Michael Barry on design, humility and the need to 'crash'

Michael Berry (standing) speaks with the d.school fellows during a studio session on Monday, May 12. (Emi Kolawole) You know a master storyteller when you see one, and Michael Barry is a master.

The fellows received a one-hour presentation last week from Michael on his design work, including projects for Wrigley's chewing gum and for Shure audio. Michael regaled the fellows with stories while sharing insights they could incorporate into their own endeavors. With images, text and video, he showed how an effective transformation in branding and packaging in China could be tracked back to discoveries of societal expectations on sharing and the crafting of physical entryways. He showed how distributing the latest and greatest to apprentice users, rather than to master craftsmen, can introduce a sea change in an industry. Here, quoted from his final slide, is a summary of the takeaways:

"The core underlying benefit of design thinking [is]: the enhanced capacity to frame and reframe the problem to be solved.

1. Sometimes we need many different frames around a problem in order to see the many different possible solutions.

2. Sometimes we need to hold all the elements of a wicked problem together and to see how a change in one element can affect others.

3. Sometimes we can't solve problems as they are framed; instead, we need an altogether different frame."

Here are some additional topics Michael touched on during the question-and-answer session with the fellows:

Communicating with clients

One of the questions that most moved me came from Melissa Pelochino: How do you communicate at a high level when you are just starting work with clients?

"The high level in the U.S. rarely works," Michael said, referring to conceptual presentations, as opposed to tangible ones. "People struggle with it." He recommended the Heath brothers' book "Made to Stick", and suggested creating a situation where a client is willing to sit and listen because they've been challenged in a way that makes them uncomfortable. That's because, as Michael put it, "we are much more susceptible to potential pain than gain."

Doing this often means presenting a variety of potential solutions to your client and making them tangible. offering the solution and analysis sides of your proposed work simultaneously.

The role of humility

"We constantly play the humility card," Michael said of his own team's presentations to clients. "[We say] that this is not it -- this suggests what it could be." This is layered on top of the additional challenge of pitching a collaborative working style. Getting buy-in for this female-gendered way of working can be difficult, Michael said. An approach where everyone has a role to play in coming to a solution is not standard; often, the approach is male-gendered, where someone will come in with a solution that they say they will implement without the need for input from others.

Keeping the storytelling passion alive

Asked how he maintains a passion for the storytelling around his work, Michael said he goes back to the beginner's mindset. "I truly found these interesting problems," he says of the projects he worked on. In addition to that, it's about conveying a special moment -- the moment when you realize the solution to a problem has been right in front of you all along. "I want to give you that sense to see something that was always there, and you didn't see it and here's what happens when you see it. My goal is I hope that happens to you."

The need to 'crash'

In the act of really learning design thinking, Michael said, you have to "crash". You have to hit the wall where you just don't know where else to turn and break through it. Few people want to feel this way, but it's the position where Michael places his students -- and keeps them. Innovations -- no, innovators -- are born of their crash into and through that wall.