The appreciation of art is subjective. Otherwise, beauty wouldn’t reside in the eye of the beholder and one man’s trash would never be considered anyone’s treasure.
So if our response to everything — including art, music, literature and face-to-face events — is totally subjective, how do we know what’s “good”?
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Instinct influences the experience
A few years ago, my husband and I went to Italy on vacation. We went many places and saw so many beautiful works of art that, after a while, it all began to blur.
I was on mental overload the day we went to the Accademia in Florence to see Michelangelo’s most famous sculpture, the David. We reserved our spot in advance and entered the building at our allotted time, going with the flow of the crowd. Once we were inside I looked up and BAM! There was David, visible at the end of a long hallway. The sight of him literally took my breath away, and I forgot how tired I was of looking at art.
The impact of seeing him for the first time was all I needed to understand why people have revered this hunk of carved marble for hundreds of years. I didn’t suddenly become an art expert. I was genuinely moved by this statue that, up until now, I had only seen in pictures. Something in me knew it was extraordinary. I just knew.
What are the five principles of meeting design?
There are five principles of design that artists use as guidelines. Following them can mean the difference between creating a great work of art and a mediocre one. When the five principles of design are harmoniously present, they allow people to instinctively know something is special — they have a visceral response, much like my response to seeing David — even if they can’t explain why.
The five principles are balance, proportion, rhythm, emphasis and unity. These principles give the artist, among other things, a set of guideposts to measure the success of their work against. If the object meets these criteria, the majority of people who encounter it will respond positively to it.
I’m not a neuroscientist or a cultural anthropologist, so I can’t tell you why people respond positively to the principles of design. But I can tell you, as an event organizer, that they work just as well when you apply them to meeting and event design.
They will not only help you in the obvious places that beg good design (i.e., lovely tables at dinner, a striking general session stage), but throughout the entire event. Most of the time, people won’t notice these as discrete elements, but taken together, they create a feeling that this gathering is something different — maybe even extraordinary. And isn’t that what we always want our attendees to feel?
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The first principal is balance. If something visually achieves equilibrium, that affects our physical sense of balance.
In a literal sense, this can mean making sure things don’t look lopsided. I believe it’s also important, in the world of meetings, to think of balance in terms of time and content. You want to keep things moving, but you also want your attendees to have a minute to breathe and talk with other people. Pushing attendees too hard, or not expecting enough of them, makes people feel off-balance and unsure about what to do.
For example, think about how many conferences you’ve attended that have been packed with too much content and too little downtime. It’s easy to see how it happened: Attendees demand a high level of relevant content that adds value to their professional lives, otherwise they won’t feel the time and expense they and their company invested was worth it. Planners eager to address that need sometimes forget that the brain can only absorb a certain amount of information at a time. If you try to convey too much information at once, people can’t retain it. And if your breaks aren’t long enough for people to go to the bathroom, check e-mail and have a casual conversation, they’ll end up frustrated.
That is why building downtime into the meeting schedule is as important as scheduling the content. It gives attendees the break they need to absorb and retain what they came to learn. Schedule too much downtime, however, and you run the risk of people feeling like there’s not enough going on.
It is our job, as meeting designers, to create that balance between learning and resting. Most of the time, the key to maintaining balance is in knowing your audience. Find out what they want and expect, and give it to them. People will respond to a well-balanced agenda by being relaxed and happy. They might not know why, they just will be.
Next month, I’ll discuss the next principle of design: proportion.
READ MORE: The five principles of meeting design