Your Designs (& Teams) Can Be More Dyslexia Friendly. Here’s How.
What to keep in mind when designing with a lens on neurodiversity
Designers who have dyslexia have a unique way of looking at the world. The napkin drawing above shows one way to visualize it. There’s the neurotypical path of the straight arrow — and then there’s the path of the squiggly arrow representing dyslexia. An even better visual for this might show the squiggly line in a three-dimensional space. Both arrows get to the destination in their own way.
“I’m not going to be like whoever else,” said proud dyslexic and Salesforce Lead Product Designer Dana Jones. “I’m going to bring my own flavor of ice cream to the table and understand my value there.”
Like one in five people, a genetic difference defines Jones’ ability to learn and process information. Relationship Design welcomes differences. Knowing this, how can design embrace the dyslexic experience and uplift its strengths?
Some ways to rethink dyslexia are big. For example, erasing assumptions that it’s tied to lower IQ and recognizing its many advantages. Other acts may seem small, such as how I won’t use italics in this story. Because dyslexia makes reading more challenging, you’ll notice some design adjustments throughout. The audio narrative is also available on Medium by selecting “Listen” under the author bio at the top.
Dyslexia is a two-sided coin. Jones calls it both her super secret sauce and her achilles heel. While it requires reading accommodations, it also has many strengths. According to one nonprofit organization, Dyslexic Advantage, these include creative problem solving and making unexpected connections. These strengths also help make designers successful.
Dyslexic thinking has given us inventions from the light bulb to the iPhone. This spring, it was added as an official searchable skill on LinkedIn and as an entry on Dictionary.com.
What’s dyslexic thinking?
Dyslexic thinking is an approach to problem solving that involves:
- Pattern recognition
- Spatial reasoning
- Lateral thinking
- Interpersonal communication
“That’s what people have always told me that I’m really good at,” said Adam Doti, a Salesforce VP & Principal Design Architect who has dyslexia. He’s become an experienced design leader with these strengths.
It’s not surprising given design thinking and dyslexic thinking share similarities.
Gil Gershoni, creative director and founder of Gershoni Creative Agency, pointed this out years ago. Many could relate with the ideas in his 2017 SxSW talk and the 2020 book he was featured in. He combined the two terms into Dyslexic Design Thinking and describes it as “approaching projects without assumptions, from multiple perspectives and with endless curiosity. Dyslexics do this naturally because it’s how we’re wired. We have a beginner’s mind no matter how many times we’ve seen something.”
What does the dyslexic experience look like?
For Doti, programs like Sketch and Figma help him quickly assemble ideas. “The way my brain is trying to decode and recode and find a way to get to the thing is not the standard way they teach in school,” he said. With their visual leanings, both he and Jones both ended up at art universities.
It fits that Doti applied 3D modeling and animation in his master’s studies. Another reminder of a spatial-reasoning strength. It led him to delve into sonification and motion that improved app usability with audio and kinetics. That early vision and prototype work eventually evolved into the growth and formalization of the Salesforce Kinetics System.
“I never sought it out. It’s where I just kept doing very well,” he said. “I’m lucky that I was always around a design leader who could recognize that.”
In the 2010s, he was part of the team that launched the Salesforce Lightning Design System (SLDS). He contributed with a keen ability to see patterns as almost fractals.
Jones has a similar experience. “When someone’s traversing a large design, the patterns and spacing and alignments I make are helping them.”
She considers it her job to make someone’s life easier. Her days can be full of roadblocks — from difficulty getting insights out of traditional reports to feeling stuck on forms that aren’t made for dyslexics. It’s been an at-times painful journey enrolling others to engage compassionately. At the end of the day, she’s been able to forgive herself and fail. This way, she creates emotional safety for her wellbeing.
The last thing she wants is to be a roadblock in a user’s day.
It’s why she doesn’t take anything for granted. “I always pay attention to how people learn things. We make assumptions on how people learn to do tasks,” she said. For example: Jones won’t miss a UX Research testing group — whether she’s working on it or not. Paying close attention to the differences between novice and power users improves her work designing for the Salesforce customer data platforms (CDP).
Along the way, she advocates for design that embraces all customers, including those with dyslexia. Designers everywhere can follow her lead.
How to design for customers with dyslexia
- Intentional and frequent subheaders
- Sans serif font
- Unique appropriate settings for screen reader ease
- Bigger default font size (such as Medium’s 21px)
- Solid color background. (To alter non-solid backgrounds, skill up with the Integrate Accessibility Into Your Design Trailhead module.)
- An image instead of a thousand words, where applicable
- A love for bullets
- Adjustable line/word/paragraph spacing
- Consider a dark-gray font that eases readability
- Even better, apply weighted fonts such as Open Dyslexic and Dyslexie
It’s important to bring the lens we use with those outside our organization to those inside it, too. Inclusive design and accessible design are at the forefront of many team priorities. Recognizing the challenges and strengths of people with dyslexia supports this work. Here are a few ways to begin:
How to design for teammates with dyslexia
- Uplift dyslexic voices and create camaraderie (e.g. At Salesforce, we have a neurodiversity Abilityforce subgroup and #Dyslexia Slack channel)
- Consider different learning styles during UX research
- Follow the junction of creativity and dyslexia in Gil’s ongoing salon series and podcast
- Screen your designs and roadmaps for the dyslexic-friendly design tips above
- Co-create synchronously
Asynchronous work can present challenges for people who receive and share information best by talking and listening.
“As a dyslexic, one of the first bits of positive feedback I got was when I started bringing stakeholders — salespeople to marketing to IT — into a war room together on a regular basis,” Doti said. “I was whiteboarding with them often. Peers remarked at the effectiveness of his live, cross-functional collaborations. I thought, ‘Oh ok — weird — because that’s just the way I do what I do.’ ”
Gershoni calls this the workplace dance. He calls out how neurodiversity improves projects and culture. Many minds can take ideas to new places. Designers can make space for that and promote it inside their organizations.
How have you designed for customers and teams with dyslexia? Share in the comments.
> Thanks to Adam Doti, Dana Jones, and Gil Gershoni for contributing their insights and experiences to this story.
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