Designing with dyslexia is “a cognitive plus”

For years those living with dyslexia have faced the stigma attached to their condition, but research from Cambridge University suggests the learning disorder can make creative-led professions like design more practicable.

L-R: Kate McGwire, Nadia-Anne Ricketts, Helen Taylor, Ab Rogers, James Rokos. Credit: Design Junction

Dyslexia is a condition characterised by difficulties with writing, reading, time management and organisation. It affects roughly 10% of the UK population, though some advocacy groups argue this figure could actually be as high at 16%.

The condition continues to be stigmatised in 2019, with many dyslexic children and adults still having to work and learn in environments not suited to them, often being labelled “stupid” in the process by parents and teachers.

But research from the University of Cambridge suggests dyslexia is not the negative diagnosis it’s made out to be. Rather, researchers say the thought processes and patterns of people with dyslexia are hugely helpful in more creative fields.

 “Thinking of the bigger picture”

As part of this year’s Design Junction trade show, four designers sat down with Helen Taylor, a researcher at Cambridge as part of a talk titled Dyslexia and Design. Their aim was to better understand Taylor’s research and explain how their own dyslexia diagnoses affect their practice.

Interior designer and architect Ab Rogers, designer Nadia-Anne Ricketts, sculptor Kate McGwire and product designer James Rokos made up the panel.

“People with dyslexia have a sort of bias towards processing information in a more exploratory way,” said Taylor, who also lives with dyslexia. “This means they process information more globally.”

“We know from studies that people with dyslexia use very different neural networks when doing tasks,” said Taylor. “And they are faster at some of these tasks because they’re taking in the whole.”

This big-picture thinking allows people with dyslexia to better form and manipulate three-dimensional images in their minds, potentially making design and development processes easier.

Taylor noted those with “divergent thinking” patterns find it easier to borrow ideas from different disciplines and reconstitute past mistakes into new ideas. Being able to look beyond rigid fields, she explained, allows them to create multiple solutions and alternatives to different problems.

Ricketts identified strongly with Taylor’s research. “With my work, its just so natural for me to be thinking of the bigger picture, very expansively,” she said. “It’s a very visual approach.”

Ricketts’ work, as the founder of Beatwoven, sees her marry together music with her textile design practice, creating unique and emotive weaving patterns from musical scores.

“It’s very easy for me to put different elements together, while also having this mathematical way of thinking to go alongside my creative way of thinking,” Ricketts added.

“Learning differences, not learning difficulties”

As is common with many living with the condition, Ricketts wasn’t diagnosed until well into adulthood. Instead she struggled through school, often being cast off as unintelligent as many dyslexic children are.

Rogers spoke strongly on his belief the education system needs huge reform to be able to better support children with dyslexia.

“Living with dyslexia isn’t a cognitive malfunction, it’s a cognitive plus,” said Rogers. “We have to talk about learning differences, rather than learning difficulties.

“We’re much quicker at learning about colours or about three-dimensional spaces or how to build something – but [we’re] forced to learn in this very linear process which is designed around a specific norm, which is a kind of imaginative norm, because I don’t believe a norm really exists. We’re at a disadvantage until we break free and can start to find our own tools.”

Accepting versus curing

There was a marked emotional response to their diagnoses from some of the designers on the panel. Rokos spoke of it being “a huge relief” when he was finally told he had dyslexia: “My family and I were aware something was ‘wrong’ with me and it was distressing not to know what.”.

McGwire echoed this thought, saying her diagnosis at the age of 38 was an “emotional moment”, because finally she had a reason why reading and writing were so difficult for her.

All the designers onstage had accepted their diagnosis, certain about the way their dyslexia could positively impact their practice. But it was Rogers who gave an empassioned speech when prompted by the idea of “treating” dyslexia with certain programmes, such as lessons in organisation. “The risk [with certain treatments] is that we start treating them like a cure,” he said.

“I think as soon as we start ‘curing’ dyslexia, we’ve lost something really special. Yes, we could all do with being more organised, but I feel very strongly that we’re just trying to make everyone the norm, and what is the norm?”

In her research, Taylor also questions “the norm”. “The idea that we should be similar is quite strange given that we have the language to share information and combine it, we’re a very collaborative species,” she said.

“I have people to help”

Taylor’s research has resulted in a new theory of human cognitive evolution, which suggests humans developed in different, but complimentary, ways. Put simply, our development allows us to work together, filling in the gaps of each other’s strengths and weaknesses with our own.

Since dyslexia is just another set of strengths and weaknesses, as Taylor puts it, designers with the condition can enrich the creative process with their alternative way of thinking, while

seeking the support of others for the things that don’t come as easily.

“My art teacher always used to say I was an imperfect perfectionist – I had this notion of perfection that I could never quite reach because I always got distracted,” says Rogers. “But running a studio, its much easier because I have people to help.

“I know what is perfect and I know what I want but sometimes it is very hard to reach that through my own processes, so it’s much easier to have a team around me.”

The same was true of Ricketts, who said “I always look at the strengths other people have that I don’t have – the best piece of advice I ever got was to hire someone who is better then you at the things you aren’t good at.”

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  • John Dunne September 23, 2019 at 9:50 am

    I think this should be shared on Linked In I might make it easier for me to get a job as I have Dyspraxia. I am a designer in many fields as well as 7 times internationally published award-winning poet and an online published author. I have many skills and talents and the ability to learn many more and yet I have been unemployed for over 10 years now. It is a gift not a curse and companies need to take advantage of it. Just because we don’t have the qualifications does not mean we can not do the job.

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