The government classifies dyslexia as a disability. However, while it certainly brings challenges, I believe it is not. It is a normal, healthy and desirable part of neurodiversity – our brains are all different. It is our education system that is disabling this minority, whose minds do not work in the way that education is designed to teach. One day our education system will also be diverse, and everyone will be taught in a way that allows them to reach their potential.
This alternative brain structure that we call dyslexia brings less common abilities to those who possess it. These vary from person to person and can include visual thinking, lateral thinking, creative thinking, three-dimensional thinking and from-the-top thinking. Dyslexics may build on these inherent gifts. Non-dyslexics (or ‘lexics’) may also naturally possess some or all of these skills, but it is my opinion that neurodiversity tends to distribute these particular skills in a larger proportion to the dyslexic part of the population. It seems a fair trade-off for the things that dyslexics can struggle with, such as spelling, short-term memory, organisation, reading, writing, language processing and more.
A dyslexic may develop reading and writing skills that come less naturally to them. Similarly, whether or not we are already gifted with the strengths that tend to accompany dyslexia, we may all observe them and adopt them as our own. So let me now teach you how to be dyslexic…
Last year, together with environment designer Ab Rogers, we founded Dyslexic Design, which began with an exhibition of work by a range of leading designers from different disciplines, who happen to be dyslexic. The exhibition illustrated the gifts that can come with dyslexia.
Designer, artist and creative thinker Bethan Laura Wood created a collection of ceramic Rainbow vases, which are surprisingly monochrome until one realises it’s the flower that brings the colour to these rainbows. “Dyslexia is part of who I am and what makes life sometimes a little more difficult can also be the thing that allows you to stand out in the crowd with a unique way of seeing the world. I make my living sharing and seeing the world though colour and patterns extracted from the things that surround me.”
Fine artist Kristjana S. Williams creates illustrations of poetic worlds using collage, which allows her to let different universes meet. Animals inhabit these worlds. Foxes wear headdresses of feathers, leopards wear butterfly masks and lions have multiple faces. The landscapes come as a result of rich visual thinking. “It’s like a really big ocean with thousands of little notes floating past,” she says of her thought process.
Fashion designer Rohan Chhabra demonstrates exceptional three-dimensional thinking in his Hunter Jacket: Gorilla. This jacket can unzip and unbutton to reassemble into the form of a gorilla. Normally a designer designs one shape at a time – here Rohan has had to cut out flat pieces of fabric in such a way that they may form two completely different shapes from these same pieces. “Dyslexia lets me develop my own method to analyse things and approach problems,” he says.
Again, flat pieces of fabric are assembled by Royal Designer for Industry, Terence Woodgate, (in collaboration with John Barnard RDI) when he demonstrates lateral thinking in the Surface Table. The state-of-the-art making processes developed for building Formula One racing cars were used to create a very long and seemingly impossibly thin tabletop surface with a reflective finish like a pool of oil.
For me, The ladder that likes the wall by Ab Rogers, is a metaphor for dyslexia’s gift of from-the-top thinking. When one sits high up in the ladder, one can observe a problem from the top, where it looks much clearer than from inside the problem. Ab points out that like many dyslexics, the ladder works best in partnership – it leans on the wall. A dyslexic often needs to work with other minds who can support them with the things they find challenging, and here the ladder was made in collaboration with Xenia Mosley.
Ab explains: “Dyslexia actually helps me as a designer. It allows me to see things in three dimensions and remember colours with real accuracy. The world is made up of many different minds, and ways of seeing and being.”
Dyslexics are more ready to take risks than others. I believe that the years of failing at school are a training for accepting that something may fail, which creates a mindset open to “why not give it a go?”. At the time that Sebastian Bergne developed his Egg decanter, using representational forms (e.g. an egg) in design was not common; it also looks as though it might fall off its ring, yet somehow it remains firm and the form has chimed with the taste of today’s consumer. Sebastian says school, for him, “was a tough time in some ways but on the other hand it pushed me to do what I was good at.”
School teaches dyslexics that they must work harder than everyone else. The join where the legs are connected to the seat on Richard Rogers’ Pompidou Chair must also work harder than chair legs on other chairs: the legs meet very close together, so the chair seat is working like a cantilever against them. This gives the chair some of its individual style.
“I learned early on that, when people said something was impossible, I shouldn’t believe them,” he says. “This made me a trier and I am still trying. Dyslexia allows you to look at a broader element and forget what is normally done and just turn it upside-down, which can be very positive.”