HOPE OLIVER | GRAPHIC DESIGNER | hope2244@outlook.com 

“I have dyslexia” was something I struggled to say to anyone. It was like saying, “I am stupid”, although I didn’t believe that I was stupid. But I didn’t know if the person I was telling understood what it meant to have dyslexia. I once told a close friend and her response was “I didn’t know you weren’t normal.” She didn’t mean to be cruel, it was just an unfiltered reaction that she immediately regretted.
Most people see dyslexia as a disadvantage and don’t fully understand the scope or range of the condition. It is estimated that 10% of the world’s population are dyslexic. Which means there are over 2.5 million people with dyslexia in Australia alone. And because dyslexia is a spectrum disorder, all of these people will be experiencing different issues. They all, however, will be finding word recognition and the decoding of language more challenging, as they interpret information differently to the majority of the population. It is important to realise that dyslexia is what is considered a “specific learning difficulty”. So while dyslexia causes problems with reading, writing and comprehension it does not affect a person’s intelligence.

Having dyslexia certainly does not limit what you can achieve! There are many successful people that have (or did have) dyslexia, people such as Albert Einstein, Robin Williams, Leonardo da Vinci, Jamie Oliver, Andy Warhol, Steve Jobs, Jessica Watson and Agatha Christie. Most people would look at that list and think, “Wow, those people were able to be successful despite having dyslexia”, but in my opinion, they were successful because of their dyslexia.

The key thing to understand about dyslexia is that it is a ‘processing style’, so people experience weakness in some areas but strengths in others. What do we know about the careers in which people with dyslexia excel? NASA claims that over 50% of their employees are dyslexic. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), dyslexia is called the MIT disease. In 2008, Professor Julie Logan of the Cass Business School in London found that 35% of entrepreneurs in the USA were dyslexic.

I have chosen to pursue a career in Graphic Design. I believe there is a strong connection between design thinking and dyslexia. My personal struggle is with phonological awareness; I find it difficult to correctly identify the sounds letters make when combined. I have created strategies to overcome my word decoding issues. For example, throughout this article I have to grapple with the various ways the sound of the first syllable of ‘dyslexia’ can be realised with letters: is it ‘dis’, ‘des’, ‘dys’? But I have memorised a visualisation of the basic shape of the syllable, looking something like this: dyslexia. Now I can eliminate all poss­ibilities but ‘dys’, because it is the only one that has a second letter that descends. From this starting point, I can slowly work out the rest of the word.

Isn’t this precisely how a designer works, breaking down the elements of a design into visual units?

I am not the only person who sees a link between dyslexia and design ability. Psychologist Dr Beverly Steffert tested 360 students at Central Saint Martin’s College of Art and Design in London, and found that more than 30% of them showed evidence of dyslexia-related difficulties with either reading, spelling or written syntax. In his book, Thinking Like Einstein, Thomas West spoke with Valerie Delahaye, who specialises in creating computer graphic simulations for movies. Delahaye, who is herself dyslexic, says that at least half the graphic artists she has worked with on major projects like Titanic and The Fifth Element were also dyslexic.

What is it about dyslexia that makes it so prevalent in design industry professionals? Someone with dyslexia will often be a visual thinker with excellent three-dimensional spatial reasoning. It is also very common for dyslexics to have strengths in interconnected reasoning. They are able to see common connections between objects, concepts or points of view and find patterns within them. Good episodic memory is also often a characteristic shared by dyslexics, who will often remember facts as experiences; examples or stories rather than abstractions. These are all strengths that are important for excelling at visual and communication design!

A further strength that I believe having dyslexia (or indeed any other perceived disability) offers is resilience. Having to compensate for weaknesses in spelling, grammar and comprehension means dyslexics have to work harder, and more creatively, than their peers throughout their school experiences. This building of resilience through hard work and a refusal to be overwhelmed by failures and setback, is a common theme with successful dyslexics.

(If you are interested in finding out more I would highly recommend reading ‘The Dyslexic Advantage - Unlocking the Hidden Potential’ by Brock L. Eide and Fernette F. Eide.)

Appreciation of dyslexic designers is growing. This year’s London Design Festival will include an exhibit called Dyslexic Design celebrating the gifts of a dyslexic mind and exploring the strong connection between dyslexia and the creative industries. It show­cases the advantages of having dyslexia rather than the stigma associated with it. The exhibition founder, Jim Rokos, explained,

“It is my belief that I am able to design the way I do, because of my dyslexia and not despite it… I also firmly believe that other dyslexic designers have idiosyncratic styles because of their dyslexia.”

So now we know what dyslexia can offer designers, but what can designers offer dyslexics?

Graphic designer (and dyslexic) Christian Boer set out to create a font that would be easier for a person with dyslexia to compre­hend. As he says, “Find a solution for your own problem and there will be a lot of other people around the world that have the same.” Boer created unique letterforms that are easy to identify and differentiate. To help counter the way people with dyslexia unintentionally rotate, switch and mirror letters in their minds when reading, he turned letters into 3D objects, and used various techniques such as increasing the weight of the bottom of letters and slanting similar characters. The font, christened ‘Dyslexie’ has been highly successful – engag­ing the dyslectic community, winning a series of awards, and now widely available worldwide.

There has also been a call for social change in the understanding of dyslexia. While studying graphic design in London, Daniel Britton realised that his friends and teachers could not understand what it meant to have dyslexia. He created a font called ‘Dyslexic Typeface’ that, as he explains in his website, allows “non-dyslexic people understand what it is like to read with the condition and to recreate the frustration and embarrassment of reading everyday text and then in turn to create a better understanding of the condition.” To achieve this, he designed letters that are only half visible, giving the reader just enough clues so they can eventually work each letter out. The font was used this year for the hugely successful Dyslexia Day in Hong Kong, a day in which everyone got to experience dyslexia and resulted in millions of people accessing online information of the condition.

Dyslexia and design are deeply connected. The mind of a dyslexic person is unique and has its own set of challenges and strengths. Every person with dyslexia will be different, but we share a common story of extreme difficulty in school, of teachers describing us as, ‘slow’ or ‘not having tried hard enough’. Personally, when I was formally diagnosed, I was given the label of being dyslexic and offered no other real explanation of what it meant. Through time and experience, I am beginning to appreciate that what I first perceived only as a weakness brings strengths as well. And with those strengths, I too may be able much good to the world through my skills as a designer.

This article first appeared in Ligature Journal issue two. Find out more about this issue here and buy a copy here.