This Woman Sees Your Name in Color and Turns it Into Art
For as long as she can remember, Bernadette Sheridan doesn't just hear words, she sees them. Growing up, she thought everyone visualized each number and letter as a different color of the rainbow. It wasn't until she turned 31 in 2002 that she discovered she has something called grapheme-color synesthesia.
The word synesthesia comes from two Greek words: sin and aisthesis, meaning "to perceive together," according to the American Psychological Association (APA). The phenomenon is a biological condition when one of the senses (such as hearing) is perceived by another sense (such as sight) at the same time. There are many different forms of synesthesia, the APA reports, including some people who hear, smell, taste, or see in color (like Sheridan) and others who visualize abstract concepts. Estimates vary, but studies show roughly one in 2,000 people are synesthetes.
As a designer at The New York Daily News in the early 2000s, Sheridan needed to get every headline just right, but to her, it wasn't just about which phrases would sell papers. Titles needed to be the perfect hues, too. "I used to fight with my boss because I would say, 'No, that word is the wrong color,'" Sheridan says. "He thought I was just messing with him. This went on for a few years; I would say, 'No, that word is too red' and he'd be like, 'You're crazy.'" After five years of this discourse, Sheridan's boss gave her a copy of the Wall Street Journal that had an article about synesthesia. "It was a total mystery to me that other people didn't think this way," Sheridan explains. "Once I knew what the word was, I kind of became obsessed with learning about it."
Even after she discovered synesthesia, Sheridan, who's now 48, struggled to explain it to others who hadn't heard of it. "For years I thought, 'How can I show people rather than tell them what I'm experiencing?'" she says. At first, Sheridan thought an app showing the different letters and colors would work, but she realized a website was more feasible. So in April 2019, she drew out every letter with their corresponding color in Photoshop and started spelling names with the images. "Once I started doing that, it was like the world kind of opened up in front of me," she says. "I was finally seeing names put together on a screen. It was just like, 'Wow.' It was an amazing sensation."
Sheridan notes that she's taken two tests on the Synesthesia Battery to confirm her condition, once in 2006 and again in 2013, and her color associations were the same both times. Her website, synesthesia.me, launched January 1 this year. Users can type in an assortment of letters to understand how Sheridan sees different words.
While designing names, she realized some were quite beautiful and decided to start selling prints to support her site. She debuted her Etsy shop, SynesthesiaMe, on the same day as her website. She offers digital images you can print yourself as well as framed prints she puts together, ranging from $12 to $108. "It turns out, people are really curious about what their name looks like, and a lot of people seem to like the colors that their names are," Sheridan says. "So, I'm very lucky."
However, Sheridan says that not everybody's name looks appealing to the owner, including hers. "I've never liked my name," Sheridan says. "When I saw my name created, I understood why. It's really supersaturated, and it's ten letters, and it's dark, and it's all over the place. I try to apologize to people who don't like how their name looks to me." She also emphasizes that while the colors shown on her site and shop are specifically what she sees, all synesthetes visualize letters and numbers differently.
Sheridan says the best part of her website and Etsy shop is helping other people realize they have synesthesia, too. "I assumed that so many more people know about it by now... But people comment on my site saying 'I have this, too; I just never knew there was a name for it. Thank you so much,'" she explains. "I'm getting to tell people about it, just like my boss way back when so that's really rewarding. And I feel like hopefully, now, those people will become as curious as I did."