Synful Design

synesthetic designMichael Haverkamp uses his unusual neurological condition to help Ford Motor design a more pleasing driving experience, reports Caroline Winter in Bloomberg Businessweek (1/13/14). Michael has synesthesia, "a nonharmful condition with several manifestations in which varying combinations of touch, taste, smell, hearing and sight are linked." So, if 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," he says. "But if it’s too smooth, the structure glows and looks papery, flimsy."

This helps Ford fine-tune "the look, feel and sound of vehicle fabrics, knobs, pedals, and more." "We’ve always had an emphasis on sounds, like the door-closing sound, a glove-box closing sound," says Peter Bejin, a design manager at Ford. "On a micro level, Mike is helping us get a whole new perspective on optimization." Synesthesia affects roughly one in 23 people (affectionately known as ‘synners’) who "might smell gasoline and involuntarily see purple," or "read the name ‘Marilyn Monroe’ and inexplicably taste whipped cream. Many synners automatically visualize numbers or days of the week in 3D formations."

According to Mike, "six is orange and seven is yellow." He also says that dark chocolate is blue and milk chocolate is red – and that he is confused when product packaging reverses the colors. He’s written a book about the benefits of his condition, Synesthetic Design. "Because I experience sounds and textures as nuanced 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."

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