On to Toronto!

Last week I bathed in the heat of a scorching start to June – in Toronto. Not what I had expected. I had no shorts or sandals with me (much to everyone else’s relief I suspect) so I sweltered out in the open, and got nicely chilled in the hotel conference centre.

I was in Toronto to host a workshop session at the 2016 World Public Relations Forum. My session was based on the growing interest in design thinking and my two aims were to increase participants’ interest in design and design thinking, and to share some ideas that they could subsequently make use of. A show of hands at the end of the hour suggested my objectives were met.

We looked specifically at how design thinking could be used to attract talent with the right skills into the public relations industry. This was identified as “by far the most critical factor in the PR industry’s future growth” by Fred Cook, Director of the USC Annenberg Center for Public Relations, in the newly-published 2016 Global Communications Report produced by Annenberg with the Holmes Report (click here for a PDF of the Executive Summary).

Long story short, design thinking is a set of problem-finding and problem-solving approaches used by designers. I know from my time as head of comms at the Royal Society of Arts and as deputy director of comms at University of the Arts London that design is a specific, socially located set of practices that involve material skills and that it is based on an extensively researched body of knowledge. So, not a management fad. But at the same time I had just one hour to introduce some theory and get my workshoppers engaged in some design practice.

Luckily, I was able to draw on the smart thinking of artist-educator Shelagh McCarthy, whose use of the common-or-garden paper bag to explore these issues provided the perfect leverage. More on that in a moment.

But to begin with, I shared the story of my first job. From 1980 to 1981 (yes, I know, that’s an unfeasibly long time ago) I worked for a company of architects in Brighton, operating a dyeline printing machine (I can still recall the aroma of the ammonia…) and maintaining a library of design and architecture-related publications. There is a nice article about one of the firm’s partners, John Wells-Thorpe, on the University of Brighton website.

I drew a little ‘memory map’ to show – albeit crudely – something of what I remember from that time. Before any geography geeks complain that it’s inaccurate and not to scale – tough! The purpose of the story, and the accompanying sketch, was to get my workshop attendees to do the same. And they did, to glorious effect, adding notes to their own images about the most important lesson they learned in their first job, and the one thing they’d change if they could do it all over again. That information became the ‘user insight’ we needed to illustrate the first stage of the design thinking process.

To spice it up a little, I made it a competition, having been given spare copies of the re-published trilogy of books on brand language and tone of voice by leading authority John Simmons. Three lucky sketchers left with one each.

ezri memory map

A ‘memory map’ showing my first job, at Wells-Thorpe & Suppel in Brighton. The apple donuts from the shop at the bottom of Trafalgar Street were legendary.

Then, they brainstormed concepts that might appeal to different types of recruits – new graduates, mid-career folks in unrelated industries, or (shock horror) people working in marketing…

So here’s the paper bag twist. Each delegate had in front of them their own high quality, British made, lightly coated baked goods delivery vehicle (aka a grease-proof paper bag). With these, and with any other materials they could lay their hands on, they were asked to build a prototype of their concept. Thus, we had covered the three stages of Ideo’s design thinking rubric: inspiration, ideation, and implementation.

I should add that I arrived in Toronto with 120 of these fine paper bags, only to find 130 people coming to my session. So when the a/v engineer for my session, Joe, asked if I needed anything I eagerly requested another dozen or so paper bags – not really expecting him to provide them. But, ten minutes later, he reappeared with this box:


The extra paper bags I needed for my session. Amazing. As an American colleague who was with me at the time said, shaking his head, “only in Canada”… Thanks Joe!

Here’s a brief pictorial round-up of the session…


A vast and daunting arena in the Metropolitan ballroom, Westin Harbour Castle conference centre, Toronto.


Delegates to my session were greeted with a refreshing promise…

IMG_0009One of the tables, bagged up and ready to go.

IMG_0015In total, 130 high quality, British made, lightly coated, baked goods delivery vehicles in situ, apart from the dozen or so last-minute Canadian substitutes. Which were very good, by the way.

IMG_0021The prototypes were astonishing in their variety and creativity…

More on the rest of the conference highlights will follow in another post.

One thought on “On to Toronto!

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