Michael Haverkamp has a marketable mental condition: When he runs his fingers across the leather of a car’s steering wheel, he sees colors and shapes. “If the texture feels rough, I see a structure in my mind’s eye that has dark spots, hooks, and edges,” explains the 55-year-old German, a Ford Motor (F) engineer. “But if it’s too smooth, the structure glows and looks papery, flimsy.” Haverkamp says these hallucinations, the result of a neurological condition called synesthesia, help with his nuanced work, optimizing and coordinating the look, feel, and sound of vehicle fabrics, knobs, pedals, and more. He shares his preferences for each with designers, who then use that information to build cars that are more pleasing to drivers.
Synesthesia—from a Greek term that translates loosely as “mingling of the senses”—is a nonharmful condition with several manifestations in which varying combinations of touch, taste, smell, hearing, and sight are linked. Everyone has cross-sensory experiences to some extent (hence idioms such as “loud clothing” or “warm colors”), but for synners, as those afflicted call themselves, these connections are more dominant and unavoidable. One person might smell gasoline and involuntarily see purple, while another might read the name “Marilyn Monroe” and inexplicably taste whipped cream. Many synesthetes automatically visualize numbers or days of the week in 3D formations. Some experience orgasms as flashes of bold color. A common theory among neuroscientists is that this stems from stronger neural connections between regions of the brain that are normally separated during development.
Mentions of synesthesia date back to antiquity, but as research has validated the condition, “the business community is just starting to wake up to the possibilities,” says Edward Hubbard, a leading researcher in the field. “Ten years ago … even the scientific community thought [synesthesia] was just vivid imagination, or made-up stories.” Last year, Ford created a custom position for Haverkamp with the title specialist in cross-sensory harmonization. His job is to better streamline collaboration between the company’s sound engineers, visual designers, and haptics specialists, who deal with touch. “I do think [his synesthesia] gives him a unique ability to explain the cross-sensory approach,” says Peter Bejin, a design manager at Ford. “We’ve always had an emphasis on sounds, like the door-closing sound, a glove-box-closing sound. On a micro level, Mike is helping us get a whole new perspective on optimization.”
While stats don’t yet exist linking Haverkamp’s work to car sales, cross-sensory design is gaining traction with companies. General Electric (GE) spent last year developing two-minute musical soundtracks for each of its appliance brands. Toyota Motor (TM) has tinkered with its popular Prius, adding a humming sound to warn pedestrians, and other electric car makers are doing the same. Designer Jinsop Lee has been hired by organizations, including one started by Zappos (AMZN) founder and Chief Executive Officer Tony Hsieh, to teach workshops in his five senses bar chart, a tool for appraising the multisensory impact of products and experiences.
“When I learned to read and write as a child, I discovered that six is orange and seven is yellow, and I thought everyone knew that,” Haverkamp explained during the 10th Annual American Synesthesia Association conference, hosted by Toronto’s OCAD University last spring. Experts say the condition, usually inherited, likely affects 1 in 23 people. That includes a large number of leaders in their respective fields: Lush cosmetics co-founder Mark Constantine; Nobel-winning physicist Richard Feynman; Robert Cailliau, one of the creators of the World Wide Web; Billy Joel; and many more. Pharrell Williams, a musician and producer behind this summer’s hit songs Blurred Lines and Get Lucky, would be lost without his music-to-color synesthesia. “If it was taken from me suddenly, I’m not sure that I could make music,” he said in an interview. “It’s my only reference for understanding.”
Some forms of synesthesia can also have professionally beneficial side effects, such as enhancing creativity and innovation. (Although other forms, such as tasting words, can be miserable and overwhelming.) In one 2004 study, the psychology department of the University of California at San Diego had a small group of college students with and without synesthesia take the standardized Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking, which evaluate idea generation and originality, among other traits. The synners scored more than twice as high in every category.
Synesthetes who assign colors to letters and numbers have superior memories, research shows, and not only for sounds and words but also for visual scenarios. “Even just remembering a scene, or the layout of a scene, they’re better at doing that,” says Jamie Ward, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Sussex in Brighton, England. Their enhanced sensual experience likely provides them with more retrieval cues. In one famous case, a Russian journalist named Solomon Shereshevsky with fivefold synesthesia needed only minutes to memorize extensive number matrices and even poems in foreign languages. “My synesthesia definitely helps me remember names,” says Patricia Duffy, 61, an instructor at the United Nations Language and Communications Programme. “I don’t have to do anything to remember the colors of the letters,” she says. “It’s as easy as remembering the color of an apple.” Duffy says the same goes for others. “A Cornell physics professor I interviewed had very vivid synesthesia,” she says. “His students would be amazed that weeks after they’d worked out a very complex problem in class, he could remember every step, because it was just there, coded.”
Illustration by Jamie Cullen
Haverkamp is so convinced of his syndrome’s benefits that he wrote a book published in 2009 called Synesthetic Design: Handbook for a Multi-Sensory Approach, which was recently translated from German into English and is intended to help synners and nonsynners alike. “Because I experience sounds and textures as detailed visual structures, I can really hone in and pinpoint nuanced differences,” he says. “If a switch feels sturdy and precise but makes the wrong sound, even if it’s just slightly wrong, it can ruin everything and negatively impact the customer’s impression of quality.” When the right visual-tactile-sound combination has been achieved, the structure he sees in his mind looks sturdy and symmetrical. Ford, he notes, runs consumer research studies to vet his proposals.
Those surveys may not be necessary. Another study, conducted by Ward, suggests synesthetic design inherently resonates with the general public: When 85 nonsynners listened to a piece of music and evaluated colorful computer animations depicting the song, a majority preferred those created by auditory-to-color synners over those by nonsynners. “Synesthesia is not a subjective, personal interpretation,” adds Dawn Goldworm, 35, one of two synners who co-founded the olfactory branding firm 12.29, which scents hotels, banks, and runways for fashion designers. “It’s the interpretation [of what a scent conjures] that everyone has. It’s just that I do it automatically.”
Still, Haverkamp admits automation can create obstacles. Some synners are slower to grasp the meaning of words, numbers, or items that appear in the “wrong” colors. “To me, sweet chocolate has to be red and dark chocolate has to be blue,” he explains. “But the colors of the [brand’s] packaging are reversed, so it always takes extra time.” It’s only seconds, so it doesn’t outweigh the benefits. “Where I’m sitting right now, there’s a beautiful bouquet of flowers, guitar music is playing—but I also see colors: green, white, and blue dots,” he says. “I have more material to work with.”