The Lament of a Lefty Designer
“You must be so creative!”
This is the statement most often uttered as soon as someone finds out that I am left-handed. From childhood, this has been drilled into my brain. Left-handed = creative. Being an artistically-minded child, this became a part of my identity. I loved the idea that I was unique. It almost felt as though being left-handed gave me some kind of creative superpower. The 'younger' me thought: I am creative and I am special because I am a lefty!
Left-handed people make up approximately 10% of the general population, and creativity is the most common trait associated with left-handed individuals, who are also thought to be artistic and visual thinkers. Right-handed folks are oppositely identified as logical and linear thinking. This is because the right side of the brain controls the left side of the body, therefore the right hemisphere of the brain, which controls creativity, perception and emotions, is said to be dominant in lefties. The left-side of the brain, which controls logic and reasoning, is said to be dominant in those that are right-handed.
It is not quite that black and white in reality, but these beliefs are deeply rooted societal stereotypes. But how true are these common beliefs? Is creativity the defining trait of left-handed people? Are a disproportionate number of lefties employed in creative professions such as architecture and design?
A common belief is that the majority of architects are left-handed, and there have been studies done that show a significant increase in the number of left-handed architecture students vs. those that are right-handed. Interestingly, I couldn't find the names of any architects on lists of famous 'lefties' that I came across, and Google searches for 'famous left-handed architects' did not yield any specific names to note...unless, of course, you count one of the many 'occupations' of George Costanza in the sitcom Seinfeld. He famously pretended to be an architect, and concluded "Nothing is higher than an architect!" in various episodes of the show. Jason Alexander, who played George, is a noted lefty by the way, but I digress. Other creative fields were represented on these lists - artists such as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, inventors such as Benjamin Franklin, and musicians including Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain are all famous lefties. Non-creative fields were also represented including athletes such as our beloved Red Sox DH David Ortiz, and Presidents of the United States including George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama.
An informal poll taken at SBA found that out of the 66 people who responded from the Boston and Enfield offices, 7 of those people stated they are left-handed and 2 additional people stated that they are ambidextrous. This works out to approximately 10% of respondents being left-handed, and 13% of respondents being either left-handed or ambidextrous.
Interestingly, this aligns perfectly with the percentage of left-handers in the general population. This indicates three things: 1) the idea that a majority of architects being left-handed may actually be a myth, 2) many right-handers can also access the creative side of their brains, and 3) at least 10% of us have had to adapt to a world designed for right-handers.
Most everyday things are designed for right-handed people. In the classrooms that we all grew up in, left-handed scissors were hard to come by and standard notebooks with rings on the left side made it difficult to take legible notes. In college lecture halls, right-handers got to rest their arm on their tablet desks while taking notes in class.
We lefties had to either contort our bodies into uncomfortable positions in order to use the right-handed desks or find the one left-handed desk in the class, which was like trying to find a needle in a haystack.
Then there was Architecture Studio. Drawing by hand always left its mark on us, literally. We had to find a way to draw in ink or pencil so that we would not smudge our work as we drew, trying to move from right to left instead of the typical left to right. If there were too many smudges, we would need to start over. And no matter how hard we tried, we always ended up having ink or pencil on the side of our left hand at the end of the day as evidence of the hours we spent drawing in studio.
Even now, as professionals, we still find ourselves having to adapt to things designed for righties. Standard computer mice are used with the right hand, the number pad on keyboards is on the right side, and using a tape measure with our left hand results in our having to read the numbers upside-down.
Even in light of all these challenges, we find a way to adapt to this heavily skewed right-handed environment; we are an incredibly flexible bunch! Famous lefty musician Jimi Hendrix famously learned how to play his right-handed Fender Stratocaster guitar upside down.
We lefty-architects have learned how to draw without smudging, use computer mice with our right hands, and read tape measures upside-down with ease. These challenges help us to put designing for different groups of people at the forefront of our minds, and when we collaborate with our right-handed counterparts I think it makes for a better end result for our clients.
So does this mean that lefties are more creative people on the whole? The research is inconclusive. But at the end of the day I would say that our biggest strength, our true ‘superpower’, is our ability to adapt, and that, in and of itself, requires quite a bit of creative problem solving.