Bringing big ideas to life with design thinking

Meet David Byron, director of innovation strategy at Sundberg-Ferar, a product innovation studio in Walled Lake, who explains how the tried & true process of design thinking can help students and adults alike in solving complicated problems, such as the many and multifaceted issues facing the field of education today.
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This week on the BRIGHT podcast, I had the honor of interviewing David Byron, director of innovation strategy at Sundberg-Ferar, who has been sharing his experience as an industrial designer with the ambitious goal of bringing the concept of design thinking into K-12 education.

For the past couple of years, my colleagues at Michigan Virtual have been working with David & his team to determine what the most pressing problems teachers, administrators, parents, and students want to see solved in education and how we might come up with innovative solutions to address them. 

You can see the initial findings of this research in a report titled “Michigan voices: An in-depth look at the experiences of educators, students, & parents during emergency remote learning

In this conversation, David shares how, by tapping into the tried & true formula of design thinking, both students and educators can learn how to structure the process of bringing big ideas to life.

Here’s a sneak peek at our conversation:

Interview transcript

Nikki: To kick us off, I was wondering if you could just tell us a little bit about yourself and about Sundberg-Ferar.

David: Yeah. I’ve been here in Michigan for 21 years now, and it’s the longest I’ve lived anywhere, so I’d say I’m officially a Michigander. I came here from New Jersey, and growing up there, I I knew I always wanted to be a car designer. For many years, I didn’t know what that path was, but I luckily found a book at Barnes and Noble on how to draw cars like a pro. 

The author of that book said if you’re interested in this career, look at College for Creative Studies in Detroit or Art Center in Pasadena. I have family in Wisconsin and Ohio, and I was in New Jersey, so I said well, Motor City makes sense. I applied and that’s where I got in. I actually moved here sight unseen. I never even visited the campus and had never been to Detroit. I just packed up my Firebird and showed up in the Motor City.

When I got here, I was so excited to get into design and become a designer. I made it through the four-year program, which is just super intense. It’s awesome because you’re connected to professionals while you’re going through the program. Many of the teachers are working full-time, and it kind of gave me the idea to do that myself and go back and teach later. But I designed cars for eight years  — nothing but cars — and had a lot of fun and succeeded. I got some show cars on the covers of magazines, and I just really lived the dream.

But after the first eight years of going through that and then the economic crash of 2009, I became curious about designing other things because I had always been super passionate about just solving problems. I found a firm here in the Detroit area called Sundberg-Ferar that does do car design but also designs other things, and I felt like it was a great fit. 

So, I came here, and I’ve been here for eight years now. In that time, I’ve been able to work on cars that can walk. There’s an amazing project called Elevate and another one called Tiger that are robotic cars that I’ve been able to work on. But I’ve also worked in kitchen appliances and tools that are at Home Depot and Lowe’s, security systems, parks that are being designed for the city of Detroit. 

It’s really just turned into more of the bigger questions that really interests me, which are: Are we solving the right problem? Before we sit down and start drawing sketches, have we even selected the right problem? 

I’ve really gotten more into strategy during the last few years at Sundberg-Ferar. That’s actually how I met Michigan Virtual because we were talking about the strategy of professional development and how to use design to get more creative problem-solving into K-12 education. I am teaching that at the college level, so it began as a conversation with some of the guys I know at Michigan Virtual, which has led to some projects and kind of this really interesting collaboration between design and education that connects the dots between a lot of things in my life that I’m passionate about.

Nikki: What drew you to education? What problems did you see there that you wanted to help solve?

David: I would say what draws me to education relates back to my childhood. I’m an obsessive learner. I get into any topic, and I go down rabbit holes. I just have to learn everything about something. So, I think back to my hunger for learning, and the people that enabled that for me, and how much I appreciated that. 

Then as I got older, I always had that passion to do that for others. That is, as soon as I felt like I was capable enough to speak the language of something or like I was an expert enough that I could actually share some wisdom with others, I just kind of felt like that was fulfilling the purpose to give back and acknowledging how much I appreciated those that had done that for me.  

I love to do that with students, and that’s why after I was out in the “real world” — four or five years into my professional career — I decided to go back to the College for Creative Studies and start teaching there. 

One of the things that’s evolved over the last few years for me is also being engaged in the Michigan Design Council. The Michigan Design Council’s role is to celebrate design in Michigan. A part of that is K-12 awareness. A lot of designers have similar stories to mine in that they just stumbled into design or luckily found out about it. 

But we want kids to know that an industrial design career is just as viable as the ones you typically see when you’re a kid and you take those career aptitude tests in school. I want industrial design to be on that list. To me, it’s a passion to get design into the K-12 education world so it becomes ubiquitous like any other career opportunity.

Nikki: Can you tell us why the world needs more industrial designers?

David: Well, industrial design itself is the intersection of art and science. I have a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. We go through the process of art being the emotional connection you have to an object or an experience or a brand that’s created through art. The science side of it is using technology and processes and industry to create a tangible solution and determine how it actually will work and function. 

The industrial designer is the role that bridges those two worlds and brings them together. I love the artistic piece and the emotional piece, but I also love the engineering side of it coming together to kind of create solutions that are sustainable. Because that’s really the goal.

If you only satisfy one or the other, from a product experience, it’s usually not sustainable. If it doesn’t work, but you feel great about it, eventually you give up on it because it doesn’t work. If it works great, but you really don’t care, you have no emotional connection, then it’s not going to succeed in the marketplace. 

Finding that right balance is really what drives me. You can apply problem solving skills to anything. Everybody wants to feel good about the experience of a product, and everybody wants it to work. So why not have more designers or people with design skills?

Nikki: So, what is “design thinking”? I know you started to answer that question, but is there anything else you want to add?

David: So design thinking is a term that captures what designers have always known for decades, which is a step-by-step process that tries to solve problems with a real solution at the end. There’s nuances within those processes you might see. You know, circles with iterations in the middle of them in infographics. They map out that process, but it really starts with looking at any situation, whether it be a product or an experience, and trying to solve a problem or just trying to make an experience better. Maybe it’s not a problem, but you just want to make it a better experience.

Doing the research and empathizing is really critical. Then, sketching out an idea or communicating an idea, and being able to have open critique of that idea, and then throw it away. This is something I talk about with students. When I get the attention of a class, I say, “Don’t be afraid to fail, and don’t use your eraser. Just start another idea. Just go on to the next idea.”

It’s hard, and as we get older, we get more fear in our lives. We get more afraid to fail. But actually, as kids, we’re really good at forgetting what we just did five minutes ago and starting another idea. So, kids are really natural designers and then the process moves into refining that idea and telling a story. Whether it’s building a code in an app or sketching out something and then making a prototype, you need to create something. 

In industrial design, we’re focused on products, but that process applies to anything. You go through that research refinement phase to get to an end result. I think that’s why it applies to where education is going with competency-based learning or project-based learning. The project-based model applies to design in such a seamless way. [The design thinking process] gives teachers and students something to grab onto and be able to repeat. 

Nikki: I’m told that you have a unique perspective on how design thinking can be leveraged to advanced student learning. I’m wondering if we could talk a little bit more about what this means, first of all, and what it looks like in practice when done well.

David: Well, one side of that coin is getting design activities, design practices,and  design thinking into the classroom. That’s the student and teacher relationship and the activities that are happening in the classroom to help students think and try and fail and prototype better. In a way, that’s the easier ask, which is: Can we do this in the classroom? As soon as you say that, everybody raises their hands and says, “Sure.”

The other side of the coin is using this approach to actually help design the model or the framework of education. That’s a bigger ask because there are so many stakeholders involved. You have, on one side, the parent and the student, and on the other side, you have the educators, but then you also have the administrators and the support staff and the community.

When you look at this matrix, all these different individual needs have to be satisfied to make the whole system work, right?  When they’re not, there’s so much frustration that happens between different stakeholders. There definitely needs to be more empathy — from top down or bottom up or however you want to say it — by all the different participants in education to see it from the other person’s perspective. 

I also think there needs to be more experimentation. There’s hesitancy to fail. No one wants to sign up to try something and then when it doesn’t work, have the finger pointed at them. That change needs to come from a systemic or leadership model to be able to give people the empowerment to fail.

I think education needs to have more doing and less talking. There are a lot of great ideas that get thrown around, but I see sometimes that they just have a hard time gaining traction and actually getting implemented. 

Maybe that’s part of the fear or part of the model or the rigidity of the state level systems that we’re trying to operate in.  This corporate level of practices, I think, is an area that needs to be looked at. We need to enable teachers and administrators to take action and do what they need to do. That’s where I think design thinking-type approaches can help enable that kind of change.

Nikki:  If you were to give advice to an individual teacher who wanted to dip their foot into design thinking, where would you suggest that they start? Even if they just wanted to use it in their classroom as a process to teach their students. 

David: So, I’ve actually got a great solution for that. There’s a nonprofit I work with called the Michigan Design Council. We run an annual challenge called the Michigan Design Prize, or we call it the “M Prize.” It’s a very easy entry into design. Each year, we launch a topic and then try to engage teachers to get that challenge brought into their classroom as an activity.

This is not a required curriculum. Nobody has to do it. It’s completely voluntary, but teachers are always looking for something new and stimulating to get students to be interested in a project. They can reach out to us and we do introductions. I do half-hour Zoom intros with schools throughout the year. We have other designers that will participate and volunteer. One school near us does “Design Day.” They have designers come in and work with students for two hours on their projects. We just did this through Zoom recently. We have some resources to help them say, “Here’s our problem statement, and here’s how you use design to solve it.”

So, that’s a great introduction. If someone is not familiar and wants to get into it, you can go to MichiganDesignCouncil.org, and you’ll see the “M Prize Annual Challenge” there. The cool part is that we select 12 finalists throughout the state, three in each age group. Winners are paired with a professional designer as a mentor who will help take their finalist idea and realize it with professional design renderings and drawings. They get together, they collaborate, and they realize the design idea. Then, at the award ceremony, the designers present their version of the students’ ideas. So, you could have a second grader who just has a really awesome idea, but you know, it was not there yet in terms of their drawing skills. Then, they get to work with the designer and the designer draws out their idea. They show it to them at the ceremony and jaws drop and parents cry. It’s just an awesome experience to see that happen. 

When teachers do it, they come back. They always come back the next year. They’re like, “Okay, we’re doing it again next year.” It’s just been growing over the years that we’ve been doing. I think we’re in our sixth or seventh year now.

Nikki: Can you tell me about your favorite teacher, and why they were your favorite?

David: I can give you two quick answers. First, my fourth grade teacher was my favorite elementary teacher, Ms. Rainmaker. It was very unclear at the time, but very clear to me now as an adult, that the reason she was my favorite teacher is because she treated us much older than we were. There was this tone of voice that she had with us that was just like when she was talking to adults. I think it’s really important with kids to speak to them with respect. There was this immediate respect that you had when you were in the room with her, so I definitely say she left a huge impression on me. 

The other one has to be my high school art teacher who helped me get a portfolio together to get into art school.  I didn’t take art in my first couple years of high school because I thought I was going to be an engineer, so I had all my electives loaded up with technical drawing and engineering computer classes. Then, when I found out I wanted to go to a CCS, I needed eight or 10 pieces to get a portfolio together. I ended up dropping a bunch of classes, and I walked into her classroom when I’d never even met her yet. I’m in there with freshmen, and I’m a senior. So, senior year, I walk in and say to her, “I want to go to art school, and I need 10 pieces in eight months. Can you help me do that?”

For an art teacher to hear that. . .  It was like a light bulb went off on her head. She was like, “Well, of course. Let’s get started.” I took three periods of art senior year just to get this portfolio put together to get into art and design school. I spent after hours with her, and I did all these extra pieces. Here I was taking our freshman through junior-level classes, just spending as many hours as I could in the day with her in her classroom, doing all these pieces to get my vision of being a car designer realized. She helped me do that. I have to say that out of all my teachers K-12 that helped me get to where I am now, she’s the one.

Nikki: How would you describe your vision for student learning? What I mean by that is, if it were up to you, what would you want to see for every student?

David: My number one goal for every student is that they know that they have value. They have value as an individual as a person. They have one-of-a-kind, God-given skills, that make them unique and make them important. I think that’s what’s really needed. I think the saddest thing maybe I can ever hear is when you’re talking to an older high school student, and you ask, “What are you good at?” If they say “nothing,” that’s heartbreaking. I really wanted kids to learn what their skills are and what opportunities are out there. 

This holistic approach that we need in order to build kids into adults is rooted in them looking at opportunities and finding purpose. We need to arm them with an understanding of what their skills are. Everybody’s different. Everybody’s good at different things. We need to have processes in place that help them explore and then identify what they’re good at and then see a roadmap to where that actually leads.  Because some students are really good at something, but they have no idea where that’s going to lead them in life. It’s a failure if we don’t show them the pathway to succeed with the skills that they have. So, that’s really my vision.

Nikki: This year — and you know this well from interviewing many teachers, parents, students, etc.— this past year was a challenging one for teachers in the age of pandemic learning and teaching. Do you have any words of advice or encouragement that you’d like to offer educators right now in light of this?

David: I would really love to just say to educators that you are enough. I think there’s a lot of conversations I’ve had where people don’t feel like they can do enough or that they are enough or that they’re skilled enough. It’s just that kind of that point of encouragement to say you are enough. There are pressures from above or from external circumstances or from the system with which they’re working. It’s hard. 

It’s easy to feel inadequate, but you are making a difference in students’ lives. The relationships that you have if you’re a classroom teacher. . . To the student, it means something to them. It really does. If you’re a support person in the education field, you mean something to the teachers. What you do really does make a difference. I think we sometimes look at the overall issues and actually let that weigh us down and forget the day-to-day and one-on-one impact that can be made.

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Nikki Herta

Nikki Herta

Nikki’s love for writing, editing and pedagogy brought her to Michigan Virtual as their Content Creator/Editor. A Michigan native, she studied writing at Grand Valley State University before continuing on to the University of Minnesota for her master’s degree. While there, she also taught first-year writing to college freshman. Outside of work, she enjoys hiking, playing table-top board games, and curling up in front of the fireplace with a good book and her sassy, ancient cat, Princess Eugene.

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