words Lesley Jackson
“Dyslexia is now cool but when I was at school I was just thick,” recalls furniture and lighting designer Terence Woodgate. “I became aware that I was dyslexic when my son was assessed for dyslexia, but I always knew something was wrong with the wiring. Letters just float around. I have to remember the whole word. I can’t construct it.
“Even spell checkers don’t help,” he says. “I once sent a fax to Tony Lawrence [design manager at Concord Lighting] where I meant to say, ‘this is the slimmest design I can come up with’. But what I actually wrote was, ‘this is the slimiest design I can come up with’. The thing is, it still looks OK to me!’”
Woodgate, who works with leading companies including Cappellini, Casas and SCP, is a shining example of a “creative dyslexic” – individuals with remarkable talents, often in the visual and performing arts, but also in science and business, who have experienced serious problems with reading and writing. His name appears on a list of successful dyslexics on the British Dyslexia Association website, along with photographer David Bailey, comedian Eddie Izzard, actress Felicity Kendal, artist Robert Rauschenberg and architect Richard Rogers.
Dyslexia – meaning “difficulty with words” – expresses itself in many different guises, but basically it boils down to the fact that the brain has problems processing written language, particularly the sequencing of letters and words. Now recognised as a learning disability, dyslexia is a inherited medical condition and has no bearing whatsoever on intellectual ability. Yet it has taken society a long time to recognise and address the problem, and even longer to shed its prejudices.
Paula Henderson, senior designer at Debenhams Homewares, relates an all-too-familiar tale: “I was always stuck on the table with ‘the dim wits’. It had a huge impact on my confidence and it took me six years to finally get to the place I’d always wanted to go – art school.”
For designers growing up after the Second World War, the obstacles were particularly daunting. “When I was a child, if you were dyslexic they just thought you were backward,” recalls graphic designer John McConnell, who left school at 14, rose to fame in the 1960s through his designs for Biba, and went on to become a partner at Pentagram. Furniture designer Jane Dillon, design tutor in Design Products at the RCA, provides a classic example of a creative dyslexic. “I didn’t realise I was dyslexic until I was about 24,” she says. “I always knew I wasn’t stupid, but I did poorly in exams. I failed my 11+ because I couldn’t read the exam paper, even though I was obviously very bright.”
Hugo Manassei, director of the Graduate Pioneer Programme at the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, believes that alienation arising out of dyslexia prompts young designers to question the formal structures of their lives and encourages them to be more subversive. “It stands to reason that if the system doesn’t work, you try to redesign it,” he says.
For the army of psychologists, neurologists and educationalists studying dyslexia, the focus has long been on its drawbacks. But over the past 15 years the standard definition of dyslexia has expanded to encompass the positive aspects of the condition, notably the co-existence of special creative powers alongside linguistic weaknesses. A particularly influential work was Thomas West’s book, In The Mind’s Eye (1991), which suggested that dyslexia was specifically associated with visual-spatial thinking.
“Visual and spatial modes of thought seem well-suited to dealing with certain complex problems and are often closely associated with major creative achievements in the sciences as well as the arts,” West argues, citing Michael Faraday, Albert Einstein and Leonardo da Vinci as examples of “creative dyslexics” (a term he coined). “For some the handicap and the gift may be two aspects of the same thing. How we perceive it depends entirely on the context.”
West’s theories have been enthusiastically championed by the Arts Dyslexia Trust, an organisation which highlights the creative potential of visually dominant dyslexic minds. West’s influence is also reflected in the latest definition of dyslexia issued by the British Dyslexia Association, a charitable organisation which advises and supports dyslexic people and campaigns on their behalf. According to the BDA: “Dyslexia is best described as a combination of abilities and difficulties that affect the learning process in one or more of reading, spelling and writing. Dyslexia is a puzzling mix of both difficulties and strengths. It varies in degree and from person to person. Dyslexic people often have distinctive talents as well as typical clusters of difficulties.”
Richard Rogers, the design community’s most high-profile dyslexic and an active dyslexia campaigner, argues for action on both fronts: “Dyslexics do have many hurdles to overcome and we do need practical strategies,” he says. “But after 100 years, it is time to look not only at the difficulties, but at the abilities and the potential that many dyslexic people have.”
Having met so many dyslexic designers over the years, I’ve become convinced there must be some kind of link between the underlying processes of design creativity and the workings of the dyslexic mind. The level of dyslexia among art and design students is notoriously high. Statistics range from 10% at the Surrey Institute of Art and Design, 15% at Central Saint Martins to 25% at the RCA. Sharon Plant, director of the Sorrell Foundation, suggests that the figure may be as high as 65%. This compares to the national average of 4% with severe dyslexia within the population as a whole, and a further 6% with mild to moderate problems, according to the BDA.
To date most research in this area has focused on art and design students, who now benefit from the services of dyslexia coordinators. The best way to test my hunch, though, I decided, was by talking to practising designers, such as furniture and product designer Sebastian Bergne, who was diagnosed as dyslexic in his early teens. “When you have choices, you go for what you’re good at,” he observes. “If one part of your development is ‘blocked’, you develop other parts more fully.” In Bergne’s case, because he excelled at making things, he naturally gravitated towards art and design. “As a child I got used to expressing things in a different way to writing. I think visually. I think in pictures. If I’m designing an object, I know the exact shape in 3D. I can walk around it in my head before drawing it. I can also imagine a different solution to the same problem, and I can see how my change affects what I’m working on and evaluate it in my mind.”
This notion of thinking visually rather than verbally, and of being able to conjure up, rotate and analyse an image of a fully-formed object, even before putting pen to paper, is one that crops up repeatedly. “Visualisation is one of my strengths as a designer,” notes Terence Woodgate. “I think I’m particularly good with mechanisms. I can see the whole thing finished and working. I don’t need paper. I like to design while driving or showering. I’m sure this is because part of my brain is distracted, leaving the creative side to dream. It’s as though we dyslexics have a 3D graphics card integrated into our heads.” Interestingly Woodgate originally trained as an engineer, another field where creative dyslexics abound. Will White, who works in new product development at Dyson, throws more light on this phenomenon. “I have a terrible memory for dates, but with product design I feel naturally confident dealing with quite complicated things. I can see a whole system. I can see very clearly how all the parts work together. Other people seem slow by comparison.”
Furniture designer Michael Marriott, who describes himself as “a bit dyslexic”, is another with a mixed school experience. “At school I was always rubbish at academic stuff, but I did really well at woodwork, design and technology and technical drawing. I’ve developed a good spatial sense and visual language based on reading things rather than words.”
These enhanced visual-spatial abilities are clearly a gift for architects and designers. If you know exactly what you want at the start of the design process, the end results will be more assured. Swedish glass designer Ingegerd Råman, renowned for the minimalist rigour of her vessels for Orrefors, reaffirms this view: “When I’m designing I see the shape of the object clearly in my mind, although it’s still difficult to translate this into a drawing. I feel uncomfortable and frustrated until I get it absolutely right. If it’s half a millimetre out, it seems like two metres to me.”
In the mid-1990s Dr Beverley Steffert carried out a research project into visual-spatial ability and dyslexia at Central Saint Martins, conducting a series of verbal and visual tests on a large group of art and design students, some dyslexic, some not. Steffert concluded that, while most art and design students display strong visual-spatial abilities, the most innovative students were often those with dyslexia. In her report she differentiates between the sign mind – associated with analytical thinking and sequential organisation – and the design mind – linked to visual-spatial thinking.
Traditionally, sign minds are characterised as left-brain thinkers, while design minds are categorised as right-brain thinkers. The latter are often left-handed, the former are generally right-handed. However, recent neurological studies suggest that although non-dyslexics tend to have larger left brain hemispheres, dyslexics have symmetrical cortices and draw equally on both sides of the brain. This explains why they are so often ambidextrous. An intriguing theory floated by Steffert is that perhaps “the uncertainty of the dyslexic world promotes a tolerance for ambiguity and exploration of possibilities, which is the basis of creativity”.
Before I embarked on my trawl I assumed that I wouldn’t encounter any dyslexic graphic designers. Surely no dyslexic would voluntarily expose themselves to the manipulation of words and type? But I was wrong. Never underestimate the transformative powers of the dyslexic mind. “In meetings I communicate through pictures,” explains John McConnell. “I see everything in terms of spatial relationships. You’re given one word and you read another into it.” Natascha Frensch, a Dutch graphic designer, has fearlessly confronted her dyslexia. Specialising in typography, Frensch recently designed three new fonts for dyslexics during a project at the Helen Hamlyn Research Centre at the RCA. “The conventional process in type design is to create an alphabet derived from a just a few characters,” she explains on her website (www.readregular.com). “In order to prevent dyslexics confusing the b and the d, p and p, f and t, m and n, I began to experiment with hand-drawn letterforms that are independent in character and can be easily distinguished from each other, while also forming a cohesive alphabet.” The resulting typefaces, – Read Regular, Read Smallcaps and Read Space – each incorporate tiny distinguishing details which ensure that individual letters cannot be mistaken for each other. The startling originality of this idea demonstrates the radical inventiveness of the dyslexic mind.
Drawing a dividing line between the traits of dyslexic and non-dyslexic designers is problematic as there are clearly areas of crossover, but there is evidence to suggest that dyslexics inhabit a rather different mental world. “We assume we’re in the same universe,” observes the artist potter Robert Cooper, “but we could be in a parallel universe with a sheet of glass between.” Jane Dillon has experienced a keen sense of otherness throughout her professional life. “Because my thought processes are different to other people’s, I have a different slant on things. For dyslexics nothing can be accepted as a given. Originality of thought is a by-product of dyslexia, an inventive approach to problem-solving. Because we’re good at lateral thinking, we are by nature more creative.” Ingegerd Råman has arrived at a similar conclusion via a different route. “The fact that dyslexic people confuse b’s and d’s suggests something in the brain is not organised. In the Netherlands dyslexic kids have been taught to read upside down. This is also what designers do – they turn things upside down.”
All the evidence, both statistical and anecdotal, suggests that people with dyslexia are often very well-adapted for a career in design. However, whether they are actually predisposed by their physiological and neurological make-up, or whether they develop enhanced visual-spatial awareness and heightened lateral thinking powers to compensate for other deficiencies, remains unclear. Sharon Plant from the Sorrell Foundation has arrived at the following conclusion: “If the dyslexic mind closes down to words, numbers, memory, whatever, and basically cannot read these signals, something in the brain must compensate for this deficiency so the dyslexic can function and survive.
“If the malfunction is suitably channelled, it can lead to careers that enjoy exploring the visual arena. If the malfunction is not identified and channelled, it will lead to frustration and a sense of inadequacy. This explains why only prisons have more dyslexics than design institutions.” This raises the question, could dyslexic criminals perhaps be designers manqués? And are dyslexic designers potential criminal masterminds?