Cover illustration: Yusuf Akın Gülsayın

Designing for good: Clean Water Designathon

Published in ATÖLYE Insights · 13 min read · October 21, 2020

From event planning to event designing

Author: Deniz YaziciogluCo-author: Melissa Clissold Editor: Emre Erbirer, Özgür Arslan In-text illustrations: Yusuf Akın Gülsayın


Nowadays, we can see events promoted as "experiences" taking place all across the globe under many different guises. There are countless examples of these events, ranging from escape rooms to immersive theatre productions to interactive exhibitions. Although each event sets out to create different impressions in every individual, in order to create unforgettable experiences, it is always a good idea to take into account the motivations behind the participant's reason for attendance.

As event planners, we usually have a general idea about who the potential attendees could be for an event based on previous attendance as well as our own experience. We also tend to target a certain audience when promoting events and plan our events accordingly. Moreover, we attempt to fill a "gap" that we see in the "event scene" in order to make our events more attractive. However, if we do indeed want to succeed in continuously creating better experiences for our participants, it is also always important to reflect on past events to determine what went well, what did not work, and what could have gone better.

So the question here is this: Could we switch our perspective from "event planning" to "event designing" instead? In return, could this switch create a more holistic journey for everyone involved from start to finish whilst allowing room for constant improvement? Could we also use this approach to "designing" events for positive social impact?

This leads us to the question:

"How might we design human-centered events focused on creating social positive impact using Design Thinking?"

Inspired by this question, we wanted to create an event that was human-centered (focusing on human perspective - in this case, the perspective of participants), and that focused on designing towards positive social impact. The aim was to deliver an event that met the needs of its participants and stakeholders while allowing room for creativity, as well as allowing participants to feel the delight that they are actually working towards creating real solutions to wicked problems. Thus, mere "attendees" could become actual "participants."

Therefore, to design this event, we chose to plan a "designathon" using Design Thinking methodology. By volunteering to design this event, we wanted to play a role in raising awareness of environmental issues.

Design Thinking methodology

The concept of designathons will be further explored below, yet, to provide some context, we can refer to Marco Torrento's definition of a designathon used in his article "What is a Designathon and how to run one successfully?" Here, a designathon is defined as being "similar to a hackathon, but instead of IT specialists and computer enthusiasts coming together to tackle a given topic; UX, web - and business designers lock themselves in a room and work on a broadly defined challenge for social good." So, how did we come up with this idea?


Everything started when we hosted Hayri Dağlı, the founder of IDEA Universal, for one of our CreativeMornings Istanbul events under the theme of "water." IDEA Universal is, in their own words, a "universal community of dreamers, partners, supporters, donors, and volunteers (IDEA, 2019) who share a common dream that extreme poverty can be eliminated with technology and innovative new ideas." IDEA's focus is on eliminating the global water and food crisis, as well as ending extreme poverty. Their work on water and sanitation has attracted so much attention that it was featured by the Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (TRT) on their documentary series "Water Wars."

During the event, Hayri said the following: "We are in need of innovative solutions to a very basic problem; accessing clean water." This, in return, sparked an idea for Aslı Sevinç, one of ATÖLYE's lead service designers. Our initial question of "How might we design events using Design Thinking" started to evolve into "How might we design and execute a designathon for a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) using Design Thinking methodology?" Then, acting upon this moment of inspiration, we decided to design and host a designathon which would aim to tackle the issue of accessing clean water. The event would be called "Clean Water Designathon." Not only would be designing the event, but participants themselves would also be designing throughout the event too.

IDEA Universal was to be our partner for this designathon, and the solutions that emerged from the designathon was to increase IDEA's visibility and raise awareness regarding their operations in Africa and Asia. We believed that organizing a designathon to tackle a significant problem such as the lack of water and sanitation in underdeveloped countries, had the potential to yield creative and innovative solutions through transdisciplinary groups of participants.

A snapshot of IDEA Universal's work

People often talk about hackathons. But what about designathons?

When you hear the word hackathon, if the first thing that comes to mind is a group of computer-savvy programmers glued to their screens who are gathered under one roof, think again. Because, according to Joshua Tauberer, a software developer and civic technologist, a hackathon is "an event of any duration, where people come together to solve problems," and it doesn't necessarily need to involve technology (Tauberer, 2017). Also according to Jon Erickson, in his book Hacking: Art of Exploitation (2008) "the essence of hacking is finding unintended or overlooked uses for the laws and properties of a given situation and then applying them in new and inventive ways to solve a problem - whatever it may be."

Hacking can become a creative endeavor, testing the limits to find innovative solutions to problems.

A designathon, on the other hand, is built on the same liberal principles of hacking, but with a focus on design.

A designathon differs from a hackathon since it focuses more on sketching and mocking ideas, "which allows the participants to think freely and more creatively" (Zeitlhuber). The end products can range from digital design, marketing campaigns, advertisements, or any creative output which may potentially answer the needs of the brief.

By choosing an environmentally and socially relevant topic as the theme of the event, we wanted the experience to spark ideas and solutions with the potential to address real-world needs. To make a healthy decision to decide whether or not to organize a hackathon or a designathon, we chose to interview our client IDEA Universal during the first Design Thinking phase: Empathize.

However, before moving onto the empathizing stage, we conducted quick desktop research, looking out for similar events. There were a few global examples of water-related hackathons, however, their communication practices were, in our eyes, not that successful. It was tough to find more information about these events. For the design of our event, we considered the following.

We wanted to:

  • Advertise the event as transparently as possible, communicating the objectives of the designathon prior to the event,
  • Find a unique name and (if possible) design a unique logo,
  • Declare the challenges and themes beforehand so people could come prepared,
  • Include the participants in the design processes,
  • Publish a final report, (or a Medium article like this one) conveying the process as well as the outcomes of our event.

Having determined what was important, we moved onto implementing the Design Thinking steps.

Step 1: Empathize

The first step in Design Thinking asks us to empathize with the "users" of a product. In our case, we focused on the "participants" of our event. However, before delving into the experience of the event itself, we needed to solidify the purpose of the event with the main stakeholder: IDEA Universal.

The whole aim of designing this event was for the outcomes of the event to benefit IDEA Universal directly and for the ideas to be applicable in the field. So, understanding the actual needs of IDEA was fundamental.

Further on, we interviewed past hackathon participants, event organizers, and potential designathon participants. We approached previously recruited contacts from the Istanbul Service Jam (as part of the Global Service Jam), organized by ATÖLYE in February 2019. We also interviewed people from the ATÖLYE community, and the social innovation platform imece.

Step 2: Define

The second Design Thinking step is to "Define." There were three common points that emerged from the interviews regarding what the event should look like. Our interviewees made the following clear:

  1. Before the event: The communications of the event is crucial in setting the right expectations for the outcomes of the designathon. The event's aim, the participant profile, and the program should be transparent and comprehensible by all potential participants.
  2. During the event: Having qualified mentors and proper guidance during the event are musts. The mentors should be expert designers and make sure that the end prototypes of each team honed in on a feasible idea or approach.
  3. After the event: The end products of the event (prototypes) should be tangible and also applicable to the real world. In fact, the design artifacts produced during the designathon should also be shared if possible.

As event planners who are wearing the hat of design researchers, these insights guided us during the design and implementation of the designathon.

Step 3: Ideate

The third step within Design Thinking methodology asks us to "Ideate." This stage allows designers to come up with creative solutions to pre-determined problems. The aim is always to generate as many ideas as possible. Harnessing our know-how on executing numerous workshops for ATÖLYE's client-facing projects, we decided to ideate on which creative exercises to use during the designathon. Our first step was to consider the agenda of the event.

A "dynamic agenda" is the backbone of any workshop - hackathons and designathons alike. It ensures that all steps of the design process are followed and all exercises are performed on time.

Adhering to a diligently designed agenda helps participants stay energized and motivated. Otherwise, the agenda would turn into long back to back sessions that are monotonous. So, during our ideation, we were able to create a rich dynamic agenda for the event.

Not only did we follow the design thinking methodology, but we also implemented the concept of design thinking into our agenda so that our participants could experience this process first hand. We ideated and planned the specific exercises that could fit into this structure.

Step 4: Prototype

The fourth step of the Design Thinking methodology involves prototyping your idea. With a product or app, this may be simple. But for an event, this involved doing a complete dry run of the event with our entire team. This way, we could see what was working and what needed to be improved as well as getting a final chance to refine our agenda.

This is also where we prototyped our visuals, the content within the dynamic agenda, the use of the event space, as well as the tools we would be using throughout the event. This gave us a chance to get some valuable feedback before going through with the event itself.

Step 5: Test

The final step of the Design Thinking process entails testing out your idea. So, for us, this was it - Our chance to "test" and experience the event that we had planned first-hand! This is where we could witness our agenda, our program, and tools being used by our participants. If "testing" an app means publishing it on the App Store, "testing," in this case, meant putting on the event itself.

Through testing out the event that we had designed, we were able to see first-hand what was working or not, and what could be improved next time around.

You can watch the video recap of the designathon below to get a taste of how this event turned out.

Moreover, you can find the recap of the event in numbers below as well:

Some of the prototypes developed during the event were truly innovative. The solutions ranged from a platform for volunteers to select the country in which they want to do volunteer work, to a children's book designed to educate kids regarding clean water scarcity, to a barcode on a water bottle which invites people to play a mobile game whilst increasing their awareness with regards to issues surrounding water.

Finally, through experiencing various circumstances throughout the event, we could clearly define what needed to be considered for next time or what sort of risks we may face.

This, in turn, would allow us to re-empathize, re-define, ideate once more, create a more developed prototype for our next event, as well as re-test our prototype - our event experience - with future events.

Jury presentations of the participants

Feedback and next steps

As this was our first designathon, there were still elements that could be improved upon.

As it is our custom after any event, we held a formal feedback session to provide a chance for everyone to reflect on what went well or what didn't, and also what could have been improved. However, in hindsight, a formal report would have been even more useful to refer back to. In addition, following-up on the prototypes to see whether they were implemented or not, would have been a great next step to improve our monitoring and evaluation of the whole process.

Since then, we have been working on improving our event experiences by reflecting on what was missing or could have been improved. In fact, based on our learnings from this designathon, we have now started to create more in-depth reports as an additional output after each event. Moreover, in order to archive the outputs and design artifacts, and also allow these to be accessed by a wider audience, we have also started to create microsites for our hackathons. Check out the website for Hack the Normal which we produced for Arçelik, or the website we developed for Hack the Crisis Turkey as examples of what has improved since putting on this event. For each new event, we continue to "prototype" and "test" and get closer to producing events that will indeed become unforgettable experiences - co-designed with all involved.

Closing Remarks

At ATÖLYE, we aim to use design thinking to tackle a vast array of challenges. Be that improving children's experience in a school classroom environment, to creating alternative user interfaces for applications, or to create unforgettable experiences through our events. At times, we work on resolving complex problems for our clients, other times, we focus on resolving social issues through co-designing with a partner. In this instance, going beyond organizing an event and wearing the hat of a designer yielded great results.

We could see that participants left the event space with a sense of humble accomplishment. New relationships were formed, new connections established, and laughter resonated throughout the space as we came to our closing ceremony.

In conclusion, as event planners, there can often be a disconnection between "us" and "the attendees," yet, if we choose to imagine what the experience could look like from the participants' point of view, we can truly create beautiful memories, leaving us feeling fulfilled, joyful, and inspired to take further action for good.

A snapshot of everyone who attended the Clean Water Designathon

PS: We would like to especially thank Kaya Demiral and Müge Gümüş from the imece team for joining us and volunteering to document the event.

PPS: If you would like to collaborate in designing a hackathon or designathon, please e-mail to start a conversation. We would be more than happy to explore the value we can create together.