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My Dyslexia Superpower Boosts Everyone’s Creativity

This Neurodiversity Celebration Week, Wolff Olins’ Emma Barratt talks about how her dyslexia sets her apart

Emma Barratt

Global Executive Creative Director, Wolff Olins

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Creative industries are gradually becoming more welcoming for those from diverse backgrounds and with different qualities. And now, with Neurodiversity Celebration Week upon us, agencies are being asked to go a step further to make sure people with their own particular superpowers feel at home. 

Creativity thrives on diversity - great design, branding and advertising are built on maverick thinking. When unique and brilliant minds, hearts and skills converge to work on a brief, they will concoct something rich and powerful. While gender and ethnic diversity bring refreshing viewpoints and approaches to creativity, we also need the input of other diverse backgrounds, abilities, life experiences and thinking.

But are we doing enough to create workplaces and ways of working that unlock everyone’s unique superpowers? The last two years have seen us rip up old ways of doing things, but there is a danger that we could slip back into previous working practices – many of which didn’t work so well in the first place. So let’s just try a little thought experiment. 

Imagine trying to concentrate on something while every five seconds, new sensations and feelings distract your train of thought. 

Imagine attempting to read while the words and sentences dance around in front of your eyes. Try and imagine writing when the words you see don’t look like the words you hear.

That’s the reality of dyslexia, something I have worked around for my whole career. 

But despite these challenges, I have come to value my dyslexia. In fact, it’s my superpower.

Emma Barratt, Global Executive Creative Director, Wolff Olins

Dyslexia is often misunderstood as meaning simply that you ‘can’t spell’. In fact, it has a wide variety of impacts. For me, it can also affect my choice of words, so I can end up using the wrong ones in context. People love to correct me on this. Please don’t. It makes you feel like shit having your flaws constantly pointed out.

Two of my biggest challenges are articulation and concentration which is not ideal when your role is storytelling and solving problems. I’m slow at reading because, crazy as it sounds, I don’t always see the words written down in front of me. I get frustrated when I write because I can’t articulate what is in my head and I struggle to concentrate. 

I hear perfectly, but my brain jumbles up the words and information. This affects how I pronounce some words, which can be a real bitch when I need to articulate myself. I can’t always get out what is in my head. There’s a blockage somewhere. The slightest visual or auditory distraction will break my focus, which is a nightmare when you work in a noisy open plan studio.

Even now, this piece has been crafted with the help of my husband, who translates my thoughts into writing. I’ve come to appreciate that I need help in articulating the ideas I have and I am lucky to have a translator.

Still think it’s just a spelling problem?

Sorry Malcolm Gladwell, but the 10,000 hour rule, where you claim that amount of time of practice makes perfect doesn’t apply to dyslexia, believe me. In fact, the very word ‘dyslexia’ is like a cruel joke.

But despite these challenges, I have come to value my dyslexia. In fact, it’s my superpower.  

I process information differently, so I visualise things more easily than others. My brain makes unexpected connections. I value emotions and ideas that  can be explained simply.  Because of this, dyslexics are perfectly suited to creativity. Yet I don’t think dyslexia – as with so many other neuro, social and economic factors – is taken seriously enough in the workplace.

Everybody is talking about diversity right now: agencies are falling over themselves to present a positive diversity profile. But agencies need to change the way they work to make space for more diverse ways of working. More consideration is needed to support those with dyslexia and all sorts of diversity.

I’m not qualified to tackle other challenges, but for anyone interested in how to make their work environment work for dyslexics, here are a few tips:

  • Reading is slower for dyslexics. Give them longer to read briefs and simplify them to their essence. Be aware of information overload, so try and avoid lengthy emails. I have to read things three or four times to absorb the information.
  • Distraction is a big problem. Open plan studios look great, but they are almost perfectly designed to create constant audio and visual distractions. Build in quiet spaces for those who need them. 
  • Rethink collaboration and help individuals by partnering them with people who can get the best out of them. Let them talk, while someone else writes their thoughts down. 

If we want to create truly diverse companies, we need to support people with all types of diversity and from all kinds of diverse backgrounds to thrive. We need to re-frame being in or out of the studio to build a different way of working. 

The new normal is: there is no normal. By embracing this, we can create places where people can truly work the way they need to so they can unlock their superpowers.

Guest Author

Emma Barratt

Global Executive Creative Director, Wolff Olins, Wolff Olins

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Emma Barratt is Global Executive Creative Director at Wolff Olins