5 Questions for Coeylen Barry ’98

Coeylen Barry ’98

Coeylen Barry is a former lecturer at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University (the Stanford d.school). She has worked with schools around the world to bring design thinking into the classroom, and is the founder of KDT Consulting, an organization that works with schools, businesses, and nonprofits to use design thinking to create innovative solutions.

1. What is design thinking?

That is a great question—I still struggle to explain it without providing an opportunity for someone to experience it. Design thinking is taking a process that is often used by graphic and product designers and applying it to solving complex problems. Design thinking is very applicable to education in that it is essentially creative problem solving. It provides students with the tools to address complex real-world problems. The process sets it apart from typical project-based learning. The steps of the process can vary, but students will often work through five stages: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test.

The stages of Design Thinking

2. What happens in those five stages?

The first stage is empathizing. Often people don’t take the time to really understand the individual or group they are designing for. Empathizing involves interviewing and observations. What you’re trying to figure out is users’ latent needs. In order to do this we encourage students to seek stories or follow emotions. Rather than asking a question like, how do you typically do x?, you may ask, “Tell me about the last time you did x.” People’s ideas about what they typically do are often quite different from what they actually do. Anytime someone says something emotional, asking why helps to uncover the underlying reasons.

During the define phase, students are challenged to synthesize all of the insights they gathered in the empathize phase and develop a single problem statement.  This problem statement becomes the guiding question that underlies the rest of the design process.

The ideate phase is designed to break open the box of creativity. Ideate means brainstorming in its simplest form. It is idea generation with specific rules to encourage maximum innovation. Some of these rules include no judgment, one conversation at a time. Some other ideate techniques include body storming (going through experience and saying what comes to mind). You might use specific prompts: every idea has to involve some sort of magic, every idea has to cost $1 or one million dollars, etc. This forces students/designers to think outside of the box.

Prototyping uses a different part of mind: you are physically building something. Testing involves the concept of rapid failure. Say I interview you about your wallet. Then I have five minutes to create a new version of a wallet that would be perfect to you. Because I’ve spent only a few minutes, you can tell me anything about what I’ve come up with, and it doesn’t affect me in the same way that it would if I had spent all night working on it. By failing early and often, the end product can be better because the cost of failure early on is so low. It makes you more willing to take a risk. This also helps students build resilience.

3. You recently presented a workshop for educators through the Bay Area Teacher Development Collaborative. How do you see design thinking as a completely different way to think about curriculum?

Design thinking can completely shift in the way in which teachers teach. It doesn’t replace direct instruction, but I see it as a tool to augment current curriculum. What I love about it is that you can spend as much or as little time and resources as you’d like. Some classes just brainstorm, or just prototype. Some teachers will start with empathy, and depending on time, see what they can do.

It’s a tool for teachers, and for kids, it’s a very important skill. We have no idea what the job market will look like when kids graduate. Just having a good GPA from a good college may not be enough to get a job anymore. Kids will need to be creative as the approach the job market. There is a difference between kids who are always told they are smart and kids who are told they work hard or are creative. Kids who are always told they are smart will often give up when they are faced with a challenge they don’t know how to solve; however, kids who are told they are creative and hard-working will think that they must be able to come up with a solution. The goal is to help students develop the mindset that they can figure it out no matter how challenging the problem. Design thinking helps students develop this mindset.

4. What about your education at MA prepared you for this work?

Co and two classmates in the 1997 MA yearbook

It has been interesting for me coming back to MA and noticing how student-centered the campus is. I remember coming back to MA some time after I graduated and seeing a sign that said, “Please knock. We want to make sure we’re ready for you,” rather than “Please knock so you don’t disturb us.” The feeling that I was supported and that teachers wanted to help me do what I wanted to do has made a difference. The basic skills I learned at MA helped me have the confidence to see what else was out there and take risks. I really liked my teachers, got a good education, made good friends. A lot of design thinking is feeling comfortable taking a risk, and that started at MA.

5. What’s the most important thing that you’ve learned through starting your business?

The first thing that comes to mind is learning that no doesn’t mean no. In the process of starting anything, you get a lot of nos. You need to develop a thicker skin. That process has been really good for me. One of schools that has been my biggest client said no the first time. I needed to keep pushing. It does come back to failure—you have to fail to succeed. I kept offering more options, sending examples, did a free workshop, etc. And eventually they became a client.

I started working with the Stanford d.school two years ago, and have been working on my own for the last 9 months. I am in love with my job. It’s interesting. I am always learning. I need to adapt quickly when I am working with other teachers. It’s mentally challenging, but I want to keep making it work. Malcolm Gladwell talks about needing 10,000 hours to master a talent. This is worth my 10,000 hours.


About Travis

Head of School, Marin Academy.
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