Graphic Designer Dani Donovan Is Breaking The Stigma Of ADHD Through Her Popular Webcomics

Dani Sullivan Graphic Designer

Even Mindy Kaling is a Fan of the 28-Year-Old’s Illustrations

By PJ Feinstein

If you search the hashtag #ADHD on Twitter, there’s a good chance one of Dani Donovan’s comics will show up in your feed. Over the past few months, Dani’s been gaining popularity within the online mental health community for creating on-point and relatable illustrations about life with ADHD., as well as creating the popular #NeurodiverseSquad hashtag on Twitter.

Diagnosed with hyperactive-impulsive ADHD during her freshman year of college, Dani is incredibly self-aware and remarkably open to sharing her struggles through her ongoing series of webcomics. “I do get distracted easily and have a hard time not getting sidetracked, but impulse control is probably my biggest issue-- blurting out, talking constantly, distracting others, being impatient, hating to be quiet,” says the 28-year-old graphic designer for Gallup. “I’ve been called an Energizer bunny more than once.”

Although her parents suspected she had ADHD around 4th or 5th grade, Dani didn’t struggle much with academics. In fact, she was labeled “gifted” in elementary school and later took honors classes. “I paid attention, I took detailed notes, and I didn’t really need to ever study for tests. I was a straight-A student for the most part,” she says. 

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Her impulsivity, though, sometimes got the best of her. “I had no filter and liked to point out when my teachers were wrong. Turns out most teachers do not like that,” says Dani. If she ever got a bad grade in class, it was usually because the teacher wasn’t a good fit. “I took an honors pre-calculus class with a teacher I really disliked and had a 78%… I switched to a class with a new teacher and ended the semester with a 99%. Great teachers make such a huge difference.”

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However, growing up with ADHD made it difficult for Dani to make and maintain friendships. “I never felt like I fit in or really belonged anywhere. I got labeled ‘annoying’ and felt so out of place as a kid since I didn’t know any other girls who were like me,” she says. Changing schools often didn’t help either. “It was discouraging to have to keep starting over when it was so hard for me to make friends in the first place.”

Then there was the bullying. “In second grade, I punched a boy in the face for reading my diary out loud at recess,” she remembers. “I got called ‘spaz,’ ‘loser,’ ‘freak,’ ‘idiot,’ ‘weirdo’… the whole nine yards. And unfortunately that takes a toll on your self-esteem when you hear it often as a kid.”

Dani credits her parents for helping her to become a self-sufficient young woman who isn’t afraid to ask for help if she needs it. “They showed me unconditional love, so I wasn’t ever worried they wanted me to be anybody else. I trusted and respected them because they treated me with trust and respect. They let me feel my feelings, and were always there to listen and help me figure out what to do next,” she says.

We talked to Dani about her career trajectory and how she’s worked around her ADHD to find success as a graphic designer and illustrator.

As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up? 

When I was in grade school I wanted to be a cartoonist for the Sunday funnies. I was obsessed with Calvin & Hobbes, Garfield, FoxTrot… they were easy for me to read and understand, and I loved to laugh. Then I saw a making-of featurette on how Shrek was created and immediately wanted to become an animator . . . until I did some research and found out that 3D animated movies take four years to make. I did NOT have the attention span for that.

I fell into a love of layout and design well before I knew “graphic design” was a profession. I strove to have the coolest PowerPoints for all my class presentations. I made fake newsletters for my friends using Microsoft Publisher in middle school. And then I got a copy of Paintshop Pro 7 in 8th grade. I was able to digitally color all of the drawings from my sketchbook, and I loved it so much.

Once I got to high school, I found my stride designing t-shirts for extracurricular clubs and all the plays that I was in. Senior year, one of my best friends, Kristen, was editor of our school yearbook. She asked me to be design editor; I was given a bootleg copy of InDesign, and my future as a designer was pretty much cemented.

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Did you have a mentor?

I joined the volunteer board of AIGA Nebraska straight out of college and found myself overwhelmed trying to balance my full-time job and my new volunteer responsibilities as director of social media. I constantly felt like I was drowning and doing a bad job and would then avoid emails, which only made it worse.

The chapter president, Miranda, set a meeting for us to talk one-on-one at a coffee shop. I was so nervous she was going to chew me out or ask me to leave the board; she intimidated the crap out of me, and I thought she didn’t like me. But all Miranda did was ask what I was having a hard time with and how she could help make it easier for me. She was so unbelievably kind and understanding about the whole thing, which took me aback. I’m pretty sure I cried in that coffee shop. We made a game plan for the next month, and she took time every month to meet up with me and go over what my goals were for that month and what progress I’d made the past month.

It seems so simple, but she didn’t need to do that. That personalized approach made all the difference. We still got together for coffee long after we’d both rolled off the board. She was the person who helped me learn to stand up for myself, to ask for what I’m worth, to fire bad clients, and to believe in my talents.

Did you tell your employer about your special needs? 

I hadn’t been telling employers because I was worried about the repercussions. I probably should’ve been because I’d been fired from more than one job for being late. I once got pulled aside by a boss for a “warning” meeting, and I just blurted out that I had ADHD and hadn’t been taking medication because it was too expensive on my new insurance. She gave me a form to fill out and give to HR, which of course got left in my backseat for five months because, well, ADHD. 

My current employer, Gallup, knows because… well, my ADHD storytelling flow chart blew up on social media, and the cat was kinda out of the bag.

Why is your job a good fit for you?

Gallup is literally the company that tells other businesses how to engage their employees and create exceptional workplaces. All the things that make working easier for me: flexible start time, work from home, isolated work spaces away from desk, and bosses who act as coaches.

But the thing that makes me thrive the most in this environment is Gallup’s constant focus our bread and butter: CliftonStrengths. They truly practice what they preach: trying to help people improve strengths instead of fix weaknesses. That’s a good thing because my “lowest strengths” are all “Executing” themes -- Focus, Deliberative, Discipline, etc.

My top 5 CliftonStrengths are Activator, Woo, Communication, Positivity, and Competition, which are nearly all “Influencing” themes. The rest of my top 10 are Ideation, Individualization, Empathy, Includer, and Arranger, which are nearly all “Relationship-Building” themes. So influencing and relationship-building, using imaginative communication, empathy, and arranging the content in a unique but followable way… all adds up to my comics!

What has been your biggest career success so far?

I won three awards at Gallup for my work on the West Health U.S. Healthcare Cost Crisis Report. It was featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, and hundreds of smaller TV networks. Doing the World Poll has also been phenomenal, as it’s got such a huge reach and covers important topics. My newest project has been designing reports about The Manager Experience and how bosses feel about their jobs in the modern workplace.

My ADHD comics interview making the front page of BBC News was a huge deal… probably tied with Mindy Kaling posting my flow chart on social media!

What advice would you give to kids and teens with ADHD?

When it comes to work, don’t chase money. Spend your time finding out what you love and how you can turn that into a career. If you’re great at it, it can be more than a hobby. The stuff I’m doing now? Designing layouts and drawing doodles? I was doing this in middle school. I just get paid now!

Learn how to use your gifts to your advantage when you can. I have very low inhibitions and I talk a lot. So when I go to a conference and have the impulse to go up to the keynote speaker and tell them I enjoyed their talk-- even though I’m scared, I lean into that impulse and just go. This is the secret to career success, in my opinion. Your work, your resume, your education… nothing will impact your career as much as the people you know. So start building up your network! 

Finally: It’s. Not. Just. You. ADHD can be such an isolating and lonely experience, especially when you don’t have any friends who have it or who understand your struggles. Finding your people online (#NeurodiverseSquad) can be so helpful, as you’ll feel a giant weight lifted off your shoulders to know the things you blame yourself for aren’t all your fault. You are awesome, and you’re not alone!

You can find more of Dani's comics on her Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, as well as support her on Patreon.

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