Interview with Dan Britton, Graphic Designer with Dyslexia
What are the strengths of dyslexic thinking?
Dyslexia entails an enormous amount of logical processing which is fantastic and which is one of the best things about it – we have a holistic understanding of what’s around us. We ask “Why is that the way it is? You say that’s like that because of that. But what’s the cause and effect of that? Which causes what? Which causes what else?” Dyslexic thinkers have to understand the whole problem before they can understand the details. For example, my girlfriend is studying to be a lawyer. She can answer and memorise facts section by section. But dyslexic people need to understand it all first. It can be a strength, provided it’s understood by the dyslexic person and understood by the school. Once the entire problem has been understood, you can start to get some amazing things solved, dyslexic students have a unique approach to things - which to many people looks stupid. But actually there’s usually something innovative in their solution.
How can we stop the disenfranchisement of dyslexic thinkers?
Basically no one before me has effectively communicated what it’s like to be dyslexic. The dyslexic community have let it go, so that non-dyslexics don’t understand us at all. If we don’t understand and communicate what it’s like to be dyslexic, then how can anyone else? There needs to be more open dialogue in that direction. The stigma has to come to an end. Current definitions are so reductive. In the UK the main issue is the fact that 60% people in UK jails are dyslexic. The reason is it that is that when you’re in primary school, the ‘stupid’ kids can’t engage and they sit at the back. It’s not the teacher’s fault - they’re not trained or paid enough to deal with 30-35 screaming kids and give them all 100% attention. Of course it’s better to teach the majority, but the kids at the back disengage, they’re looked down upon. So when it’s time to engage them you create a division within the class and you create a hierarchy. And the biggest issue is that they’re not stupid - it’s the waste of a perfect brain. They’re bored. They start throwing paper airplanes, then chewing gum, then they’re branded as naughty. Then they get older, and the activities upgrade to robbery, graffiti… they go to juvenile. They haven’t learnt anything valuable in school and their source of income isn’t there. They’re disengaged, they’re incredibly bored. They require lots of positive attention, which they don’t get.
How can we improve understanding around dyslexia?
We need to bridge the gap. We need dyslexic people to shift the perspectives of non-dyslexics. Even the BDA sent me an information pack that was bigger than a bible. I thought, who is this for? It’s not for me. So now I’m doing my own educational packages because I know what needs to be done. I’ve solved a huge part of the issue. But if I do it has to be done to such a high level. That takes a lot of time and a lot of money.
What’s the demand for your educational packages been like?
There’s been an enormous demand for them. When the dyslexic typeface I did first went live, it exploded to a level that I couldn’t comprehend. People were begging for information. But at that time I wasn’t ready to create the pack. You’re giving formal guidance to people so you have to be 110% sure that what you’re doing is correct. My bookshelf is full of paper samples, stitching, embossing. I’m sensitive to the whole of the design, not just the content. Because dyslexic thinkers are very design aware – the aesthetic matters.
Would you say that problems with writing are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to dyslexia?
Writing is the tip of the iceberg, but it’s also incredibly important. From the offset, dyslexia is a hindrance - it’s awful. Especially when you’re pushed into the mainstream of Maths, English and Science. The only thing that that would be good is Science because it requires logic and conceptual understanding. Dyslexic people by nature logical and conceptual. They see the entirety of the problem. Non-dyslexics can solve a problem from A-B. Dyslexics will do it from A-Z, but not necessarily in alphabetical order! That’s where dyslexics come a cropper. There’s also a huge over-thinking problem. A dyslexic person overcomplicates things and gives an over complex answer and loses marks because it has to be ‘wrong’. Standardised testing is lazy and it’s cheap. This government just doesn’t have a clue. They take a one-size-fits-all approach: “Here’s what I understand you can do and if you can’t do it, then in the gutter for you!”
What I also hate is lazy parents. It doesn’t end when you pick your kids up from school and throw them in their bedroom. Dyslexia needs the teachers, the parents and the child to work together. A triangle. The parents have to be pushing the kids, supporting them at every step. Without that the child is lost. And teachers have to do something visual with dyslexic children. Because if your potential is not harnessed early on, then it’s much harder shine later on in life. That’s why primary school is so important and you’ve got to address it early, or your options are limited from the outset.
What was your experience of growing up with dyslexia?
You’ve got to be really ballsy to reinvent yourself after the hard cycle of education. But I did that. I was the fat kid, the lazy kid, the dumb kid. I messed everything up in school. I was diagnosed as ‘partially dyslexic’ in year 3 or 4 of primary school - it meant that I had a pardon in certain areas, with extra-time. Other than that I had no tutor, no other allowances. In secondary school they put me in with everyone else. Then I failed my GCSEs terribly, it was a joke. My parents weren’t angry with me, because they saw it all. My only saving grace was that I was nice to everyone, to teachers, to other pupils, so they let me re-sit Maths and English and they allowed me to do IT – which I was good at. I could take a computer apart and put it back together again no problem. At 15, I could take apart a pushbike, I could paint and draw well. So they let me do Graphic Design. But I re-sat Maths and English 4 or 5 times - I was doing exams with 14 year olds when I was 17. Eventually, I passed by skin of my teeth. But my IT was flying, and my tutors let me specialise in Graphic Design, which I got an A* in. My friends were getting lots more A*s than I was, but for me, one was enough. I had a wonderful teacher called Geraldine Young, who said I was obviously dyslexic. She sat me down at 18, and I went for my first proper assessment. The assessor said I had the reading age of a 10 year old, the writing age of 13. So at university I sought out and received help and support. My tutor Geraldine basically saved me from becoming a bricklayer! I have a lot to thank her for.