Embracing the dyslexia advantage

Emma Barratt shares some of the advantages that having dyslexia has brought her

Emma Barratt

Global Executive Creative Director Wolff Olins


Growing up, the term neurodiversity didn’t exist. If you had dyslexia you were simply labelled as ‘stupid’ or ‘slow’. At school, I was placed into different classes away from my friends and labelled a ‘special’ kid. But there was nothing special about it.

I wasn’t diagnosed with dyslexia until my teens, but even then it was blamed on hearing and speech difficulties. Entering the creative industry, I spent the first half of my career trying to fit in and play the game the way everybody expected me to, which made me feel constantly on the back foot.

When I engage with the world on my terms, everyone gets the best of me…

Emma Barratt, Global Executive Creative Director at Wolff Olins

In recent years, I’ve understood that being dyslexic - like lots of forms of neurodiversity - is simply a different type of intelligence, and it comes with unique strengths and abilities. I’ve begun to understand just what a creative advantage being dyslexic is, not only for myself, but for my clients and my teams around me too.

Because when I engage with the world on my terms, everyone gets the best of me and I can fully utilise my curiosity, fearlessness, visual and unexpected thinking, and a directness to take creative leaps.

Here are 10 natural advantages that dyslexics can embrace in the workplace and how they are working for me: 

1. Always being over-prepared 

Because of my childhood fear of not being seen as smart, I over-prepare for everything; reading briefs, presentations, talks. It’s exhausting.

On the other hand, it means I know my subject matter inside-out, and I’m less likely to stumble on words or phrases that are not familiar to me. This allows me to be more confident, relaxed and authentically ‘me’. From a client perspective, it means I’ve done my homework; I’ll tend to do a deeper dive to understand them and what they’re trying to achieve. 

2. The power of visual and emotional thinking

My brain is wired toward visuals and emotions, not written language. Pictures and the way things feel are more important to me than what people say.

This puts me at a natural advantage working in the creative industry, as often that’s exactly how customers engage with brands; they make purchase decisions based on emotions, the way a brand makes them feel. Our job as brand experts is to craft that desired emotion and connect brands to consumers through images and messaging. 

3. A conversational leader is a more human leader

I’m drawn towards conversations. If I want to understand something, it’s easier for me to pick up the phone and talk.

Because of my struggle with words, I’ll always prefer a conversation over any form of written comms. I tend to use only a few words which can often come across as quite blunt or confrontational in writing, which isn’t the intention. Or worse, I use words in the wrong context or spell check doesn’t pick up what I’m trying to write and it becomes a babbling mess.

This preference for verbal conversations allows me to build stronger relationships with the people I work with and clients alike. When you have those connections you’re able to be more open and honest, which in turn helps lead you to braver and more exciting work. 

4. Getting straight to the point

Following on from the above: to do great work, I think it’s important that everyone is aligned, so why overcomplicate any communication?

It’s so easy for things to get lost in translation, especially in the business world where there is a lot of company-specific terminology and labels flying around. It’s just word soup most of the time, which is confusing for both individuals and clients (and me!). I’m not a fan (or even capable) of using overly complex words or phrases when the same point can be made more simply and directly.

Too often people use words they believe make them sound smarter or more important than they actually are. What is the point of using words that most people don’t understand? I prefer to relate to people on a more human level, using terminology we all understand and that is authentic to how I am. Integrity and authenticity are two values that I hold high in myself and others. 

5. Intuitive thinking makes for big creative leaps

Creativity is messy. My journey with dyslexia means that I have to visualise the meaning of a word in order to remember it. Any words that have no visual meaning, are the words I can’t physically see and therefore struggle to understand. 

But because I process information visually, this means I can skip to visual solutions quicker. My brain isn’t wired to be linear and logical. A lot of people wrongly assume that there’s a set method to getting to the best solution. But the great thing about creativity is that there are no right or wrong answers. 

6. Never being afraid to ask for help

It's not a weakness to need help, and as a dyslexic you find yourself asking for help a lot - spelling, writing, emails - it's tiring, and slows me down. In fact, this article has been written with the help of my husband and our Marketing team, and I’m cool with that. It would have taken me a week or more by myself (I’m not joking), and I would have been filled with dread at doing it. But this way, by asking for help, I can get my thoughts across and ‘out there’ with more impact.

Don’t get me wrong, it took years for me to be comfortable with the fact that I needed help and that it was nothing to be ashamed of. It's only recently that I have the confidence to do so. But I eventually realised that I was putting so much time and energy into something that I wasn’t able to get better at and it was consistently bringing me down, so that time and energy was better spent doing what I enjoyed. I felt liberated once I accepted the help because it was exhausting hiding it. 

7. Fearlessness in the face of adversity 

When you’ve been labelled stupid, you have a point to prove. I have very thick skin, and I care very little about what other people think. There is a great Samurai saying: ‘You can’t be killed if you’re dead already’.

Accepting the harsh reality that there will always be trolls and narrow-minded people with big mouths who will label you, is liberating. I now care less about what people think, and that enables me to do what I want to do creatively, take more risks, and create bolder work.

8. Daydreaming fuels creative thinking

Focus is really hard for dyslexics. My brain is wired for short bursts of interest and excitement. Because of this, I have developed an insane memory. I can hold multiple thoughts at the same time and my natural capacity for daydreaming fuels my creativity. I see this as a superpower.

9. Multitask your way through the day

Half an hour is about as long as I can focus on one topic easily, so 90-minute meetings are a major challenge. Spending a whole day taking a deep dive into one topic would be an impossible task for me. So while a lot of creatives can immerse themselves in a topic or a project, my creative advantage is range. I can cover a lot of ground in one day, sometimes that’s a lot of different topics, projects or conversations.

10. Insatiable curiosity draws people closer

I ask a LOT more questions than the average person. When others might be embarrassed, I’ll just ask. This curiosity shows genuine interest and builds very strong relationships with clients. They understand that I genuinely care, and am invested in making our work together a success.

Guest Author

Emma Barratt

Global Executive Creative Director Wolff Olins


Emma Barratt is Global Executive Creative Director at Wolff Olins