Seeing Colors: Grapheme-Color Synesthesia

While we might all be familiar with the condition of color blindness, it’s not the only condition related to color. Another, and maybe less familiar, or at least, more complicated, is a form of Synesthesia where your brain associates certain colors with letters and numbers called Grapheme-color Synesthesia.

One of our very own COLOUR lovers,  deedee914, has this very condition, and as an artist & designer the condition has given her a unique perspective on color and it’s uses in her work. I got a chance to talk with deedee about her personal snyesthesia map, her struggle to stick with brand standards, and how this conditions impacts her and her work on a daily basis.

deedee914’s map (click on image to see it full size)

About deedee914: I have a condition called Synesthesia that some define as a sort of autism or a condition where your brain experiences correspondences between sound, colour, letter or numbers. My particular case is one in which my brain maps certain colours to certain numbers and letters. Several famous artists both musical, visual arts, and even literary geniuses have documented cases or even written about their experiences. As a kid, I had an incredibly difficult time learning to use those magnetic plastic letters and numbers. The colour of the plastic never properly corresponded to the right letter or number so I gave up using them as early learning devices.

COLOURlovers: Besides difficulty with those magnetic plastic letters and numbers, are there other difficulties caused by this condition that affect aspects of your daily life?

deedee914: I’m a professional graphic designer, artist, and illustrator. Currently I work for Yahoo! and most recently have been working on some large projects with Flickr. But as you can imagine, being a graphic designer has always had its challenges when it comes to what I do. My day to day work is exhausting. It’s like having to put up a mental barrier to NOT see letters and numbers as certain colours. Otherwise I’d completely go against what my clients want or what the company has already established as brand guidelines. As an example, many people know the Yahoo! logo as red… to me it’s a rainbow. Flickr makes use of both pink and blue in their logo and none of these make sense in my brain so I have to tune out my own understanding and visuals of these things to be able to work with common elements in our designs. It’s funny because I’m always the person on the design team citing that colour is subjective and not worth arguing over… a designer’s nightmare.

CL: What are the letters of your favorite color palettes or the color schemes of your living space / wardrobe / belongings…?

d: Though I cite blue as my favourite colour, I have made a funny discovery that I am rarely ever able to use blue in any of my paintings. I try to avoid taking on commissioned work for clients who have blue palettes in their homes because for some reason the colour just doesn’t work for me. My home is very mid-century modern and contains a lot of neutrals, browns, and oranges. I tend to stick to wearing singular colour palettes like an all charcoal gray outfit, black, or brown. I rarely mix colours as it complicates things for me.

Some of the most beautiful words to me based on how I see them and how they look as a colour grouping are: LOVE, TRUST, FAMILY, COKE, STORM.

I have a favourite palette I produced on CL called “New Neopolitan 2” and it maps almost very closely to the word NUDE I exclude the colour white because it acts like a blank tile. :) I try to work from the point of colour first as opposed to letters.

CL: Can you give a little information about synesthesia to help others better understand the condition (is condition the appropriate term?). Do you inexplicably think of, or ‘see’ in your mind, a color anytime you look at a letter? What about when you hear someone say a letter? Does each word then have its own personal color palette for you?

d: Synesthesia has a very complicated series of definitions based on the type of condition you have. Do you map colour to letters and numbers, do you see colour when you hear certain sounds etc.? The list is amazing. I’ve seen it referred to as a condition, a phenomenon, and even as a disorder but I don’t think the scientific community has fully been able to come to a firm conclusion just what this means with respect to our particular cognitive and perceptual processes as compared to non-non-synesthetes. So therefore at this point the label “condition” seems more appropriate. The interesting thing about it is that our brains are wired a little differently from non-synesthetes. The colours I associate with a specific letter or number have always been the same for my entire life. And my list and organization of colours and letters is hardly ever the same as someone else’s who also has the condition.

When I think of a word, I see blocks of color, and the blocks get translated into letters. I’ve heard of others who see the letters with something of a halo-effect. The letters give off almost a glow of a certain colour. Mine seem more rigidly tied to grids. It makes remembering names and places a lot easier. Memorizing phone numbers is easier too. I have a habit of wanting to remember something or say a person’s name I met awhile back, so I close my eyes to better visualise the colour.

Links: Synesthesia, Grapheme-color Synesthesia, deedee914, deedee914’s map on flickr

Author: evad
David Sommers has been loving color as COLOURlovers' Blog Editor-in-Chief for the past two years. When he's not neck deep in a rainbow he's loving other things with The Post Family (, a Chicago-based art blog, artist collective & gallery.