“Cube with Quirky Message”

Not so long ago, I paid a visit to a lamp manufacturer’s site. Not simple light bulbs or the run-of-the-mill ceiling tubers you can find in any home, no: the spectacular design stuff that makes your mouth water.

From the outside, the building presented itself as a quirky, black cube with some unpredictable lighter lines. It wasn’t entirely clear where the entrance was and I honestly didn’t know what to expect. Once inside: Gosh!! Behind each corner there was some unexpected room or space where part of the lamp collection could be shown. In one of these spaces the ceiling reached directly to the roof, three floors up. It contained a huge metal frame that held a five-metres-wide roll of paper. Rolling it down, it could alternatively function as a projection screen and a mammoth flipchart. And at the same time, as well!

The core of the cube was a neat roof terrace garden, directly connected to a gourmet kitchen. Every day, a serious chef prepared Italian food for both staff and visitors.

A fly-over led us over and across the production department (with daylight throughout). Over at the other side, people were working out on cycling machines that generated power for the building. There was no end to the imaginative surprises.

The purpose of the meeting was for a group of potential clients to discover the lamp collection. “Come and discover me!” said the building. And that is what the participants in this remarkable meeting did. With wide-open mouths and wide-open minds.

Rarely have I witnessed a better harmony between a building’s Venue Message and the objective of a meeting!








“Venue Message Continued”

As a designer of meeting programmes, it is vitally important to capture the messages that buildings whisper in your ears. I introduced the notion in a previous blog. How does this work? Imagine wearing a kind of huge butterfly net on your head that allows you to capture elusive stuff from out of thin air. Or having an out-of-the-ordinary large pair of ears. When you enter the building, somewhere in the wall a huge mouth opens itself – as in a Harry Potter movie – and the mouth says something. To you.

In practice, you often find that when you are called in to design meeting programmes, the venue has already been arranged. In many cases, the message the venue communicates to the meeting participants doesn’t fit the objectives of the meeting. That is annoying. At that point, as a designer, you have two choices: either you convince the meeting owner to review her choice, or you will have to sink your teeth in the venue and adapt its message to your purposes. Often this can be achieved with surprisingly simple means.

Take the picture below. This is a meeting in a somewhat drab hotel, around 10 kilometres beyond the limits of a medium-sized, typically nice European town. The organisers want their participants to have an open exchange about conflicting issues and to work out shared insights. When they enter the meeting room, they hit on a large table, filled with bowls containing a wide variety of herbs, spices and other ingredients for magic potions. The whole place smells like the Egyptian spice market in Istanbul. The treasure trove of overwhelming smells contrasts neatly with the lifeless surroundings. That contrast opens up unforeseen windows in the minds of the participants, as proven by their rich discussions. Participants use the ingredients to brew the magic potion that will solve the pending conflicts, but when they enter they don’t know this.


It is a pity that so many buildings used for meetings and conferences have such unexciting venue messages. Numerous conference hotels say: “I used to be better.” Or: “I’m tryinghard to look posh.” Meeting facilities in large exhibition centres often seem to say: “So, what are you doing here?” or: “Gosh, you’re small!” or: “Today I look like this, but tomorrow I’ll look a lot different.”

Many meetings are held to inspire people, or to help them hit on new ideas together. At least, that is the intention of the programme, but most of the messages delivered by venues are not a great help in achieving that. The solution I most often see to modify the message of a venue is the potted palm tree. I will not say anything about that, because you obviously already know where I’m going…



“What was that you said?”

At times straightforward and up-front, at others modest and demure; sometimes distant and aloof, but on occasion flashy and flamboyant. As a designer of meetings, I listen to the messages expressed by buildings. What buildings say is important because it influences the behaviours of meeting participants. And in turn, those behaviours can make meetings more or less successful.

Let’s take a powerful building, the Palace of the Doge in Venice, for instance. When stepping inside the vast Council Room, people instantly change what they were doing before: they slow down, lower their voices, take their children by the hand – like when you enter a church, although the ceiling is that high. Very clearly, certain things are not done in there: children don’t run across the Council Room and it’s not the place for a passionate French-kissing session with your lover. Why not? What makes us so aware of what is appropriate and what is not?

I don’t know the exact mechanism but without any doubt it is connected to our receptiveness to the signals we pick up from our surroundings. In our heads, these signals are directly forwarded to a kind of toggle for acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. For my work I am not so much interested in understanding the mechanism in detail but rather in the phenomenon as such.




The point is that virtually all meetings are held in buildings and it is my experience that buildings speak to people. Not only to people who are willing to listen, but to everyone. What they say is called the Venue Message. Usually, the building invites you to do something; it exudes an assignment. The message sounds like a sentence taken from a theatre dialogue and you, the visitor, respond to the signal, to the stimulus. Without consciously noticing it. Thus, the Council Room in the Palace of the Doge in Venice says: “be humble in the sight of the wealth I have gathered in many centuries!” Anybody with half a bit of common sense simply “gets” that message and literally incorporates it with due respect.

And due respect and French-kissing don’t go together.


“It would have taken Pino…”

On Sunday January the 11th, a sad thing occurred: the hugely popular Neapolitan songwriter and singer Pino Daniele was hit by a major heart attack and died a few hours later. The city of Naples lost one of the most loved icons of its identity at the age of only 59 years.

The next day a beautiful idea hit the social media: all of his fans were to get together on the largest square in town, the Piazza Plebiscito, Tuesday at 9 pm. to sing “Napule è” together – one of his most famous songs (


The collective singing, though, never happened. On the steps in front of the church, at the head of the square, a large company of 100-150 people started several songs, but no-one could see them elsewhere. A bunch of bravehearts had climbed the statue in the centre of the square, one with a guitar, and tried, but they could hardly be heard. In general, people just mulled about the square in their little groups, trying to get somewhere, without knowing where that was. They were busier talking in their cell phones and texting to others about where they were, rather than actually doing something together with the people around them. Nothing caught on.

Have you ever heard 100,000 voices singing a song together? It sends the shivers down your spine and easily opens up the taps in your tear tubes. It can create a huge emotion of human bonding, transcending individual existence. Nothing remotely like this happened during the flash mob for Pino. The people were there, ready to mass-mourn, shout a collective goodbye, but the potential magic of the event never materialised.

Those who had gathered the exceptional crowd had forgotten to think one step further: how to manage it and spark off the emotion. It would have been enough to invite one of Pino’s fellow musicians, put him on a small stage anywhere in the Piazza Plebiscito and give him a poor sound system. The crowd would have had a reference point and would have sang along with one voice.

I left and took the overcrowded metro back home, a bit lost, disappointed. A majestic opportunity to honour a rare musician in a uniquely powerful moment had been squandered due to poor meeting design. To make these people sing, I thought, it would have taken Pino himself.