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What I see when you ask me to envision an apple.
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A Career With Aphantasia.

Since going to see a life coach in 2013, the years that followed have been ones of intense self-learning, discovery, and recovery. Essentially, I started applying the problem-solving skills I had developed as a student of the design industry to myself, which was… extremely difficult. But being on this road made a video I found in 2018—and what I eventually pieced together from it—all the more earth-shattering.

I have aphantasia. As I watched this video, my processes, my mannerisms, the way I'd handle myself in disagreements—the why of all of it suddenly started to make sense. I always thought the whole "picture yourself on a desert island" was a metaphor, not something somebody could actually do.

What followed all this however, was an immense melancholy. I guess ignorance can be bliss, because knowing that other people (including my wife and close family) could actually see an apple when asked to picture one, was the epitome of "missing out." The spotlight began to move, and it started to call out the career I had retired from two years prior.

The "Re-Designer."

My name is Bryan Veloso, and I am a re-designer. I do not create, I improve. I do not envision what is new, I envision how something that already exists can be better.

This was the opening to a post I wrote in 2010.

Being a re-designer—this was a strong part of my personal brand, and what people came to know me for.

I thought back to my 12 years working professionally in the industry: every position I've held, every website I've made, everything I've ever said about myself as a web designer. Again melancholy. I had a career that I was proud of, but how was I able to do it? That was my self-deprecation talking. To doubt the quality of the work I've done over the years would be an attack my own validity and the experiences I had that proved the contrary. So I changed the question from "how was I able to do all this?" to "how did my aphantasia direct the way I chose to design?" A much better question.

I've always described myself as a visual learner. Aphantasia now gives that statement context.

Because my mind's eye is blind, I rely heavily on my biological vision to be an active and constant source of information. Individuals with aphantasia can describe in known terms what they "see" in lieu of being able to "conjure" it in their minds. Yes, it's magic to me. So, my memory of any given design is only as good as how I can describe it. Sketching from that memory proved important to me over the years.

My specializations in design came—for better or worse—from a library of techniques and inspirational imagery. Techniques in the sense of how to discern said imagery. A good comparison would be knowing how to ask the right question on Stack Overflow to maximize the possibility of getting a relevant answer. Imagery would depend on the project. In modern times, one could easily say Dribbble. But early in my career, when the rift of skill was a lot narrower, sites like the CSS Zen Garden gave me the opportunity to see a specific piece of design done in may ways. That was the kind of assistance and inspiration I felt I needed back then, and it contributed to the way I would design going forward in lieu of being able to visualize anything from scratch.

The business card that looked like the website.

Now the story of this card has been documented, albeit not accurately if you watched the movie adaptation. My direction on Facebook's business cards was entirely based on the late-2005 redesign of the site, which was only a few months old at the time. Even the site's footer which was adorned with "I don't even know what a quail looks like" provided a perfect opportunity to have each employee personalize their own card.

In this case, my aphantasia seemed to benefit me. It felt like a no-brainer that the cards should look like the site at the time. That's my current assumption though, given the fact that it has been almost 15 years since I designed them. While I unfortunately don't have the strength of memory to recall exactly what I was thinking at the time, I feel like my condition served to restrict the number of possible designs that could come to mind.

Let's look at the past, for example. Three designs that come to mind from my freelancing years were Flock, Mashable and The Addictionary. All three were redesigns. My brain can take almost any site and make enough improvements to it to classify it as a redesign, but throw me an abstract idea—even if that idea is my own—and my brain feels as useless as an executioner without an axe. This is quite true, I failed at designing something for a client. My "patented" "first-shot-design-success" fell flat—and I felt hopeless.

This "restriction" became something of a trend with me as I grew throughout my career. It felt a bit weird to be the only designer who would come forward almost every time with exactly one design. Now I wouldn't chalk this up entirely to my aphantasia. But many times, if the one design was rejected or needed to be iterated upon, I would require external help of some kind to move forward—whether that'd be critiques from a peer or looking around the web for related inspiration. I'd essentially set myself up to be kicked off the proverbial cliff because I was unable to think of anything else on my own.

I've since found many in my field that have also been able to use aphantasia as a way to provide some context to the why of their lives. Beyond that, it's been equally surprising and inspiring to see those I respect share my journey, no matter what the field. And while my struggles with living with it have ranged from aggressive self-deprecation to melancholic acceptance, just knowing that I can assign a term to all this is the context I never knew I needed. Knowledge is better than ignorance.

But for now, I'll keep watching those who continue to innovate and I'll keep re-designing—if not for any other reason than knowing that it's what I do best.

Right you are, past Bryan.

Bryan Veloso
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Avalonstar is the 19-year-old personal website of Bryan Veloso: content creator, retired professional user interface designer, and compass of purpose.
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