I ran across a blog post yesterday by Jay Parkinson that shook me.
First, about Jay. He is an enigmatic mix of specialties and personality. Aside from just being a genuinely kind and caring individual (why I love having a good conversation with him), he is a talented physician, has a masters in public health, is a successful entrepreneur, and is also obsessed with and well versed in design oriented problem solving (even teaching a course as part of SVA’s Product Design MFA Program). A lot of what he shares on his blog falls in this really sweet spot between human health, culture, and design.
I have had the fortune of having decent physical health in my early life. But I have always been interested in the effect my design work could have on mental/emotional health. Partly because if there is any supposed pathology I can empathize with, it’s ADD.
Jay introduces a quote on the Social Construct Theory of ADHD with a seemingly inconsequential little sentence:
"Too many people tell me that they suffer from ADHD when, to me, they suffer from the consequence of bad design."
Take that in again. People suffering, feeling incapable in and incapacitated by a system that hasn’t been designed to work well for them.
After reading Jay’s post, I needed to write down some of my thought’s, so I sent him a quick email:
I just received this in my inbox from a friend:
“My oldest brother was diagnosed with severe ADD in his early teens. He took Ritalin, Adderal, and a few other drugs through high school. He struggled through much of it. I have two other brothers, and both of them, myself, and my Dad all exhibit behaviors that resemble what doctors would consider symptoms of a disorder. We think we’re all a bit ADD.
That oldest brother eventually found art school, went off medication, and has had an amazing life as an artist and educator. Another brother and myself ended up in design school. My dad is a voice actor. My youngest brother is still figuring it out (but is interested in film and move makeup).
ADD is shorthand for a lot of different things to a lot of different people. For us, we associate it with a different learning/cognitive style. I like calling it a “style”. We do things a little bit differently, process a little bit differently. And sometimes that can cause some difficulty in a rigid system that is optimized for the majority learning style (that’s why I did pretty terribly in High School but killed it in college).
I think my youngest brother has been told over and over about his limitations and he can’t help but believe some of it. It pains me. He’s a guy with a different learning style bumping up against a rigid system.
We are a family of creative people. We may not be the best at remembering that the gas stove is still on, but we all create things that we are proud of. I’d much rather be that than the guy who can keep everything safe and in order.
Anyways, thanks for sharing. It’s something that I’ve thought about through my adult life and wish I could shake some of these kids into realizing that there are opportunities built for them, for their style.”
If there is a significant number of people that our systems don’t serve well, there is opportunity to provide something better. Something that works for them specifically, or, even better, a more flexible system that can work a little better for everyone.
At Thursday night’s Designer as Entrepreneur panel, an audience member asked whether we believe entrepreneurship is an innate capacity or whether it could be learned.
After some thought I was able to articulate an idea that has had me excited for the future of what I do but I had previously not been able to formalize what that notion was. Here it is:
Our economy is built on a set of systems that function most efficiently and are most compatible with a specific personality type. This has been the hard truth of the failed creative genius that has watched as the uninspired business man of yesteryear flourish. Most of us get a taste of this early in life. We watch fellow student that are really good at mastering the system rake in the praise and honors, while the rest idly doodle in the margins of their text books. Maybe at some point, we begin to feel broken.
That is changing. Resources and systems are developing that allow a range of personality types to function in their optimal state (I recently saw Tim Schafer speak and that guy is a personality that has little patience for the traditional AAA game publishers but has found in Kickstarter a path that fits the way he wants to build his company.) . And if you follow the thinking of folks like Ken Robinson, you’d agree that the most efficient system helps the people providing the inputs discover their passions and talents, and express them in the most productive, natural way possible.
Yesterday’s chump is today’s hero. We’ve seen the rise of geeks, introverts, artists, and weirdoes. It’s not a matter of one valuable personality type displacing another. It’s about building flexible systems that can work best for all personalities and styles.
I serendipitously came across a Wired article on Judy Singer’s work on de-stigmatizing these various cognitive styles: ”In the late 1990s, a sociologist named Judy Singer—who is on the autism spectrum herself—invented a new word to describe conditions like autism, dyslexia, and ADHD: neurodiversity.”