Designing for a first of its kind virtual conference experience

2021 Greater Giving Summit
Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation


What makes for engaging and authentic virtual experiences? This was the question facing so many event and conference planners during COVID-19. Many of the traditional benefits of a conference are not as evident when moved to a virtual setting: the impromptu connections made in between sessions, the overheard snippets of conversation that lead to full-length discussions, and the palpable excitement that comes from being surrounded by a group of inspiring peers. This past year, Intentional Futures worked with Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to bring their Greater Giving Summit to life as a virtual event.

For the 2021 Greater Giving Summit — a gathering of philanthropy professionals from around the world — the foundation knew that they wanted to approach the virtual conference experience from a different perspective: bringing the event to life in a way that imitated truly being in a physical space. In conferences past, the Summit was held in the atrium of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s main building, a space well-known and appreciated by attendees for being conducive to conversation and general networking and mingling. Our partners in this effort, TechChange, were responsible for envisioning and building the bones of the virtual atrium, and as that the focal point for the virtual conference networking, Intentional Futures set out to make the atrium feel interesting and engaging.

"Collaborating with Intentional Futures to make the events platform and virtual networking spaces come to life with summit branding was such a smooth experience. It was thrilling to see If's designs applied across the many spaces in which participants interacted to create a cohesive online conference environment." -Shannon Tracy, Senior Program Manager, TechChange

What We Made

With the help of TechChange, the Intentional Futures team took the following steps to create an immersive environment for the Greater Giving Summit:

1. Placemaking

Using the theme of “react, transform, rebound”, the iF team created assets for Zoom meetings, physical gifts like notebooks, email invites, and the website landing page. Seamless integration of the virtual conference was top of mind in order to match the style guide of all other attendee touch points set the tone for the experience.

2. Wayfinding

Engaging within a virtual environment is not always intuitive, and making the transition from physical to virtual reality was forefront on the team’s mind when designing for the conference. Once dropped in, visual assets on the walls of the space guided attendees to spaces that might promote conversation. The iF design team was intentional in placing the elements in areas that were immediately noticeable by attendees while promoting an open flow to the atrium.

Elements from the conference's theme, "Rebound" were interspersed throughout event materials.
Integration of the virtual conference into the greater website was crucial for a cohesive flow.

3. Engaging other attendees

Upon entrance into the virtual atrium, each attendee assumes the form of an anonymous avatar. This was where the team drew from experience in designing the flow and patterning of in-person events and modeled the virtual platform after it. Conversations begin when you approach someone else and, much like in a physical setting, audio fluctuates in volume the closer you get. The ability to listen in on a conversation prior to joining is a functionality absent from most meeting platforms, and enables attendees to feel more comfortable entering into a discussion.

Sketch of initial wayfinding posters


Over the course of 4 days, The 2021 Greater Giving Summit welcomed 200+ leaders from around the world and facilitated meaningful conversations and connections. Through the creation of design assets that permeated the entire conference experience and were included on physical gift items, the Intentional Futures team helped bring the Greater Giving Summit to life even from the attendees' respective homes. From Zoom backgrounds to the animated elements on the Summit webpage, the experience of the conference was made to be immersive and engaging while maintaining the unique environment of the Summit in years’ past.

While the larger-scale impact of the Summit is longer term, in an immediate sense Intentional Futures helped design a platform in response to the challenges a pandemic-constrained world presents to conferences and events. As usual, we were excited to partner with an impactful organization doing innovative work like the Greater Giving Summit and are looking forward to another year of the conference in 2023.

Final poster rendering

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