How Can Placemaking Help People Form Meaningful Connections at an Event?

Our Head of Experience shares five tips on how you can design your space to create an unforgettable event.

Categories in Tips

After years of looking for the perfect office space, it finally happened: e180 moved its operations from a co-working space to an office that we could call our own.

The shift in space caused a change in our team that felt nothing short of remarkable. On the first day, we felt a renewed sense of solidarity: like we were there together for a reason, working as a team for one purpose.

Although our previous home, the coworking space, was big and open, it lacked organization and intentionality. Our new office, on the other hand, has areas tailored for solo work, group work, and for gathering or eating together. It even has great music and lots of plants.

Now, informal banter and gathering to share a meal has become the norm, which promotes feelings of both playful togetherness and peace of mind. A change in the design of a space can alter the way you feel inside, and can even lead to a heightened sense of community. At least, it did so for us.

There’s a name for this idea. It’s called placemaking.

The Power of Space

Coined in the 1970s by Fred Kent, founder of Project for Public Spaces (PPS), the concept of placemaking “inspires people to collectively reimagine and reinvent public spaces as the heart of every community. More than just promoting better urban design, placemaking facilitates creative patterns of use, paying particular attention to the physical, cultural, and social identities that define a place and support its ongoing evolution.”

From urban design, to office design, to event space design, the concept of placemaking is the idea that environments and spaces we inhabit are critical contributors to how we behave and feel.

We felt the power of placemaking when we moved offices. And we feel it each time we work with event event organizers to curate the perfect Braindate Lounge, a space that makes strangers feel comfortable enough to candidly share their experiences and humble enough to learn from their peers.

Braindate Lounge at the 2018 Educause Conference. ©Youssef Shoufan

The experience of moving offices led me to draw the link between the idea of placemaking and how one should approach building spaces for collaborative learning or intentional networking at events.

I’ve listed some of the ways in which we have applied these principles of placemaking to create Braindate Lounges all over the world. Use these tips to create a welcoming environment that supports your community’s desire to learn and connect meaningfully, wherever you are.

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One on one braindate in progress at TED Women 2016.

1. Have a clear intention for the space.

It’s impossible to design a space if you don’t know how you’d like the space to be used. Begin by writing a list of behaviors you want to inspire in your participants when they use the space.

For example, a space like the Braindate Lounge which leads to spontaneous socializing will look different from a space that’s meant for work and checking your emails. As you begin designing your space, use your list to make sure that every design element fosters the intended behaviour.

Ball-pit fun at DockerCon.

2. Know your audience.

For an authentic experience, you want to push people out of their comfort zones. In unknown environments our senses are at their sharpest. Rather than going on autopilot in a predictable setting, we can help our participants feel like they’re in the moment by putting them just a little bit on edge.

At events, you have a captive audience that’s open to being wowed. You can be bold and take a risk with designing your space. But always know your audience: remember to provide the necessary guidance they might need.

For example, we’ve seen many events with a ball pit to get people laughing and moving. C2 Montreal has used ball pits for guided brainstorm sessions while DockerCon knew that their audience would jump in without needing the prompt. In both contexts the experience was a big success, both for memorable conversations and great pics.

The Braindate Lounge in the middle of the main hall at the 2019 SOCAP Conference.

3. Location, location, location.

If you’re creating a Braindate Lounge-type space to help participants connect with each other, pick a central location that’s easily accessible by foot. That way, your lounge will be welcoming to people who are aware of the space as much as to those who happened upon it by chance.

If you’re planning a multi-day event, you don’t want your participants to waste precious time trying to find your space, so make sure to have clear way-finding signage throughout the event that leads to your lounge. And most importantly, have a huge sign at the entrance, so people can’t miss it!

The Braindate Lounge designed by Steelcase Event Experiences at the 2019 PCMA Convening Leaders

4. Design a space that looks and feels ready for you to use it.

Design a space that is human-sized. Let me explain: some buildings can make you feel in awe, but they can also make you feel small, like an opera house or a museum. A Braindate Lounge or other connection-driven spaces should make people feel comfortable enough to want to make the space their own.

For human-sized design, modularity is key. Have furniture that’s easy to move so a one-on-one conversation can easily expand to include a third. Offer your participants paper that they can draw their ideas, then include walls where they can post them.

How do you know if you’ve succeeded in creating this space? Your space might be inspired by what Steelcase Event Experiences call the “linger effect”: where long after an activity is over, people stay in the space because it becomes somewhere they want to hang out.

5. Fun-ify your space

Design for play. When people play they are spontaneous, present and open. A playful state of mind leads to more creative thinking. Include at least one eye-catching element that makes your attendee’s inner child want to come out and play.

For example, at the 2019 Educause Conference, the organizing team created a Braindate Lounge that included a realistic backdrop of subway cars to host one-on-one braindates. The subway cars not only provided private spaces for more intimate conversations, the playful nature of the installation also put people at ease.

You can also anticipate that there will be moments when a participant is waiting for their meeting counterpart to show up — don’t let that moment go to browsing-your-phone-aimlessly waste! Instead, provide little toys, riddles and puzzles that will get people talking and having fun together.

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Imagine if your event could provide people with an opportunity for meaningful learning, connection and even genuine fun. It starts with designing the space and thinking about it from a placemaking perspective, where your audience is not only your main stakeholder but an active co-creator of the design!