Over a career in design, Michelle’s become an expert making the complex simple – and the simple beautiful. Now working on sustainable packaging for Method in San Francisco, she tells us how her voyage to the North Pacific taught her to value the skills she’s perfected, and renewed her sense of creative purpose.


Photo credit: Michelle Byle


Tell us a bit about your creative background

Design offers an amazing flexibility, you can apply it in so many ways, and it’s all about problem solving. I started out in design research – which is all about learning why people make the choices they do, and that was foundational for the rest of my career. Then, I moved into an agency doing more branding, product and retail design, before working in museum graphics – I learnt how you can influence and educate through information graphics and storytelling.


How did you end up at sea?

My design skills are artistic skills, they feel personal, so I have a passion to use them for good. One day I was running with a friend and she told me that Method, the cleaning products company where she worked, were collecting plastic from Hawaiian beaches and shipping it to LA, where they were making bottles with it. I was volunteering at the marine mammal centre at the time, and the plastic problem was on my radar. This was in 2011, and Method’s approach felt revolutionary to me. 


Michelle works for sustainable packaging company, Method. Photo credit: Michelle Byle/eXXpedition


She helped me get a job there, and I began learning more and more about packaging. It’s not where I thought I’d end up, but it was a natural progression. I was intrigued with what they were doing around environmental issues and started learning more and more about ocean plastics.  I applied to eXXpedition on a whim, after watching Emily’s TEDx talk. I was looking for adventure and looking to make a change, so the voyage felt like a fortuitous connection between my skills and the meaningful work I wanted to be doing. 


What was the voyage like?

It sounds big to say, but it was literally life-changing. To look out and see nothing but blue, and then have a trawl – the size of a cereal box opening, the teeniest slice of ocean – go though the water for 30 minutes and bring up over 500 pieces of plastic – I didn’t know how to process it. 

My day-to-day deals with plastic, so to see it there and really understand that’s where it ends up, and that it doesn’t go away – it was an emotional switch. Being someone who physically works with that material, I now carry that experience with me in everything I do. It’s the weirdest thing to be sailing for so many days, a thousand miles from any human, and then see all of our crap everywhere. I’ve tried to actively talk about it as much as people will allow me to. It’s become a bigger part of my life that it was before. 


Photo credit: Michelle Byle/eXXpedition


My day-to-day deals with plastic, so to see it there and really understand that that’s where it ends up, and that it doesn’t go away – it was like an emotional switch.


What was it like spending time with the rest of the crew?

I was the only American on the boat, and it was great to be surrounded by all these different ways of thinking. You don’t realise how much you’re in your own little bubble. To have that exposure to different conversations and different perspectives was everything.

I’m an introvert and I have to admit, one of the biggest fears I had, more than the sailing, was being with all these other people. There’s nowhere to escape on a boat. But it ended up being the absolute best part of the experience. I’ve got sea sisters now! Once you have an experience like that it bonds you in an indescribable way – surviving, sailing upwind, living at a 45 degree angle, trying to figure out the watch system. So much care came out of us all being in it together. It’s really special to be with a group of people who all care about the same things.

What was it like coming back to work in packaging after that?

Method were really supportive and gave me six weeks off, which is amazing. But I came back feeling so different, whilst everything else felt the same. On the boat I definitely learnt that life can be a wave. I lost my first dinner getting used to seasickness, then fifteen minutes later I was at the helm sailing a boat for the very first time – I went from the lowest low to the highest high! I see that rhythm in everything now. I came back coming off of this immensely high high, feeling so powerful, motivated and ready to go. As wonderful and progressive as it is – to come back to a company in an industry that is still working through a lot of challenges, and to face the complexity of it all, was admittedly overwhelming. It felt like a high to a low.


I’ve got sea sisters now. Once you have an experience like that it bonds you in an indescribable way.


Photo credit: Michelle Byle


How do you respond to that feeling?

Over the past year I’ve been working to integrate and educate myself, and get more people talking in my work community. I’m trying to bring what we had on the boat back home. I’ve always had this dialogue with myself where I’m thinking – ‘Is design really the right choice for me? Am I too siloed in what I do?’ But eXXpedition helped me find meaning in my piece of the puzzle. Being surrounded by a cross-functional team on the boat helped us all realise that we have something to contribute. It gave me meaning in my career, and helped me see something of the power and the purpose of it.

Has it changed your approach?

I’ve put myself out there more. Using my voice has become more important than fear. I’ve been running a lunchtime speaker series internally at work, building a community of people who care about the issue. I told my story, and we’ve since been inviting people in from other companies, who are doing cool things with materials. We’re also talking to people in our company working over in the UK and in Belgium and learning about the longterm innovation projects they’re working on. By connecting dots internally, we can all feel a bit more powerful, and better understand our own place. It gives value to everything we each do.


Photo credit: Michelle Byle


Using my voice has become more important than fear.


What’s the future of product and packaging looking like? Are positive changes coming?

As a designer I’m fortunate to access trend forecasting data, where companies have gone and worked out what’s likely to happen in the next five or ten years. We keep seeing a global movement towards an awareness of single use plastics, a movement towards refillables, towards better systems and less disposability. The dialogue is becoming more unified. I’ve had a cosmetic company reach out to me and ask me to give a talk about my voyage – and there’s a lot of community business involvement happening in the Bay area, which is really exciting. The interest in the problem keeps me motivated – more and more people are talking about it, asking about it, caring about it. 


Photo credit: Michelle Byle


What’s next for you?

I have such sincere respect and appreciation for all I’ve learnt in my industry, and my company specifically. They educated me about ocean plastic, they put it on my radar, they supported me by going on this trip. They’re doing incredible things. But after seven great years with Method I am moving on to branch out and share my design and industry knowledge. I’m now an independent design consultant and help lots of mission-based companies grow through design.


Any advice for new crews setting sail?

Pack light, and go in with an open heart and an open mind. Understand the power in the community you’re becoming a part of. We’re building an army, and it’s a beautiful thing to have those connections.