The International Polar Year 2007–2008 stimulated a wide range of education, outreach and communication (EOC) related to polar research, and catalysed enthusiasm and networks that persist ten years on. Using a multi-method approach that incorporates case studies, auto-ethnographic interviews, and survey data, we interrogate the opportunities and limitations of polar EOC activities and propose a new framework for practical, reflexive, engagement design. Our research suggests that EOC activities are under-valued and often designed based on personal instinct rather than strategic planning, but that there is also a lack of accessible tools that support a more strategic design process. We propose three foci for increasing the professionalisation of practitioner approaches to EOC: (1) improved articulation of goals and objectives; (2) acknowledgement of different drivers, voices and power structures; and (3) increased practical training, resources and reporting structures. We respond to this by proposing a framework for planning and design of public engagement that provides an opportunity to become more transparent and explicit about the real goals of an activity and what “success” looks like. This is critical to effectively evaluate, learn from our experiences, share them with peers, and ultimately deliver more thoughtfully designed, effective engagement.