When I started my career back in the ’90s, my job — designing pages for newspapers — involved creating interesting arrangements of pictures and words that would hook readers.
At the New York Daily News, I worked on the News desk with a team of 12 men responsible for designing the pages in the front of the paper, including page one. We produced hard news, and it was a genuinely exciting time to be working at a New York City tabloid.
My job was to get more people to read news stories. That meant making things look better, more digestible, more interesting and more visual… in black and white. The Daily News did have some color pages, but those were saved for ads or features, and I worked in News.
Black & white and read all over
Getting the headline right at a New York City tabloid was no trivial matter. Headlines sold newspapers and this was a newspaper at war, not just on breaking news but on the strength of the front page headline. Would it be the right tone? Was it accurate and witty? And ultimately, would it be better than what would be on Page 1 of the New York Post?
So picture a news desk surrounded by six or seven seasoned editors, all middle-aged men, standing over me — a 27-year-old woman — as I typeset the page 1 “wood” headlines onto the front page. When an editor who had spent his career investigating murders and corruption shouted out a headline, I’m sure he did not expect a young woman sitting at the front page machine to shake her head and say, “No, that word isn’t the right color.”
What color is that word?
Here’s an example of how my Synesthesia interfered: I was designing the front page the night a man had been murdered. The editors wanted to say “KILLED”. But that word has a lot of i’s and e’s. In my head, vowels have especially dominating colors, and i’s are white and e’s are yellow.
I saw these 200-point block letters on a black-and-white page and pushed back, arguing that the word KILLED wasn’t strong enough, that it felt too lightweight, too “bright.”
“Can’t we try a darker word, like ‘SLAIN’?” I asked. (“Murdered” would have been even better, but that’s a very long word.) I can only imagine what was going through their heads. To me, I was right, SLAIN definitely looked more accurate. I just couldn’t explain why.
Did my boss think I was just messing with him?
My boss and I would disagree over headlines a lot. I still remember a shouting match with him over the page design for an investigative piece. The headline was typed out in black on the screen, but I was adamant that the words looked wrong.
“That one word is not right, can we change it? It’s too red.”
He shook his head in frustration. I tried to explain.
“Don’t you feel like that word is the wrong color?” (I genuinely thought that other people must have the same reaction to letters the way I did. I had spent my whole life associating letters with colors. But I had no way to define it. This was the late 1990s and we weren’t in a time when you could just google “why is A always red?”)
He didn’t answer me. I was making no sense. He was exasperated and yelled at me and sent me back to my desk. I was driving him crazy, and he probably thought I was out of my mind. I was very lucky that I was pretty good at my job. Looking back, I wouldn’t have put up with that, and to his credit, he kept me on.
This went on for five years…
My work on the news desk continued and I contributed to covering some of the biggest stories in recent history. Between 1997 and 2002, President Clinton was the subject of a special counsel, admitted to having an affair with an intern, and was ultimately impeached. The Yankees were on top of the world, winning three World Series, and major players like Derek Jeter were just starting out. Major figures like John Gotti and Frank Sinatra died. Former First Lady Hillary Clinton was elected to the US Senate, and the Bush-Gore 2000 elections were a level of crazy that I had never seen before. We were the paper of record for the events of 9/11.
News was serious, and I learned to tone down my tendency to argue about the colors of words.
Finally, one afternoon in June 2002, I walked into the newsroom to start my shift, and there was my boss, sitting at my desk, waiting for me. His arms were folded and he had a huge grin on his face.
He pointed to a copy of the Wall Street Journal neatly folded on my desk. In the top left corner was a Science Journal story by Sharon Begley titled “Why George Gershwin may have called it Rhapsody in blue.”
“In its most common form, synesthesia makes you always see a particular letter or digit in a particular color. To author Patricia Lynne Duffy, P is invariably pale yellow, R is orange, 5 is purple. … One medical professor tells psychologist Thomas Palmeri of Vanderbilt University that although color letters slow down his reading, they help his memory: He breezed through anatomy because the distinct colors of the terms acted as mnemonics. For decades neurologists figured people like the professor were crazy or lying. Finally, though, brain imaging is establishing the reality of synesthesia. ”
Turns out I wasn’t making it all up, and I wasn’t just messing with my boss all those years. There it was, printed in black and white: proof that I wasn’t crazy. At 31 years old, I finally had a name for what I’ve been seeing all my life, and it was called Synesthesia.
I’ve started a Synesthesia project called “What Color is Your Name” over at https://synesthesia.me/. I’d love for you to check it out. It’s my experimental display of how names look to me, based on my Grapheme-color Synesthesia.
The interactive tool works for any word, (not just names), so have a look at https://synesthesia.me/see-your-name