First Friday Fast Takes – St. Nick Edition 2020

Santa Claus mug with marshmallows on top of two old books.


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On the first Friday of each month, I share musings around each of our XD focus areas: culture + people, content + brand, spaces + places, and events. Topics range from real-world observations of XD in action to hypothetical challenges to long-standing beliefs. Some of my musings may evolve into long-form posts, and some may not. Heck, I may discontinue the series entirely because I determine it, in and of itself, no longer stands up. For now, though, I’m making my creative time a very public priority. Happy Reading!

Culture + People
Content + Brand
Spaces + Places
Events
Culture + People
At about this time last year, I wrote a post about the importance of year-end time off questioning whether it was necessary to maintain appearances by remaining open during the final week of the calendar year. This year, a year when “stay home and relax” just doesn’t hold value as it once did , I wonder: Is there an entirely different way to create a rejuvenating year-end experience?

The Takeaway: Yes, Feel First…Then Solve!

In true 4D form, begin by considering the feeling(s) you hope to create both for the team and for yourself as the experiential designer of your culture + benefits experience, and proceed accordingly, using a feelings-led approach to upend the age-old quandry of how an organization can authentically demonstrate how much it values its employees.  Not sure where to begin your culture XD journey?  Below are a few ideas.

    1. Ask them! Yes, if you genuinely want your team to feel appreciated, then ask them what you can do for them. No, this isn’t a new idea, but it’s so frequently overlooked that when revisited, it can feel like a revelation. What better way to design a culture + benefits experience intended to evoke feelings of gratitude than by allowing the consumers of that experience, your team, to decide what  is most important to them? Perhaps it’s rolling time off into a new year? Perhaps, it’s an allocation of their salary or bonus to charity? Perhaps it’s a subscription to the cheese of the month club? Or perhaps it’s something as unexpected as the opportunity to pitch an entirely new approach to one project, initiative, product, or structure within your organization to top decision-makers? Who knows what folks will choose, but why not give them the choice?
    2. Delay, delay, delay. In the face of so much uncertainty this year, if your team needs a mental break and the space to make important personal decisions from a place of calm, collectedness rather than under-the-wire YE hysterics, why not give it to them?  No, I’m not suggesting more PTO. I’m suggesting that you extend the window of choice beyond year’s end. Perhaps, rather than asking folks to use up vacation, write year-end performance reviews, cram the 17th round of budget updates in, or whatever else might be on their plates this month, you offer them an extension? In sports, the strategy of running out the clock,  essentially winning by doing less and doing it more slowly during a finite period of time can mean making the championship game or being knocked out by a buzzer-beating shot from the opposition. So run the clock out on 2020.  After all, a win is a win no matter how you earn it.
    3. Give up. If you’re determined to create an experience that offers feelings of candor, clarity, honesty, or anything similar, then I suggest you stop trying to shoulder the entire burden on your own (or as an executive team).  Similar to “Ask Them”, this concept radically democratizes the design of your culture + people experience by inviting staff members not participate in both the idea generation for potential touch points and benefits as well as empowering them to choose which of those touch points and benefits they prefer.   Give up trying to be a savior, which was never your job to begin with. Instead, be a designer, which is everyone’s job, of the experience you and your staff have. Who knows what cool new approaches they might come up with? And when they do, I guarantee it will be every bit as satisfying as if you’d come up with them yourself!

    Content + Brand
    It’s December, which means that brands are rife with holiday-laden marketing schemes. A few are clever, a few more are cute, most are predictable and unmemorable, but almost none are searingly, we-might-end-up-on-the-naughty-list-level honest about what their brands have done well, and what they can and will do better in the New Year?

    Somehow, we’ve become afraid of honesty. It’s as if despite the global stripping away of so many of the superficial measurements of the value we assigned to our respective brands and images in 2020, genuine honesty about our true worth as purveyors of products and services is still a bridge too far.

    Why is it that we’re not comfortable having conversations about what has worked and what hasn’t as part of our brands and images?

    Perhaps because if we do then we’d be forced to upend chronically, unsolvable problems rather than trying (and acceptably failing) to solve them over and over again? Perhaps because upending a chronically unsolvable problem requires digging more deeply into our collective, creative wells than we think possible? Perhaps because we don’t even realize that our fear or resistance to crossing those bridges is often just a preference for the comfort of the familiar disguised as something more menacing?

    I too suffer from honesty as the manager of the G+A brand, which is essentially me, myself, and I — or at least the ideas that come out of this me, myself, and I’s brain. So perhaps I’ll take a page out of my own book (and Domino’s) and try on some genuine honesty right now?

    The Takeaway: Designing an Honest Content + Brand Experience is Easier Than Designing One That’s Not

    G+A offers a great product: The 4D Thinking Framework, which teaches people how to apply experience design thinking to upend + transform chronically unsolvable problems into workable solutions using a feelings-led design approach.

    We have a host of satisfied clients for whom we’ve built, and in some cases produced, experience design plans.  I am getting better all the time about explaining how our framework is applicable to experiences of all shapes and sizes and am expanding the reach of our message.

    Broad appeal is still on the horizon and at times, I’m not sure I’ve done nearly enough to expedite arrival at that horizon.  Nonetheless, in 2021, I’ve revised ad refined our approach to better position ourselves on social media + internet search engines.

    We’re a growing firm which is one of our greatest assets because it forces us to apply our own framework to the design of the G+A experience on an almost constant basis.  We do exactly what we ask our customers to do: Feel first, solve next.  We know where we’ve been, so we know where they are — and more importantly, how-to guide them along the trajectory that will land them in their dream experience at the end of all the work they do.

    And that’s the honest truth of the current G+A content + brand experience.
    Spaces + Places
    I’ve often wondered what the world is going to do with all its malls. If you’ve ever traveled to Michigan City, Indiana, you’d understand why.
    The 500,000 square foot Marquette Mall, constructed in 1967, America’s first air-conditioned mall in fact, shuttered operations in 2017 and gave off a definitely spooky vibe much earlier in 2013 when I last visited.  Even then, it was a ghost town.

    But that’s the thing about ghost towns, they don’t appear overnight, and they never start out as ghost towns.

    They start out as malls in Michigan City.  Iconic, first-of-their-kind retail havens just like Marquette Mall. They begin as sparkling scions of progress until they flare out when the forward-thinking minds that conceived of them move on to newer more innovative projects such as the wildly popular Lighthouse Premium Outlets also in Michigan City and only a stone’s throw from the formerly glorious Marquette Mall. Soon, the envelope pushers of spaces like Marquette Mall are supplanted by satisfied-with-status-quo minds who ignore all of the proverbial canaries in all of the proverbial coal mines, and before long no one is left standing.
    So what happens when spaces and places become figurative and literal ghost towns and why does any of this matter relative to experience design thinking?  Check out a few answers and ideas below.

    Malls

    Thus far, malls have largely followed two paths.  Either they simply fade into obscurity à la Marquette Mall, or they scramble to secure new revenue sources resulting in a discombobulated experience, a strategy typified by Las Vegas’ Boulevard Mall.  The Boulevard now houses an aquarium flanked by a giant Goodwill and a for-profit learning company’s headquarters. Of course, people still visit the Boulevard Mall and consume its various products and services, but I imagine only haltingly so.  I doubt many folks have thought, “I can’t wait to visit the aquarium and then talk to Paul at Universal Learning’s offices before I shop for donated homeware at Goodwill.  I’m so glad the Boulevard Mall has made it so convenient for me!”  Instead, the mishmosh of misaligned experiences relegates malls like The Boulevard to functional yet conceptually brutalist locales, monolithic, hulking, and (unlike brutalism) unintentionally menacing in nature.
    In light of that fate, perhaps Marquette’s status as a relic of the bygone era of centralized consumerism isn’t too shabby.

    Convention Centers

    Like their mall contemporaries, they too are dependent on the resurgence of centralized consumerism but of a slightly different ilk. In place of the halcyon days of Black Fridays past, convention centers yearn for the bottomless well of group gatherings centered around concurrent session room requirements and acceptably mediocre F&B. These emerging ghost towns of the 21st century — often the debt burdens to their own cities’ populations — must evolve or perish but how many have explored ideas even approaching new thinking?  Most have likely pursued debt restructurings or  the introduction of new taxes or fees to finance expansions which only serve to retrench their precarious dependencies on large-scale conferences and tradeshows to stay afloat.

    Ghost Towns

    These literally empty (or very near to it) hamlets have slowly buckled under the migration of younger populations to larger, more diversified urban centers. With 55% of today’s global population situated near urban centers and nearly 70% expected to inhabit them by 2050 according to The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, there aren’t enough aquariums or tradeshows on Earth to help this cohort.

    But what if one intrepid, albeit perhaps unknowing, design thinker has already solved all the world’s mall and convention center, and ghost town problems?

    Your Takeaway: Why a Spaces + Places Firesale Is What You Need

    Enter Nicola Scapillati, mayor of Castropignano, Italy, and architect of the town’s hail-mary plan to reinvent itself by selling its abandoned buildings for $1.

    No, Nicola isn’t the first to attempt this property gold rush on behalf of his hometown. Italy is already home to two other cities that have launched similar programs, and Detroit offered similar benefits in the late aughts after the Great Recession decimated the Motor City’s population. But, Mr. Scapillati is the first I’ve heard of taking a distinctly feelings-led design approach to designing his town’s resurgence experience.

    In the CNN Travel article where I first read about the initiative, Scapillati was quoted as saying, “I welcome anyone who would like to purchase a new home here to email me directly…with a detailed plan of how they intend to restyle and what they would like to do with the property. This is a targeted, tailored operation.”

    What a stroke of genius! How do I know? Because I was one of the people who emailed him with a very, very detailed plan of exactly I envisioned for my potential space.

    Motivated by the unbelievable opportunity to own a centuries-old Italian edifice for $1 and to literally help rebuild a city, I invested time to craft an email that would present the most enticing, feelings-led case I could make for a socially engaging community space bathed in art and desserts and one eager, non-Italian speaking (yet) 37-year-old proprietor.

    Not only did I have to demonstrate a clear vision and strong motivation, but so did anyone else interested in the opportunity.  Mr. Scapillati was undoubtedly inundated by pitches of all kinds essentially empowering him to cherry-pick the precise experience he wanted to design for Castropignano from a host of pre-screened, highly qualified leads. Can you imagine if malls or convention centers or even other ghost towns did the same?

    What a world that would be! Michigan City might become Northwest Indiana’s real-world Stranger Things fantasy village. Convention centers could take on entirely new images as modern-day bazaars replete with theatrical productions or large-scale art exhibits curated from the millions of pieces currently NOT on display in the basements and storage facilities of the globe’s largest museums. Ghost towns could become life-sized pop-ups for the Earth’s most inventive brands. “Visit Vuitton’s literal desert oasis featuring ultra-limited edition pieces” or “Make merry + bright at Target’s northern woods holiday experience.”

    Just thinking about the possibilities makes me giddy! So, to Mr. Scapillati I say first, thank you, for the inspiration and next, hold tight, the next iteration of my bid to design the ultimate Castropignano experience right alongside you is coming soon!

    Events

    Annual meetings are marching down death row.

    In fact, I believe they have been for some time, but the pandemic has accelerated their demise despite an entire industry’s best efforts to prevent it.

    What proof can I offer to back this eldritch claim and one that seems insane to make given I live in Las Vegas and apply designing thinking to create game-changing experiences for a living?

    First, and this won’t likely surprise anyone familiar with The 4D Design Thinking Framework, a feeling.  A gut instinct that the pandemic has dealt a death blow to annual meetings which have been waning for the entirety of my career whether they remain virtualized or resume their place-based formats.  Of course, there are notable exceptions, CES, Oracle World, and whatever emerging tech system is trending in a given year, but the stalwart gatherings of professionals escaping to Las Vegas for a few days of continuing education glazed in socially acceptable debauch are over.

    No, the events themselves won’t disappear forever post-COVID.  Certainly, they’ll reemerge, but will anyone really be able to ignore the unassailable truth that CE was attained, business deals were closed, and networks were grown without them for more than a year during the pandemic?  Perhaps superficially, but not really.

    Second, the conversations I’m having and the questions I’m fielding on the ground doing the work.  Pre-COVID and as early as 2014, I began partaking in conversations first as an association professional and later as a consultant to event designers about how to invigorate flagging annual meetings.  Often, the results of steadily but sustainably declining margins over a period of years, these well-meaning conversations and their related outputs were failures before they’d even gotten off the ground.

    “How could she say this?  Why would she dare?” you may be thinking.

    MANY efforts to redesign annual meetings are destined to fail principally because they are grounded in the flawed premise that the experience to be designed is, in fact, the event.

    Your Takeaway: Design An Experience Not an Event Experience

    In scientific research, scientists develop hypotheses and then design experiments to test those hypotheses. If and when an experiment fails repeatedly, or even if it succeeds but with steadily diminishing returns, they discard it AND the hypothesis they attempted to prove true. If they don’t their research is quickly dismantled by the scientific community as self-satisfying, circular logic not worth the paper it was printed on. It’s a brutal reality, but it serves to push researchers into entirely uncharted waters not only in the design of their experiments but also in their theories about what problems those experiments should even be attempting to solve.
    My challenge to corporate leaders, association executives, heck anyone heading up annual meeting event design:

    Solve a better problem.

    Stop trying to bolster declining sponsorship revenue or push attendance a few notches higher with inventive discounting or reporting. Stop clinging to the sinking ship of a meeting whose margins you’ve sustained only by cutting expenses to the absolute bone.

    Be Domino’s for God’s sake. Yes, be a quick-serve pizza chain.

    A few years back, Domino’s knew they had a serious quality problem. Instead of tidying up around the edges of that problem, they launched an entire marketing and branding campaign that disclosed how painfully aware they were of the poor quality of their product, or at least, of consumer’s perception of its poor quality. Instead of skirting the issue or selling themselves on the idea of the Noid’s new clothes, they looked at the situation straight in the eye, determined they had to change the way people FELT about Domino’s as a brand experience, and solved that better problem differently as a result.

    Tell the world right out loud that your product’s quality has fallen off considerably, and then make it so much better, so much more than what they’ve ever had before that there’s no doubt in the mind of your consumers that you’ve designed a wholly new experience. Draw them in like college students to late-night cheesy bread!

    Solve a different, better, more correct problem, one that FEELS like the right challenge.

    1. Why does anyone care about anything we do?
    2. If our answer was CE, how long can our reserves carry us once those innovative for-profit providers crush our 60-minute session recordings with high-quality, low-cost, on-demand, bite-sized content?
    3. When was the last time anyone on our team or any of our volunteers were genuinely excited about what we were designing?
    4. Why do we keep clinging to the idea that our annual meeting or membership structure or non-profit tax status or fill-in-the-blank antiquated operational structure, is monolithic and infallible? What new possibilities would suddenly be on the table if we abandoned those constructs?

    Or don’t, but why not at least consider it? If it fails spectacularly, you can always blame that zaney experiential designer, Mallory Gott. But what if it could actually succeed?

    What if you could abandon an analytics-led design approach in favor of a feelings-led approach? What if you could become to your field what Netflix became to TV and film?

    What if you could become the standard-bearer for a revolutionary new approach to the experience people in your market have with its products, services, or intellectual capital?
    If you’ve already taken a bite of innovation-by-necessity pizza pie, why not serve yourself up a whole dang slice and dig in?

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