Every time I walk into school it is like entering a clinic. I’m taken back. I see students bouncing around the halls, creating a symphony through tapping appendages. Erratic and eccentric behavior is about the only constant. But really, it is a commune, refuge of sorts, for gifted young adults that aspire to be part of the professional creative industry.
What causes these behaviors and why are they nurtured in visual art schools? The nonprofit group CHADD (Children and Adults with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder) say that around 10% of Americans are diagnosed with ADHD and among that statistic 2% to 4% are adults. To clarify, The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM IV-TR), the handbook used by those in psychiatric are as a guide for diagnosis, describes three primary symptoms of ADHD: inattention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity. To be diagnosed as ADHD, the patient needs to exhibit at least six of the symptoms for inattention or at least six of the symptoms of the combined hyperactivity-impulsivity list. Based on these criteria, three types of ADHD are identified: ADHD Combined Type, ADHD Predominantly Inattentive Type and ADHD Predominantly Hyperactive-Impulsive Type. One could almost guarantee that visual art schools like Portfolio Center and similar programs possess a much higher percentage within the student body and faculty. So, why can individuals with ADHD find sanctuary in a creative environment?
First, the connection between ADHD and creativity must be evaluated. For several years now it has been argued that there is a strong correlation between ADHD and creativity. The exact nature of the relationship has not been intrinsically defined in large part because creativity and ADHD are themselves such complex and puzzling constructs. Regardless, one cannot ignore their astounding parallels.
“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.” (Matthew Kutz, a 13-year-old student with ADD) (Hartmann). This statement is intriguing because as a student at a graduate level design school I learn to nurture these perceptions and how to effectively communicate them visually.
Creativity doesn’t mean the ability to finger paint. The highly creative individual has the ability to take distinct and recognizable pieces of information and join them in completely new ways. The ability to think conceptually, view the entire situation and find solutions to problems that are highly advanced and ingenious can bring great job satisfaction. Entrepreneurs, research scientists and engineers, trouble-shooters and inventors all depend on creativity, as do artists and designers. These fields are often suggested as good occupations for people with ADHD.
Dr. Bonnie Cramond published a paper in 1995 for The National Research Center On The Gifted and Talented called “The Coincidence of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and Creativity.” Dr. Cramond reviewed the scientific literature available for both creativity research and ADHD research, and identified many striking parallels between the two conditions. A comparative analysis of brain structure showed strong similarities between the brains of diagnosed ADHDers and those who are highly creative. Creative people appear to have weaker “braking” mechanisms in their brains than normal people. Researchers in creativity hypothesize that this weak braking mechanism allows many spontaneous and unchecked thoughts to collide over time, resulting in creative thought. ADHD researchers observed a similar weak braking mechanism in the ADHD brain. They, however, consider this evidence as a neurological defect.
In a 1992 study, a group of ADHD children and a group of normal children with similar backgrounds and IQs were compared. The ADHD group was found to have a higher creativity and more use of imagery in problem solving, as well as more spontaneous thoughts during a problem-solving exercise. One researcher hypothesized in 1980 that “Intelligent individuals who are bombarded by ideas seek to make sense of them by organizing them into new perceptual relationships. Thus the creative, original idea is born” (Cramond).
The Creative and Inventive Personality: Many personality traits commonly associated with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder are also associated with highly creative people:
• Inattention and Daydreaming
• Sensation Seeking
• Inability to finish projects
• Enthusiasm and Playfulness
• Difficult Temperament
• Deficient Social Skills
• Academic Underachievement
• Hypersensitivity to Stimulation
• Mood Swings
Practically all of the traditional ADD/ADHD symptoms can be translated into constructive job qualities in the commercial art arena. Pre-pubescent hyperactivity equates to high energy and drive. The child who talked too much at school can now demonstrate networking and sales abilities as well as being a constructive creative meeting member. An adolescent that was constantly distracted is later perceptive and formulates hypersensitive connections in everyday life. The ADHD teen determined to finish a video games now displays the ability to hyper-focus on a captivating project or account and finish the job uninterrupted. Most of all, the constant daydreaming in class can easily be associated with pure creativity.
There is a constant within this equation. It is simply theory regarding creativity in ADHDers and the connection between the commercial art industry and ADHD is undeveloped. However, it is difficult to refute that commercial art agencies desire to develop an environment that stimulates creativity. This is the very reason for their existence.
In recent years there has been a shift towards designing innovative work environments. This does not mean creating visually wacky, attention-grabbing offices. It is about closely tailoring the physical environment to the requirements of the organization. In the book The Creative Office, co-authors Jeremy Myerson and Philip Ross highlight an array of case studies showing the creative office in action. For them, these are environments, “that aim to support people in thinking more creatively about work - which promote the right-brain skills of intuition, imagination and synthesis, instead of the left-brain focus on rational order, protocol and precedent, which has tended to dictate the shape and style of inflexible scientifically managed offices in the past.”
Thanks to a progressive commercial art industry that caters to creativity and subsequently ADHD individuals, a positive job option is presented. While ADHDers continue to try to understand the disorder and equate their personalities into career advancement, design firms across the globe continue to provide the environment to do so. It seems near destiny that their paths continue to cross.
Of course, not all creative individuals exhibit impulsivity, hyperactivity, and inattention. By the same token, not all professionals who exhibit ADHD behaviors will be highly creative. This article is not insinuating that only people with ADHD are creative but rather how they find refuge in creative environments and how often the commercial art arena can be that sanctuary. The correlation between the commercial arts industry and ADHD is far more than a coincidence and will continue to grow and develop if the relationship continues to be nurtured.
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APA Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV-TR. (Fourth Edition, Text Revision.) American Psychiatric Association, Washington, D.C., 2000.
Cramond, Bonnie, The Coincidence of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and Creativity, (The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented, 1995).
Hartmann, Thom, et al, Think Fast! The ADD Experience, (Underwood Books, 1996).
Justin Genovese is a student at Portfolio Center. This essay is the second in a series by PC students who took part in Bryony’s long-distance Design Thinking class during the quarter of winter 2005.