Reading Colors

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For several months, I'd been toying with the idea of designing cards that use colors instead of letters. I had a clear image in my head - rows of bold squares on plain white paper - but I had trouble determining how to execute it. Which colors should represent which letters?

Then I realized, for many people, letters and colors are already inextricably intertwined.

Let's back up a second.

I have time-space synesthesia, a neurological condition that means that, quite literally, I "see" time. Days, seasons, years and even centuries are a visual construct for me. It's March right now, and as I write this, spring gently curves on the edges of my left-side vision, pale blue. Directly in front stretches golden summer, and to the right ambles orangey-red fall. White winter, hazy and slightly menacing, slinks around the back.

"Synesthesia" is a classification of conditions where people's senses bleed into one another, and there are numerous ways this can manifest. While I see time, for example, some people taste words; a friend associates personality traits with numbers (3 is charming, but don't ever trust 9).

And my mom? She sees letters as colored.

It's called "grapheme-color" synesthesia, and refers to people for whom letters appear a specific color. ("A" is always forest green, "Y" is rose pink, "J" is bright yellow.) A particular color-letter pair might evolve slightly as a person ages - from rust-red to plain red, for example - but a core feature is the colors' steadfastness. A 2015 study examined more than 6,500 of these grapheme-color synesthetes, compiling which color corresponded to which letter for each participant. I used software to find the blend of all 6,588 color instances recorded for each letter, respectively, and that became my code.

Somewhat surprisingly, there's actually a fair amount of variation; it's not all browns and greens like you might expect from blending thousands of colors. Generally, however, they feature similar tones - warm, earthy, a bit more subdued - and so I was forced to rule out certain words and phrases for aesthetic reasons. "Get well," for example, turned out to prominently feature tints I can only describe as "olive green" and "dark mustard" ... not exactly the kind of colors you want to see when you're feeling under the weather.

In the end, it's almost more about the symbolism and less about the literal translation. I love the idea of receiving a mysterious card and having to solve a puzzle to decipher the full meaning, but each card stands on its own, too, regardless of the secondary interpretation.

But sometimes the conversion to English is what really makes the experience worthwhile ... such as for my favorite card of the bunch.

Once translated, it simply says "Fart."