Solving Problems Through “Stealth-Designed” Solutions

Would you believe my new favorite philosophy for experiences with college students, was actually introduced to me when addressing a population that is considerably older?

It happened at Design Museum Mornings a few weeks ago, a program created to connect design and creativity enthusiasts in the Boston area, with professionals doing thoughtful or unique work in the field. This lecture featured IDEO’s Jose Colucci, whose designs shone a light on design for our growing aging population.  In addition to highlighting projects that showed younger individuals their “future age,” and reminding those in the room that the elderly population has far more buying power than we generally consider, he introduced a concept that was new to me: stealth design.

In the interest of full disclosure, a secondary definition I have for stealth design: design which is done while wearing a tactleneck. IMAGE CREDIT: Pinterest

As he explained it,

stealth design goes one step beyond universal design by incorporating design elements that service the needs of all, but without being explicit about the incorporation of design elements targeted at supporting the needs of a specific group or user. He used the example of developing a new dashboard design for Ford that incorporated color schemes and displays that are more easily read by people who have reduced eyesight.

Stealth design sounds a lot like what many know (primarily in reference to compliance with accessibility standards set by the ADA) as universal design, “a movement that evolved from accessibility requirements that champions the incorporation of design elements that go beyond accommodating users with disabilities to making spaces easily usable by anyone.” But rather than providing options for populations that need something different, stealth design seeks to be useful for all without pointing out that an accommodation is being made.

IMAGE CREDIT: Michael Giangreco

A new architect friend I made at the lecture helped me understand the difference a little more clearly- presently, universal design means having features that make a space accessible for all using it (like the quandary of the illustration shown here). Stealth design’s solution to this quandary would be to slope the ground surrounding the building downward– easily traversed on foot for those with the capability, but also easily navigated via wheels or crutches for those who use those aids. Thank you, Christy, for helping me see the difference!

I love the idea of this concept, because it helps me to more easily describe some of the recommendations I make to students, faculty, and staff that can help them reach everyone they work with, not just the introverts. As an example, those who have been to any of my sessions on temperament know that I like to start them with 2-3 minutes of quiet time. Participants are encouraged to take that time for themselves, and even sit or lie down to really relax and release tension that may build up in the days or week leading up to their time with me. The feedback I get from starting sessions in this manner is nearly universally positive; in facts, students who know me well will sometimes ask for it again at the end of a session, or even request it in sessions that have nothing to do with temperament!

This time is designed to provide decompression for introverts, who may need to ease into a highly participatory session; however, it is also helpful for extroverts to take that time to decompress- either because of a particularly overextended earlier part of their day, time to let their minds clear before focusing on new information, or even just to help them practice spending time with their own thoughts, something we all need more opportunities to do. The benefit is universally felt, albeit for markedly different reasons. And in fact, I try to frame any recommendations or adjustments to processes, activities, or traditions, in such a way that they are beneficial for all who fall subject to them. I say as much in the introduction of Light It Up:

You’ll notice, several of these summaries speak both to introverts specifically, and to all students irrespective of temperament. And it’s important to note before we begin- none of the approaches mentioned here should be considered special treatment for introverts. Attention to the needs of these students should not be tantamount to coddling or special treatment; rather, it’s an opportunity to provide an environment where all students are able to truly flourish.

In a time period where students are feeling increasingly empowered to point out areas in which specific populations are shortchanged, I love the idea of stealth design as a way to address their concerns not solely to “boost” the group in question, but instead framed with a goal to make the experience of all students better.

For example, a frequent call in recent student protest demands is an increase in representation of faculty and staff of color on campus. Viewed one way, this is an excellent opportunity to “stealthily” design a positive learning experience for all students, not just for the students who initially identified the deficit. As these changes are made, use this opportunity to let these faculty and staff share their experiences and lessons learned. This is unquestionably beneficial and fortifying for students of color, who are in dire need of the example they can set (allowing them to “be what they can see,” as it were). There is also a responsibility to create opportunities for natural, meaningful interaction (no tokenism, please!) with students in the majority- who may have knowingly or unknowingly made assumptions about who can ascend to such positions. To address these concerns on campus meaningfully, the impact of the solutions should reach as many students as possible. All students will benefit, but possibly for markedly different reasons.

Jose’s talk was a reminder of many things- to have fun with design, to not sell short any individual population- but it was also an important call to action to ask ourselves as we create change: how can we frame this as something our full population can benefit from? While it may be different depending on the group, where is it for each subset of our constituency? And what will you do to ensure that all have the opportunity- not just student leaders, first year students, students of color, or students at risk (easily isolated populations, but far from the only students we may encounter)- to be better for these experiences? Slip into your tactleneck and start working on it; I’ll be doing the same over here!

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