Changing Spaces: Designing the Conference ExperienceJuly 1, 2013

July 1, 2013

Changing Spaces: Designing the Conference Experience

Derrell Jackson is a strategic education consultant for Herman Miller where he oversees the Learning Spaces Research Program, which assists educational and corporate institutions with informing the design of their future learning environments.

The “Sage on the Stage” model of presentation is alive and thriving at conference centers and meeting venues across the country: rows of chairs face the main stage, where “sages” impart their knowledge to an audience of eager listeners. This lecture-style of space design — still prevalent throughout academia and has been since medieval times — makes sense for keynote sessions where hundreds of attendees pack a room for high-profile speakers such as General Colin Powell (who, by the way, is quite entertaining). But it’s increasingly less relevant as events become smaller and more intimate (100 or less), and attendees and presenters alike seek more collaborative engagement.

Statistics justify this shift in settings and style. According to a recent study from the National Training and Learning Institute, learners only retain half (50 percent) of the information heard when discussing a particular topic among peers. The number increases considerably (to 75 percent) in interactive settings, where people are given the opportunity to put learning into practice. Lectures round out the bottom, indicating that just 5 percent of what is heard in lecture-style presentations remains in attendees’ memories once they walk out the door. Thousands of hours and millions of dollars are invested every year with the goal of designing impactful conference experiences. And as executive leadership continues to demand more measurable returns for all facets of business, clearly something needs to change.

“Spaces should enable and encourage interaction, not limit it, which traditional classroom design often can.”

Learning in Action

As a speaker at the 2013 International Association of Conference Centers (IACC) annual event, I opted to experiment with space design during my talk. Influenced by my work with academic institutions and corporate organizations across the U.S., we set up a conference room in the standard, forward-facing configuration, but also incorporated a variety of additional furniture elements: tables and chairs on wheels, café-height tables with stools and soft lounge seating. As attendees gathered in the room, some were a bit surprised; others were puzzled at this unfamiliar environment.

I began the presentation talking about how meeting environments must become more flexible to support a growing desire and need for collaboration, and showed examples from experimental college classrooms that reflect this new era of space design. Attendees then broke into groups to discuss how they would redesign meeting spaces to be more collaborative, and I walked around to each, listening, contributing to the conversation and providing insights as appropriate. The session wrapped up with each group sharing top takeaways, with some drawing innovative floor-plan concepts on mobile whiteboards.
This experience highlighted — and corroborated — several emerging key trends that must be considered for conference and meeting environments:
Enhance Collaboration

Spaces should enable and encourage interaction, not limit it, which traditional classroom design often can. Upon transitioning to the collaborative phase of the IACC session, for example, attendees were able to put ideas into practice, reconfiguring the space from lecture layout into group configurations to support free-flowing dialogue.

Foster Engagement

Learning is a social activity. Environments that encourage engagement remove barriers, move presenters from behind the lectern or from the front of the room, and allow them to move freely as they speak. Achieving balance between space capacity requirements and a collaborative presentation style enabled me to easily interact with the attendees, as well as enable them to seamlessly work in groups.

Flex to Meet More (Varied) Needs

Adaptable spaces support collaboration. Furnishings selected with flexibility in mind support a variety of needs. Consider a simple kit of furniture parts that allows for multiple layouts and space options. For IACC, we purposely chose tables and chairs on wheels so that groups of four, six or eight could be accommodated.

Provide Supportive Choices

Healthful spaces incorporate ergonomic principles, and sustain our mental and physical well being. Learning space design must offer options that support both, for presenters and audience members alike. Café-height tables and stools in the IACC session not only served as a fun option for seating, but also helped ensure clear lines of sight for all attendees. Lounge chairs were also placed in the room to address the basic human need for comfort.

Make Technology Work for You

Educational institutions are leading the way in exploring the possibilities of mobile technology in response to the multitude of devices students bring to the classroom (increasingly the case with conferences and meetings). While this offers new challenges from an IT perspective, it also provides more opportunities to free up those in the meeting space to engage in more impact ways.

As the design and demands of meetings and conferences evolve, so will the venues that host them. Effective space design and smart, knowledge-based choices of furnishings will positively impact the interactions that take place within, making the experiences more meaningful and memorable. C&IT

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