I've talked to a lot of designers over my career. Many of them knew exactly what they wanted to do from a young age. They had some kind of mechanical inclination and an innate desire to take things apart and to create. They have the ability to focus and noodle over an idea in the methodical, inexhaustible manner of a diesel engine. In the world of the tortoise and the hare, they're the tortoise. This article isn't about them.
There is a whole other group of designers that run the race in a much different manner. If I keep with the engine analogy, they're more the Ferrari's of the world. They run fast and hot, hugging the corners with a jaw-dropping ability to win the race with awesome speed. Ideas for these designers come fast and furious. As capable as they are of the exhilarating win, they can hit the wall and explode into a gazillion little pieces. This story is about these Ferrari-like designers. They are designers that live with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder—ADHD or ADD for short.
Part of the Human Condition
My research, since my diagnosis a year ago, has led me to believe that ADHD is on the continuum of the human condition. A belief which is supported by the fact that every time I describe typical symptoms of ADHD to someone, they claim that they show signs of the same problems. I mean, seriously, who doesn't forget their lunch on the counter or misplace their keys every now and then? I am sure you can't point a finger at a single person and have them deny that they've gotten so engrossed in a task that the world melted away and time warped. We all have scatter-brained moments complimented by intense focus. So, what is it that separates somebody with ADHD with their bouts of forgetfulness and ability to focus from the herd?
In short, it is frequency and impact.
Frequency is an easy one to explain. The frequency in which things like car keys teleporting from the place they were last seen to the top of the 7 foot-tall bookshelf (true story) is far more common for someone with ADHD than someone without ADHD.
The tougher part to explain is impact. The psychological impact of losing one's keys shouldn't be a big deal. It should fall under the category of "shit happens" and thrown into the mind's circular file shortly after you finally do find said keys. It isn't uncommon for a person with ADHD to believe they're stupid due to their ongoing struggle with convergent thinking (aka taking tests). When you go your whole life where weekly, if not daily, you're going through these exercises in frustration, the impact on your psyche is cumulative. This is the hardest part to express. It is an emotional reaction that borders on visceral. It affects the rest of your day and rather than recovering, it feels as though it snowballs and makes things worse as the day goes on.
The Good, the Bad and the ADHD
For many, their experience with ADHD is that most all of the "bad" parts of the disorder can be managed through awareness, discipline or even drugs. It seems like everywhere you turn, someone is talking about the problems of ADHD but not the benefits. The part that I want to ensure is understood is that there are many facets of ADHD that can be weapons for a designer's success. Some might even argue that a designer with ADD has an advantage over those who don't. Again, research shows that a brain that is wired by ADHD is also tuned for creativity. Matthew Kutz, a 13-year-old student with ADD, explains it very succinctly:
"Being ADD means you see things other people miss. When you see a peach you see a piece of fruit. I see the color, the texture and the field where it grew."
If you follow the belief that creativity is having the ability to envision disparate pieces of information to bring them together in new ways, then you can see by Matthew's example how someone with ADHD could very well be wired specifically for a profession in Design. I am actually starting to head down the path of believing that there is a design methodology that can be harnessed based on the way an ADDer views the world. Using Matthew's quote above to lead credence to this thought, a designer with ADD could conceivably teach others to see the color, the texture and the field where the peach grows instead of just a piece of fruit.
So what? Now What?
I typically avoid taking on the task of suggesting how people should deal with symptoms of ADHD as I'm not a psychologist. Tackling the spaghetti pile of emotions that comes with wrapping your head around the idea that you have a disorder is not something that can be untangled with a laundry list of tasks doled out by some dude on the Internet. I would like to suggest that you consider that ADHD can be an advantage to a designer if managed properly. A person with ADHD is commonly associated with a strengthened ability for divergent thinking and can thrive if provided an environment that compliments that mindset. In the context of design, divergent thinking is coming up with creative solutions to a problem—or as many of our colleagues call it, Design Thinking.
Now that I am aware of ADHD and the behaviors associated with it, I see it in people everywhere. There is nowhere I see it more frequently than when I am in a room full of "creative types." I believe the reason a person with ADHD is drawn to the world of design is because they're wired for it on a basic level. There's a strong argument to be had for the idea that ADHD is a driving force in the world of design. So, go back to your desk, push aside the candy bar wrappers, crank the tunes and find the flow. Because if you're an Attention Deficit Designer, I believe you've found the perfect job for yourself.
About Jon Winebrenner
Jon Winebrenner is a design professional who has been working as a designer in various capacities for nearly two decades. He's worked in many facets of the design world from wireless product development to packaging to being a comic strip artist. He graduated from Purdue University with a bachelor's in industrial design and is currently a partner in a full-service product development company (OneOak Design), producer of a tutorial DVD for the design industry (the.brief.DVD), moderator on the Core77 Discussion Forums (a.k.a. ip_wirelessly), and he writes a blog called The Attention Deficit Designer.