Designing for Impact: Transformational Experience Design Model 🧑‍🚀

Why you need to think bigger and design experiences holistically to create real impact👇

Andy Sontag
10 min readJun 18, 2020
Transformational design requires the ability to design holistically on these 4 levels of the design: The experiences narrative guides the culture, which facilitates the users journey, which is anchored in artifacts.

Resonance is the musical concept of bringing harmony between, and this is the goal of the Transformation Experience Design (TED) model, to empower a growing movement of change makers and designers creating resonant transformative experiences. The rising star German sociologist Hartmut Rosa writes about harmony brought about from resonance as an anecdote to the accelerating pace of society.

At the most abstract level we will look at narrative design and at the most concrete level artifact design. This is a model that can be used to design and innovate in human system, as we have been doing for 30 years at the Kaospilots. Transformational expert, Carola Verschoor summarizes the Transformation Experience Design (TED) model beautifully:

“We all agree that transformation needs to happen across many levels if it is to last and be adopted by people. Designing for behaviors at one end of the spectrum or designing the narrative at the other end, don’t do the trick by themselves. For behaviors to stick, people must co-design the narrative. For the narrative to come alive, there have to be artifacts that will guide and sustain the behavior.”

What is a transformational experience?

Transformative experiences color the way we experience all other things. GIF art made by Rasmus Stride as an output of our conversations about transformation.

Transformational experiences open doors that were once closed, and leave those doors open. According to Robert Kegan, becoming an adult isn’t about learning new things, adding things to the ‘container’ of the mind. It’s about transformation — changing the way we know and understand the world, adding new meaning making lens that evolve and add depth way we experience everything.

Creating a transformative experience is about evolving the way people make meaning. By transformational experiences, I am talking about those that enable the expansion and growth of a person. A transformational experience never really ends. Strategic designer, Alberto Barreiro says, “to become is the outcome of transformation” (why we named our new transformation focused online program Become). Before we get into the TED model, lets first look at why we need to focus on designing transformation today.

Why aim for transformational experiences?

Humanities interconnected challenges require a wave of transformation

To aim to transform people you need to assume that people can develop. Exploring theories of developmental psychology is beyond the scope of this article, but incredibly important to understand for those wanting to positively transform adults. Read more about the above model here.

We need human development to be the goalpost that organizations and governments around the world aim for. There is groundbreaking clarity coming from the new science of happiness, that can empower a new generation of entrepreneurs and designers with a formula for human development and societal health.

As society is getting more complex, this results in people’s psychological development being outpaced by the complexity of society. Research on adult development is still nascent, yet the body of empirical research that exists clearly points to a fact: most people do not reach the highest stages of adult development. Robert Kegan’s talk here is a great summary of this.

“Personal and interpersonal development is a societal concern that’s too important to solely remain a private responsibility. It must become one of the most central issues in public life.”

Alter Ego Network

When looking deeply at the issue of systemic racism, environmental destruction, loneliness and stress, we can see that these challenges will not be solved without personal and interpersonal development.

To transform a human system, the people in the system must be able to experience that transformation.

“We should think of what is experienced as what is available to a person… What is available is that which we have access.”

— Alva Noë

What is available for a person to experience at any given time, depends upon their sensory inputs — the environment — but also crucially what they can do. Consider the case of literacy. To an illiterate person text might as well be invisible. The consciousness of the person who can read, in contrast, is captured and transported by the combination of letters. Thus the ‘literacy’ of the person having an experience is a crucial factor for you as a designer to consider. Not everyone can experience the depth and layers of meaning you have designed for them because they can’t ‘read’ that level of experience yet. A movement of transforming people, systems and society, must go hand in hand with a movement of education, personal development and integration of experiences.

1. Narrative Design

How could this experience positively change the user’s story of who they are?

The design at this stage is focused on enabling the user to tell a new story of who they are and what they are capable of. It is about understanding and supporting a transformation that the user intrinsically wants to make themselves and getting them all the way from desire for change into actual change in behavior.

What it is about:

  • Enabling a person to transform themselves
  • Understand the existing narrative
  • The title matters — a lot.

Enable people to transform themselves

An experience will mean more to someone than you can ever plan if you give them the trust to make their own meaning. You can never make someone change, though we do love to try! This can be a very empowering perspective, as it means you need to co-create and learn as much as possible, continually testing your assumptions, about the person/system you wish to transform.

Understand the existing narrative, in order to create a new one

If you want to change the narrative that a person or organization holds dear, start with sensing and deeply understanding the roots of the beliefs, values and assumptions that are guiding the system. We like to use systems thinking methods to do this initial mapping of a system in order to understand the leverage points for change. This work requires time and real relationships to be built with those you are hoping to impact.

The title matters — a lot

When creating an experience, what you name it is the first pebble you throw, that may will ripple out rings of transformation. We have learned from the work of Diane Nijs with High Concept Thinking. One take away is that surprisingly large transformations of human systems can be created by giving a system a new name. Giving a district of a city the title Fashion District, or changing the name from Human Resources to Employee Experience, will have rippling and potentially transformational impact. Diane writes in her book Advanced Imagineering, “Design is a matter of shifting the collective focus in an aspirational way as to create the context in which all actors are inspired to use their own imagination and creativity to generate a more desired reality together.”

GIF made by the talented Rasmus Stride

2. Cultural Design

What culture could support the desired transformation?

What it is about:

  • Relationships are built from shared experiences
  • Using three levels of interaction to help you design a strong social fabric: Personal, Friends Group and Whole Community

Design at this level is focused on positively influencing the social context the experience will take place in. In cultural design we find the metaphor of social fabric helpful. The social fabric is the culture that is created from the shared experience that weave together the individual threads of a system. When we design experiences, we layer the relationships, by creating different relational constellations. For example creating ‘Home teams’ that are focused on leadership development and ‘Case Teams’ that are focused on solving a specific challenge together. These different teams develop a unique culture, based on how their context is designed.

This is metaphor is one of the ‘Core Mindsets’ that we use in the Kaospilot Experience Design Training.

Relationships are built from shared experiences.

The strengthening or disintegration of the social fabric of a community is a result of what experiences have been shared. If we want to create an organization where we feel more harmony, we can look at what experiences are currently shared and then design the shared experiences that would enhance the feeling of harmony.

This model is from Stella Zubeck, and her fantastic work with music festival design. See more here

There as three levels of interaction you can use to help you design a strong social fabric and culture for transformation to happen in. Pigalle Tavakkoli introduced this fantastic model to us.

Personal: What experiences are individual and allow for personal interaction, reflection and growth? In the immersions we run, silence and time in pristine nature are elements of personal time that people soak up like sponges.

Social unit of friends: What experiences can support people in connecting to and meaningfully interacting with their friends? In any social system, people tend to clump together with people they feel most safe with, be it their partner, friends, or new acquaintances.

Larger community: What experiences create the larger sense of we? What rituals can everyone take a part in? We like to create a strong entry and exit experience, to make tangible the intangible sense of shared purpose.

3. Journey Design

What are the steps of the users journey?

What it is about:

  • Design everything with a narrative arc
  • BOOM + pause + reflection
  • Integration! Integration! Integration!

In the hereo’s journey, the hero changes by interacting with challenges out in the world, and she only realizes how she has changed when she comes back home.

Here is a simple to use model, that you can use as a framework to design from, you can read more about the 5E Model here.

Design everything with a narrative arc:

People remember and retell experiences as stories. When you aim to transform someone, start with that end in mind and ask: What story do I want this person to tell about how this experience transformed them? Use your answer to this question to design the experience, so it is natural for your users to tell that story! Our talented friend Aga Szóstek, introduced us to this useful question.

We and recommend Donna Lichaw’s narrative arc, when designing experiences.

Stories are easier to remember — because in many ways stories are HOW we remember.” — Daniel Pink

BOOM + pause + reflection: This simple formula (BOOM + pause + reflection) is a powerful frame for creating a transformational learning experience. To do this, aim to momentarily launch people into a powerful experience of awe — so they don’t have words for what they are experiencing. After this BOOM, let people have little PAUSE so they have time to themselves, then gently follow up with a REFLECTION have a chance to sense-make, and learn from each others reflections. We like using the User Experience Fish Bowl to debrief powerful share experiences. The pioneering experience designer Nelly Ben Hayoun does something similar with her experiences and call this tactic “total bombardment.”

Integration! Integration! Integration! Many if not most potentially transformational experiences are sandwiched into daily life and the transformational potential is squeezed out and left for dead. If you wish an experience to make a lasting impact, make sure the integration back into peoples lives, is part of your design. As more transformation experiences are created, so will the awareness of the importance of integration. The goal for you as a transformational designer, should be the way some feels and behaves once back in their daily lives — the state they are left with — not the moment of the peak experience.

4. Artifact Design

What artifacts do users interact with on their journey towards transformation?

  • Objects hold meaning
  • In an increasingly digital world, physicality matters more

The artifacts that people interact with are their windows into experience, meaning and creating narratives. Designing an experience at this level is going into the details of the physical/digital world the users interacts with. This is where you look at what objects and environment support the transformation you want to create. The digital/physical interactions start from the moment the user become aware of the experience, what we call the Excitement (see the 5E model). The Extension, a physical object, take with the user after the experience, can be a powerful way to anchor the core of the experience into something tangible.

Objects hold meaning: Give people a chance to integrate their transformative experience with things they can take back into their daily lives. If you want a change of culture, move your organization into a building/neighborhood that embodies this change you wish to create.

In an increasingly digital world, physicality matters more: As our time is spent largely experiencing the changing images on our screens, our senses of touch, smell, taste… are longing for the chance to stretch their legs.


It is important to learn how to create experiences, that actually result in real change in our human systems. In my experience, the TED model requires the ability to bring resonance between many levels of thinking as a designer and facilitator of transformational experiences. Though no design process is strictly linear, it does generally move from abstract to concrete. The narrative of an experience is integral in creating the culture, which facilitates and makes the users journey flow, which is in turn anchored in the artifacts that bring the experience to life. In order to design transformational experiences, you can use these levels as a guide to help you consider the most important places to focus.

The scale of the challenges that we face, necessitate the creation of waves of transformative experiences on all levels of society. Our current systems compels us to destroy our future to ‘get by’ today. We need to change our systems in a radical way. The basis of systems change is the transformation of the people creating the systems. To make radical organizational and systems change, people need to be supported, and grow into the new ways of being together. They need a new generation of designers and facilitators to meaningfully create resonant transformative experiences.

GIF art made by the amazing Rasmus Stride

Further Resources:

Use our 5E Experience Design Model to design your next experience.

Written for Kaospilot Experience Design
Since 1991, Kaospilot have worked systematically with the management of change and co-creation processes. We are a creative and experience design driven school that makes professional training programs in leadership, innovation, creativity and experience design. Our professional programs are not create simply to prepare leaders for the future, but to help them design it.



Andy Sontag

Designing experience that enable people and relationships to grow ☀️ // Kaospilot Experience Design: