Images: Bernadette Sheridan

FFor as long as I can remember, I’ve seen letters and numbers as colors. It’s a form of synesthesia called grapheme-color synesthesia, and for me, this translating from symbols to colors happens most often with names.

When I meet new people, I forget their name immediately. Don’t get me wrong, I hear the name, but my mind is distracted. In my head, I am counting the number of letters in the name, and visualizing the colors of each letter.

Your name may be Emily, but to me, you’re a bright, sunny swath of five letters with an “E” and an “I.” When I meet you again later, I may think your name is Emily or Jille or Ellie. Those three names “look” remarkably similar to someone who operates as I do — they all have five letters, they all include the letters “i,” “l,” and “e.”

In my head, Emily, Jille, and Ellie are remarkably similar.

What is synesthesia?

Synesthesia is a rare sensory trait shared by about 4% of the population, and it comes in many forms. People who “see” or associate letters and numbers with specific colors have grapheme-color synesthesia, and it’s the most common form. Other forms of synesthesia involve seeing or feeling musical notes as colors or textures, having visualized representations of time, and in rare cases, even tasting words.

After many years of struggling to describe my synesthesia visually, I created a website called Synesthesia.Me. It features simple geometric portraits of these color combinations. The specific renderings are based on my own unique synesthesia color alphabet. Every synesthete’s color alphabet is unique, although there are certain universal matches for specific letters. For example, red is often cited as a common color for the letter A.

What I love most about this project is that it allows me to see not just the individual letters, but actual composed illustrations of names I hear every day. As I was building the site, I was repeatedly struck by how “right” the names looked once I had them displayed in front of me. Over and over, names just seemed to jump out at me as being so perfectly right.

Jille is a bright sunny day in spring. Sarah is a bold saturated blanket of red and purple. Bob and Tom are solid blocks of sturdiness and strength. Heather is a vibrant sunny rainbow and Juliet is a freshly planted garden. Jason and David are strong solid pillars and Bill is a bold whisper.

Heather is a vibrant, sunny rainbow.

How a name looks is not related to how it sounds

I’ve received some great questions about whether the sound of the name makes a difference for names like Lachlan, which sounds like “lock lan.” Yet, it’s not actually the sound of the name that creates the colors, so it doesn’t usually pose a problem if the name doesn’t sound like how it’s spelled. For example, I know the name Siobhan sounds like “shivon,” but my brain still sees it as Siobhan. I associate colors with all the letters of the name, even the ones that go unheard in pronouncing it, like the b in this case.

But what if I don’t know how to spell your name?

Remarkably, the phonetic spelling of most names turns out to be a pretty close match:

What about names that sound the same but are spelled differently?

This is another excellent question — best answered by a visual example. For most names there’s not a huge difference. Kathie and Cathy aren’t that different. The letters “i,” “e,” and “y” are all very light, bright blocks and are somewhat interchangeable in my head. Meaghan is just a more elaborate version of Megan, and I usually default to picturing the shorter version.

At a certain point, though, some names do have too many letters.

I found through this project that names with more than eight letters essentially mush together in my brain. It’s as if my brain says “yeah, enough, got it” and almost abbreviates the color pattern, adding emphasis to the vowels and dominant consonants.

Does the color palette of your name match your personality?

I’m fascinated by this one — my initial answer has always been, “sometimes.” But as I have done more compiling and creating, I’ve realized the answer may be “yes” a lot more frequently. I have some definite opinions about people’s personalities based on their names — and I often find them to be accurate.

So, what is your color palette?

The site includes an interactive tool for seeing what your name, or any name, looks like. Simply type in any name, and as you type, the “synesthesia” view of your name appears dynamically on the screen. Curious? Play with it to see how people like me see your name.