ADHD in Graphic Design

Are you an ADHD Graphic Designer looking to thrive in your field? Look no further! I've got 10 top tips to help you succeed.

I've been in the creative industry for over 20 years, most of that time as a self-employed freelancer. I've always excelled in information and data design, and I've always gravitated towards the novelty of freelance work. But it's also been a challenge. Keeping on top of taxes, client communication, deadlines, and meetings while wearing all the hats of a self-marketed graphic designer can be a lot to juggle. But it's also been a gift.
It wasn't until recently that I discovered why I've always found these challenges so daunting. I have all the hallmark symptoms of ADHD: poor working memory, a tendency to hyper-focus, a constant struggle with concentration on less interesting tasks, organization and time management issues, and lastly impulsivity. I just assumed everyone struggled with these things, as I've lived with them my whole life. And it's probably no coincidence that around 50% of people working in the creative industries are neurodivergent, compared to just 14% of the general population - so I have surrounded myself with like-minded people throughout my career.
But now that I know I have ADHD, I'm finally starting to understand my strengths and weaknesses. I'm learning how to manage my symptoms and use them to my advantage, and you can too.
The struggle is real
ADHD is still a commonly misunderstood neurodivergence. Many people still believe it's a condition reserved for young boys who can't sit still. But more recent research has seen a massive surge in adult men and women being diagnosed with ADHD, allowing them to seek medical help and put coping strategies in place to help them thrive. Here are some of the ways it has affected my day-to-day work:
Difficulty with focus: Graphic design demands a significant amount of attention and attention to detail, which can be challenging for individuals with ADHD. Staying on task can be a struggle, and external distractions can easily divert their attention. In my previous position, I had to juggle multiple responsibilities, such as leading teams, participating in calls, mentoring young talent, developing design strategies, and expanding business relationships. It takes around 20 minutes for an individual to enter a focused state, but I found myself interrupted every 20-30 minutes while at my desk, making it difficult to complete tasks. As a result, I worked extended hours to take advantage of times when the office was less busy and I could be more productive.
Hyperfocus: As previously mentioned, ADHD can be a gift and a curse. This is the ability to concentrate intensely on a single task or activity for an extended period of time, often to the exclusion of everything else. Those who experience hyperfocus can become so absorbed in what they are doing that they lose track of time and their surroundings. While this can lead to our best work, it can also quickly lead to burnout and make it difficult to switch tasks. A common complaint among those with ADHD is that we cannot control when we access our hyperfocus.
Failure to launch: Contrary to hyperfocus, it can be very difficult to start a task if you're not interested in the subject. This has been a challenge for me throughout my career. Even if you do have some initial interest, it can quickly fade and make it very hard to finish projects. We can't control our ADHD and it can be really debilitating, so it's not as simple as just telling ourselves to "just do it".
Time management problems: Individuals with ADHD frequently struggle with time management, making it difficult for them to meet deadlines and produce quality work due to underestimating the time required for tasks. They may procrastinate or experience difficulty dividing large projects into more manageable segments. Additionally, time blindness can lead to tardiness, which is often perceived as carelessness or a lack of respect. Arriving at work on time is a daily obstacle for them.
Organisational problems: Individuals with ADHD frequently encounter difficulty in maintaining organisation, which can pose a significant obstacle in a career that necessitates extensive project management. They may struggle to recall deadlines, misplace files, or encounter difficulty in managing their thoughts. Additionally, impulsivity can be a challenge in the workplace. People with ADHD may be more inclined to act impulsively, which can lead to regrettable decisions or saying or doing things without consideration. Another common issue is struggling to decline tasks and overestimating one's ability to accomplish tasks within a day.
There are no right or wrong answers in design: It can be frustrating to be critiqued for work that is so subjective, especially when it is judged based on personal preferences. Unfortunately, this can leave individuals vulnerable to criticism and scrutiny, however, those with ADHD can severely suffer as a result. According to a study published in the journal "Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorders" in 2019, children with ADHD receive an average of 27,000 more negative comments than their peers without ADHD.

How ADHD can be a benefit in graphic design
Embracing your ADHD can be incredibly advantageous in the creative industry. Your creativity can become one of your greatest assets, allowing you to generate fresh ideas and take bold risks. The outside-of-the-box thinking that comes with ADHD is particularly valuable in fields like graphic design, where creativity and innovation are key.
Here are a few tips that I have found have helped me excel in my own career:
Prioritise your health and well-being first.
It has been proven that regular exercise, along with meditation or yoga, can be helpful in reducing ADHD symptoms. I recommend prioritising a healthy routine in the morning to set yourself up for the day ahead. I understand that it may seem difficult to meditate when you have many thoughts racing through your mind, but it's important to remember that the goal of meditation is not to silence the mind entirely. Instead, it's about focusing on your breath and finding some inner peace. With time, you'll get better at managing your thoughts. Like with anything else, consistent practice is key. There are apps available, such as Headspace and Yoga Studio, to help you get started. If you prefer working out at the gym, I recommend the Strong app, which can help gamify your workouts and keep you motivated.
Align your work with your core values and interests.
When the task at hand is in alignment with my personal values and interests, my brain operates at its highest capacity and I am able to utilise my hyperfocus to achieve the best possible result. However, when faced with work that goes against my morals or is uninteresting, it can be difficult for me to even begin. It is important to note that pursuing work that aligns with one's values is key to finding happiness and fulfilment in life. A fantastic resource for helping you find your values and purpose in work is ‘The Art Of Work’ by Jeff Goins.
Ask for accommodations in your workplace
As a protected disability, you can ask your employer for reasonable accommodations to make your life easier at work. Such accommodations could include having a desk away from other staff, being able to wear noise-cancelling headphones during work hours, and having meetings in the morning to avoid appointment paralysis (a phenomenon where you are unable to focus or work until an appointment has passed). I barely ever leave the house without my Bose ANC headset - despite the price, it's one of the most worthwhile investments I have ever made. You can read more about workplace accommodations here.
Be open and honest with your employer/clients.
Something I learned the hard way was to be open about your ADHD with your employers, clients and colleagues. I was held back by the stigma, but together we need to help break that stigma in order to make our lives better. The funny thing is, I've never had a negative response to this and the majority of people will do their utmost to accommodate your needs and ensure a safe environment for your creativity to thrive within.
Write everything down and set reminders.
If it’s not in my calendar you can be guaranteed I will forget it’s happening. I now write everything down and if it’s important I set several reminders. It's not foolproof, there have been times when I have snoozed an important notification while in hyperfocus and ultimately lost out on opportunities, but it works for me most of the time. For this, I simply use Apple Calendar as it works with all my devices, but others swear by Fantastical.
Set deadlines and break down projects into smaller tasks.
This will help you stay on track and avoid getting overwhelmed. Apps like Todoist or Things are ideal for this as you can set reminders and keep your to-do lists on all of your devices at once.
Find ways to stay organized.
This could mean using a project management tool, creating to-do lists, or setting up a system for filing your work. As a small business owner, I use Notion as a powerful project management tool thats also flexible enough for me to customise it to my personal needs. I recommend reading ‘Order from Chaos’ by Jaclyn Paul for further reading on how to stay on top of things specifically written for the ADHD mind.
Take breaks.
It's important to take breaks throughout the day, especially if you're feeling overwhelmed. Get up and move around, or step outside for some fresh air. I like to use a 45:15 ratio - 45 minutes of work followed by a 15 minute break to step away from my desk, I have found it’s the golden ratio for me, just long enough for me to focus and just short enough for me to stay engaged. I use the custom Pomodoro timer on the Toggl app to implement this which has the added bonus of tracking my project time as well.
Use focus music to help you engage with your work.
I was sceptical when I first came across Focus@Will - but since taking their free trial on early last year it has become an invaluable part of my working day. They offer music to help you focus that is optimised by science-backed by world-class neuroscientists. And it works!
Lastly, learn to say no.
It's important to be selective about the projects you take on so that you don't overcommit yourself. And I can't stress this enough, it's of vital importance that you say no to a project that your ADHD has no desire to participate in - it not only damages your health, but your reputation also.
I’m not willing to be condescending and tell you that ADHD can be a superpower in Graphic Design because, in truth, it will always cause complications and a level of struggle. However, with time and effort, there are strategies you can learn to use your ADHD to your advantage. One key aspect is understanding yourself and what motivates you. By effectively managing your symptoms, you can tap into your creativity and achieve success in this field. So, don't let ADHD hold you back. Embrace it and use it to your advantage.
I hope this helps!
Further reading
Your Brain’s Not Broken by Tamara Rosier PhD
ADHD 2.0 by Edward M. Hallowell M.D.
The Art Of Work by Jeff Goins
Order from Chaos by Jaclyn Paul
Leigh Riley

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