The Design Loft

The Design Loft Initiative

As the saying goes: the best way to predict the future is to create it. Design is all about creating that future.

The Design Loft began as an innovative ‘pop-up’ within the American Evaluation Association’s annual conference as a way to teach professional evaluators some of the fundamentals of design – a single method or tool presented within a short 45-minute interactive workshop. What began as a single event has turned into an annual contribution to the largest evaluation event in the world since 2016. But just as the world has changed in 2020, so has the Design Loft.

The Design Loft Online

With the wide shift toward digital experiences that we’ve seen emerge out of necessity in 2020 comes the opportunity to extend the benefits of the Design Loft Experience to everyone. Starting in 2021, the Design Loft Online will provide online training through public events, courses, and other means as part of the Cense Academy, an innovative platform for learning about innovation. The Design Loft @ AEA is expected to continue once face-to-face conferences resume. But for now, visit The Cense Academy events page, sign up to the newsletter for updates, and see you soon up in the Design Loft.

The Design Loft @ AEA

The Design Loft has been a unique fixture as part of the American Evaluation Association’s annual conference since 2016. With the global pandemic of 2020 restricting the ability to interact in a face-to-face manner, the AEA decided to go to a smaller, online conference for 2020 and until it is safe to come together again. The format and example schedule for the Design Loft Experience @ AEA is outlined below.


The Design Loft @ AEA features 40-minute workshops delivered every hour on the hour throughout entire Friday of the conference. Workshops are short, intimate and practice-based led by Cameron Norman, who is both an experienced evaluator and a professional designer. It’s first-come-first-served and space is limited to allow attendees an opportunity to engage deeply with the material, ask questions and come away with a new skill. Workshops are designed to allow attendees to take an ‘active learning break’ between sessions during the conference program, meet new people, and have a little fun along the way.

Design Loft 2016: Atlanta


Like many good evaluations, the Design Loft is guided by a set of principles:

  • Embrace whimsy. Relax your assumptions and constraints about the usual way of working and approach problems playfully, with imagination.  
  • Bias toward action.  Prioritize creating artifacts over talking about what you’re doing.
  • Prototype and test.  Build and evaluate as you go – often and quickly.
  • Focus on Connections. Apply systems thinking to envision how ideas, products, services, and actions connect to one another.
  • Cultivate empathy. See the world through the lens of others — how they think, feel, and what they prefer, desire, and need.
  • Consider Accessibility. Put what you make within reach of most people, most often.
  • Prize Possibility. Explore how might something work – even if seemingly impossible.

Schedule of Events

Design Loft 2018: Cleveland (courtesy of Grace Lee)

The Design Loft runs on the Friday of the AEA conference. Workshops begin at 9:00 am.

9:00 am: User Personas: A persona is a tool in design that envisions a typical program user by constructing a profile of their behaviors, perspectives, and lifestyle relevant to the topic drawing on user research. These fictional characters are based on evidence and user-data collected by the design team and can help program designers and evaluators understand and anticipate the issues associated with how a new program will function when put into the world.

10:00 am Program Flipping! This is not about dolphins or birds :). Program designers often consider what people want, but what happens if you flipped a program on its head and designed for what people don’t want? This technique will show you how to ‘design for the negative’ to reveal the often hidden barriers, annoyances, and ‘repellers’ that we unconsciously put INTO our programs so we can better design them OUT.

11:00 am A Day in the Life: What does the typical user of a program go through in their day? How might the reality of a user’s day-to-day experience influence the design of a program and what might it mean for evaluators seeking to understand that experience and its relationship to program outcomes better? This session will show how a simple walk-through of a program using visual tools, acting out, and hypothesis generation might enable program planners, evaluators and collaborators to see new possibilities and insights. It’s not just a Beatles song!

12:00 pm Empathy Mapping. What might your program look like through the eyes of someone else? In this workshop, we introduce the Empathy Map Canvas, a tool that helps designers walk through some of the ways a prospective program user might see, hear, say, think, and feel about a program. Through the use of this tool, we can start to better understand someone’s goals, journeys, and the barriers and facilitators that might contribute to a program’s delivery and effectiveness.

1:00 pm 5 Whys:Channel your inner 5-year old and unlock the power of a simple set of questions based on Why? This technique can get us to understand why something is happening on the surface and reveal layers of causation and relationships. By getting closer to the root of an issue, we are better equipped to design programs that make transformational shifts, not cosmetic ones and evaluations that have the power to transform people and programs alike. We’ll walk through how to use this approach in your practice.

2:00 pm Journey Mapping: This method helps tell the story of a program user’s experience with a program by tracking the encounters that a person might go through along the program. This allows evaluators and designers to analyze the various touch-point an individual might have with a program and create the right kind of program and data collection opportunity. This allows the evaluator to see where problems and opportunities might lay before implementing a program or looking retrospectively at an existing program.

3:00 pm Space Travelling:While we might not be going out of the orbit of the earth, the space around us shapes a great deal of how a program runs and the service that is delivered. Space travelling is an approach to understanding the spatial constraints and physical barriers and facilitators (even in digital form) of our designs. We might be looking at social programs, but they exist somewhere and this approach will help you to understand what can make your program accessible and more effective.

4:00 pm Storyboarding:Movies and plays get made by taking creative ideas, mapping them out visually, and using that to guide how things get shot and what is needed to make it come alive. We can take the same idea and apply that to evaluations.Visualizing an activity or program through simple drawings — no matter how simply done — can be an engaging way to gain insight into attitudes, beliefs, assumptions, and relationships between concepts, project components and people. This technique will show you how a simple drawing can yield enormous information to guide program design and the evaluation questions that follow from it.


The Design Loft was first launched in 2016 as an experimental ‘pop-up’ conference within the main annual AEA convention as a means of introducing design to professional evaluators. The aim was to provide hands-on, practical opportunities for evaluators to learn about design methods and tools that can benefit their work and advance innovation within the field. This year the focus of the Design Loft will be applied to the conference theme of Paths to the Future of Evaluation.

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