3 Lessons of Design Thinking in Event Management

Karina Nguyen
Published in
5 min readJun 13, 2020

There is no universal definition of design thinking (DT). But for me, it’s one of the lenses to look at the world to tackle complex challenges that are multifaceted and intrinsically human. The first time I got introduced to design thinking was in a public policy space, specifically in the European Youth Parliament.

In a knit-tight collaboration with policy makers & governors, young people like me applied design thinking to write well-intentioned policy proposals to address a wide range of social issues from education and sustainability to economic affairs and GDPR. The core idea of DT was to craft those policies and establish new rules in structural systems in such a way that it would provide meaningful experience for citizens and ensure that constituent groups would follow.

Illustration by Rachel He

Today I want to share a little different outlook of design thinking. When it comes to planning any kind of event, it’s all about building a community and ensuring that the time spent at the event will bring some kind of value.

It took me 8 months to envision, validate, iterate, and ultimately execute a Hack for Social Impact Summit at UC Berkeley. H4SIS was a 2-day hackathon with a series of workshops and speaker panels on careers in social good, tech policy, and ethics in AI. Ironically, everything was done without my prior personal experience in attending an actual hackathon. So, you can totally feel my fear, but luckily I had a team of people who helped to go through this. I truly believe that incorporating design thinking in a team collaboration and event itself has brought us to a success.

3 major learnings & design thinking frameworks for event creators:

1. Event is a physical product.

Looking at the event from a product perspective, the most challenging part to deal with is human time. People have to take their time in life to physically come to venues with the expectation that time will be exchanged into some kind of value. So, how might we ensure trust in all of the event’s stakeholders (non-profits, sponsors, speakers, hackers) that invested time and money will bring them value?

Design thinking has the power to validate some of the hypotheses and quickly point out things that won’t work. Empathizing with every use case, I was able to convince non-profits to trust future hackers with their project ideas, sponsors to invest, speakers to share their knowledge and insights, and students to leverage their skills to something meaningful. As a result, we had Tactical Tech to bring over some of the exhibition pieces from Glassroom, a co-founder of Grace Hopper Celebration to share her journey, Notion community distribute their swag, and a range of local food vendors to support one of our sustainability goals.

2. Framing questions in human-centered terms will lead to a more well-intentioned event

Before a Hack for Social Impact event, we as a team have been struggling and failed twice in producing something meaningful and worthwhile. Either it was a bad planning or last minute cancellations, the core issue was in our mindset and the questions we asked at the beginning.

Instead of asking “What are our goals” we asked “What are the current problems that we as a club and tech in general face and how might we address them within this event?” This has led us to unpack three main pain points:

  • We reject 95% of student applicants and non-profits. So, how might we connect those who really want to leverage their skills (hackers) with the needs of non-profits who solve social issues?
  • Diversity in tech is a problem in itself. So, how can we foster diversity in all of its forms to build a community and foster creative collaboration?
  • Lots of stereotype on “hackathon” terminology and “greedy” tech companies. In a word, ethical strategy. So, how might we embrace ethical practices in fundraising and collaborating with social good companies as well as being ethical on operational levels of the event?

Solutions naturally were coming up when we started asking right questions, where humans were at the center of the focus.

3. Iterations, iterations. It’s never perfect and won’t be. Here are some tips and areas for improvement in any event planning:

  • Do a Risk Management Activity with the team. Building an excitement around an event is one part of the coin. The other part is all edge cases. What can go wrong? Though no body can actually predict, the best way is to just brainstorm and come up with the list to create the strategy to tackle each part. List everything that might go wrong and discuss the solutions
  • Look at problems like Lego. You have to remember that if the organizing team is not happy, no one will be. Don’t let little problems put you down. The hack is to have fun, while you are learning, screwing up, and solving the problems on the spot!
  • Create three budget lists: with the minimal expense, the maximum expense, and the real running one. Understand the difference between what you must have and what would be nice to have. Then create a sustainable budget.
  • “Structure is king. It gives you freedom.” Doing structure well will get you a room to play at the end. Think how to make this event to be the most desirable place to be? It’s always an experiential journey and deep exploration of ‘user flows’ during the event.
  • There is always a 2% extra effort that will yield a 90% return. Shoot big with your sponsorships/collaborations so you can do a great event and provide an enriched experience for everyone.
  • Gathering feedback and having a retrospective meeting after the event is as equally important. It’s never be perfect, but we all know that the next iterations will be always better.

Learn more about our event: https://h4sis.calblueprint.org/

I hope you enjoyed this brief read! Feel free to share some of your own applications of design thinking with me. I am currently interning at Dropbox as a product designer. Will be very happy to chat about design or life:)



Karina Nguyen

applied artist & researcher | prev. @nytimes, @dropbox, @square