and Ineffable

We’ve been listening a lot about immersive experiences. But what exactly immersive means? You can only know that if you’ve been there. I just went for a conference of the College of Extraordinary Experiences. These are crazy creative guys from live action role-play industry.

What I want to share is that one of these creators actually told that extraordinary experiences are noetic and ineffable . You are not the first one who’s gonna need to Google these words.

So what’s noetic? It’s when it’s hard to find the words for what just happened to you. You cannot even describe it.

And ineffable means that, if you weren’t there, you cannot understand the feeling.

Maybe you can go to a football game and there’s a huge atmosphere. But when you get home and somebody asks you how that was, you can say you had a beer, sang songs and saw a good football match. But you know that it was more, you know what you felt, but it’s hard to explain.

It’s super nice to look at that. And to create those experiences, you have to be very specific. That’s why it’s so hard to design something extraordinary.



4 -What’s been the main challenge when transitioning from traditional planning methods to design thinking based ones, like #EventCanvas ?

You see a lot of people working with design thinking. And visualizing the problem properly is what design thinking is all about.



Don’t just jump into conclusions. Properly face the problem.

We, as human beings, tend to navigate away from problems. We just like to give people solutions. What designers do is to understand the problem much better from different angles and keep asking questions. 

Design minded people always keep asking questions. It’s not that they don’t understand. They just want to understand it better. And after that, they build a frame and ultimately some prototype, which they present to the Event Owner. 

You can’t go into production before you’ve gone through this. This is what we can learn from these people. 

Normally, our industry wants to go from the problem to the solution in a single arrow, very quickly navigating away from the problem. But if you wanna have a good solution, you have to understand the problem.

This is how you create an event until production. But you don’t want to only speak about this event, you also want to talk about the next one, and the other. You wanna make it more strategic. How do we change behavior overtime? How do we bring that into alignment with the company’s or organization’s long term goals? We need to have people working in events in different levels: the one who directs, the ones who manage and the ones who coordinate. These people have all different things on the way they think about events. But if they cannot talk about it in a meaningful, they won’t be able to be in the same conversation.

This is why Event Canvas has three different phases.

  1. Change – How can we change behaviors for multiple stakeholders?
  2. Frame – If it lacks a frame, its really difficult to grasp.
  3. Prototype – The beginning of the learning experience.

Ultimately, that can be translated to an Event Canvas. That’s the kind of problem we solve for clients.



5 – You’ve been in the industry for over 20 years now. How you see the future of events? What’s the key points that event agency and event pro needs to keep up with to stay relevant in the industry?

I’ll answer that from my design perspective.

In the old world, if people had problems, they tried to throw money at the problem. That’s how they think problems disappeared. So now, in the event industry, people jump into conclusions before diving in the problem.

What we need to be ready for is to get prepared for the business world. In the future, I’m pretty sure that organizations decision makers will not sign off on a budget that easy as they’ve done in the last 20 years.  In order to sign off, they’re gonna ask: how do I get my money back? What’s my return?

The change of behavior is measurable, but also how do you create value between stakeholders? 

Value is also something that is maybe not measurable and you cannot really prove return in forehand, but with Event Canvas you can at least give a plan and a business case to support the idea of how your events create value.

More and more, organizations are gonna ask for this reasoning.


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And that you know a bit more about how to apply design thinking techniques to your event marketing strategy, don’t forget to keep learning:

Visit Event Design Collective to check the newest projects Roel is working on at the moment. You can also follow him on LinkedIn.

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