Published on July 30th, 2007

Max's Chips and Dips: Seeing Black-and-White Schematics in Color

Not-so-long-ago, I heard from an electrical engineer who says that he does indeed perceive AND, OR, NAND, NOR etc. logic gates in different colors when looking at black-and-white gate-level schematic diagrams.
Way back in the mists of time, I penned a "Chips and Dips" column on the topic of synaesthesia (also spelled synesthesia). This little scamp is derived from the Greek syn, meaning "together" or "union", and aesthesis or aisthesis, meaning "sensation" or "to perceive".

In a nutshell, synaesthesia embraces a variety of different conditions in which the stimulation of one sets of sensory inputs (say sound) is simultaneously perceived by one or more of the other senses (sight or touch, for example).

One very common type of synaesthesia is when folks associate numbers and letters of the alphabet with different colors. This is hard to describe, but if most of us were to look at black text on a piece of white paper, we would – not surprisingly – see . . . well, black text on a white background.

By comparison, some synaesthetes will perceive each letter as having a different color, while others will associate colors with entire words. In some cases, a synaesthete might simply associate the "feeling" or "perception" of colors with letters, but some synaesthetes report that they really see these colors.

So how many of us are synaesthetes? Well, it used to be thought that this was a rare condition, but some recent estimates put synaesthetes as being roughly one in 25,000, while others say one in 2,000, and still others say as many as one in 100 may by synaesthetic.

Does this latter value seem high to you? Well, consider that if people are asked to associate different colors with different notes on a piano, the vast majority of us will associate darker colors with lower notes and lighter colors with higher notes. Why should this be (considering that colors and tones have nothing intrinsically to do with each other) unless we are all synaesthetic to at least some small degree?

But we digress. I've been a digital design engineer for more years than I care to remember. When I was starting out, we designed all of our circuits as gate-level schematics with pencil and paper. Thus, as soon as I became aware of the concept of synaesthesia, I started to wonder if there were any synaesthetic logic designers out there and – if so – if they were to look at a black-and-white gate-level schematic, would they perceive the different AND, NAND, OR, and NOR gates as having different colors?

To cut a long story short, I started to ask around in my various articles and blogs. Not-so-long-ago, I heard back from an electrical engineer called Jordan A. Mills, who says that he does indeed perceive different colors when looking at gate-level schematic diagrams. In a phone conversation he tried to describe how things appeared to him, but this sort of thing is tricky to explain. And then we discovered that we both knew how to use Microsoft Visio. So I emailed Jordan the example schematic shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1
Figure 1. My original black-and-white gate-level schematic.

Jordan was kind enough to take this image and augment it with colors to reflect the way it actually appears to him. The result is as shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2. The way Jordan actually sees this schematic.

Wow. How Cool! It's interesting to note that &ndsah; in Jordan's case – the shapes of graphic elements seem to be irrelevant to his synaesthetic perception. A small example is the triangular clock input to the flipflop, which is "yellow and sharp" (Jordan's words). By comparison, the triangular inverter bodies are "red and sharp" while the bobbles on the inverters are "yellow and smooth".

There's so much more to this. For example, Jordan also perceives flowcharts as being in color, but the colors are somewhat different to the ones he sees in schematics. If you are interested in learning more about all of this, bounce over to my DIY Calculator website (, go to the "More Cool Stuff" page, and then take a peek at my ever-evolving paper on "Color Vision".

Actually, while I think about it, if you like this sort of mix of science and technology and trivia, you may well be interested in my book How Computers Do Math featuring the Virtual DIY Calculator (see the links in my bio below). Until next time, have a good one!
Clive (Max) Maxfield is author of Bebop to the Boolean Boogie (An Unconventional Guide to Electronics) and The Design Warrior's Guide to FPGAs (Devices, Tools, and Flows), Max is also the co-author of How Computers Do Math, featuring the pedagogical and phantasmagorical virtual DIY Calculator (

In addition to being a hero, trendsetter, and leader of fashion, Max is widely regarded as being an expert in all aspects of computing and electronics (at least by his mother). Max was once referred to as "an industry notable" and a "semiconductor design expert" by someone famous who wasn't prompted, coerced, or remunerated in any way.

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