Erica Shonkwiler, M.B.A., CMP, is a lecturer in the Department of Tourism, Event, and Sport Management at IUPUI. She attended Collabo’s Design Thinking Jumpstart program in 2018. In this interview, Erica shares about her experience and the value she’s found in being a design thinking ninja.
How did you get interested in design thinking and creative problem solving?The reason that I got interested was because in the events community there is a big push to think of events in a nonlinear way. There is also an expectation that we have to design remarkable experiences every single time. People go to so many events, they engage with so many things, they have access to so much information that doing the same old structure of an event, year after year is just not interesting. No one wants that anymore. So if we’re going to design an event to be something that’s constantly changing and that’s totally different and super innovative and memorable in a deep “I’ve never done this before” kind of way, then we have to approach designing it in a different way too.
I learned to design events with a spreadsheet in a very linear fashion. In order to improve my abilities as an event planner, I knew that I had to come at this differently. Plus as an educator. I feel like I shouldn’t be sending my students out into a new world with only old school ways of doing things. But if you don’t know how to do something, if you’ve never even done it yourself…how in the world do you teach it to another person? I felt the pressure that I needed to really, really dive deep into a different way of designing and get enough education and practice that I can then turn around and make sure my students walk out prepared for the demands of today.
As I started to look into how to approach understanding this, I was quickly overwhelmed. “Design based solutions,” “human centered design,” the development of “persona,” “experience architecture,”—all of this jargon started to kind of come up. There were different frameworks and approaches for different industries. There was just a whole lot of noise out there in the marketplace around this topic. I was really nervous to know what to invest in—some of these workshops are thousands upon thousands dollars. I knew that this is where everybody was going, and it was my time to follow suit. I just didn’t even know where to begin.
When I heard about Collabo Creative’s Design Thinking Everyday Jumpstart, I thought it would be a great way to engage with designers who were also educators. They would understand where I was coming from with the classroom application. Also, it wasn’t taking as big of a financial risk because I was able to stay local and didn’t have travel expenses.
When you signed up for the Design Thinking Everyday Jumpstart. What were you hoping for? I was hoping for a fun, creative experience that also gave me a good understanding of the big picture. I also wanted tangible takeaways, examples of things I could put into use in my classroom. I’ll definitely say that, being new to this world, I was nervous that there would be people sitting in the room that were more innovative, more interesting, more creative – I was very concerned about my ability to contribute at an equal level with the other people that were in the room.
How did the experience match your expectations?Those fears were absolutely silly. Every person in that room had different perspectives, and we were all given platforms to contribute our strengths to the group. I didn’t have to be somebody that was a great artist, I just had to be a willing and open participant. That was one of the things that I took away from the session – how important it is to have the right culture in the team that you work with in design sessions.
You need people that are willing to fail, willing to have something not go well, but still willing to go right back to the drawing board and start again. They’re willing to throw out their ideas, no matter how wild, without fear of being judged. So honestly all that I really needed that day was to come in open minded and willing to be a part of things. That was it. And as long as you have that, you’ll walk out with a successful outcome.
You mentioned wanting tangible takeaways. Things that you could implement after completing the program. Did Collabo’s Design Thinking Everyday Jumpstart provide those things?Yes, especially with being in the classroom many, many times. Brainstorm sessions are a part of my everyday workflow. And honestly, if I hadn’t taken anything else from the training, it’s that I was facilitating them wrong. The training really taught me how to correctly diverge and converge and to guide a team through a positive and creative brainstorm from generating the ideas though refining and synthesizing into something meaningful. I’ve gotten much, much better at that. My teams, whether it’s students or adult learners, have much more productive sessions now, and I am able to show them the big picture so much better than before.
What steps have you taken in your learning since the Jumpstart?Just last month, I attended the Event Design Collective’s Event Design Certificate Program. I am so glad I had the foundational understanding of the design process first. Thankfully, almost all of the industry-specific processes sit the same basic structure and framework that I learned at Collabo. Even if they called it something slightly different, it was still rooted in the same process when I went to the Event Design Collective.
I walked into that room more confident because I felt like I knew a little bit about where we were going and I already had some good skills in this area. It helped me be more comfortable contributing. It also allowed me space to hone in on some of the areas where I feel like I still needed more practice. Specifically, with Collabo, I started learning that I’m not a bad visualizer and I should not be so afraid to draw as a part of the creative process. I started to get a lot better at being able to visually communicate and understand the value of a visual piece of communication, rather than a whole bunch of words.
The Jumpstart prepared me massively and I was grateful that we built upon all of those principles. It allowed me to focus on a bigger picture, because I do more than just event design. It allowed me to think more broadly about how these principles could be applied in all different kinds of businesses, different kinds of situations.
At the Event Design Collective I was able to take a deeper dive into applying this to events in a more productive way because I didn’t have to worry about learning the basics.
What are your plans for the future of your design education and practice?I’m actually really happy with how this is all played out. I feel like Collabo created this amazing baseline of understanding for me and I feel so much more comfortable. The Event Design Collective taught me to apply these principles in a really specific way to events and the event community. In the next six months. I’m going to be doing a lot more facilitating and a lot more practice of what I’ve learned, which I’m excited about. I think practice is necessary.
In September of this year, I’m hoping to cap off the learning process a little bit for a while and learn by doing. I’m attending the College of Extraordinary Experiences, which will be an even deeper, more specific dive into event design—the psychology, the neuroscience, all the elements of creative a revolutionary event experience.
What’s your favorite takeaway from the Jumpstart?One of the things that has stuck with me the most is the analogy about the lotion. The idea is that you have to get the yucky part out of the lotion first, and that that is why we go really wide. That’s why we throw everything out there because even if the first idea isn’t a good one, you just have to get that creative ball rolling. If you don’t keep diverging and going for wild ideas, I don’t know how you are innovating. You have to get the yucky lotion out first to get to the stuff that’s held back by all of our internal dialogue or whatever we think are our constraints are. Then when you undress your wild ideas and take the glitter off of them, at the core of each one is something meaningful and possible.
Note: When explaining the value of diverging for quantity of ideas, sometimes we refer to ideas as lotion in the bottle. The first ideas you have are probably not the ones you want – they’re the dried up lotion clog. You get them out and then keep going to get to the good stuff.
I was just working with somebody the other day; they suggested through a diverging process that they attend a session on a beach and that they get their education while laying in a hammock. The distilling down of that idea is that you remove the beach and instead, it is a non-traditional venue, or a unique setting. You remove the hammock, and it’s a non-traditional or unique seating.
So how can we create that in a hotel? How can we create that in our local Indiana environment where we don’t have a beach? What about in a way that’s affordable? Well, if you come to somebody and say unique venue and non-traditional seating. that’s totally doable.
I think it’s a matter of being able to look at those big wild ideas and find the things about them that are really at their core. And to do that, you got to get the nasty lotion out.