Creative Workarounds for Aphantasics

How do I create if I cannot create things in my imagination? Artist shares creative workarounds for aphantasics.
creative workarounds for aphantasics
Photo by David Aler on Unsplash

Table of Contents

Discovering Aphantasia

If my partner went missing, I could give a vague description to the search party, but it would be based on things I have observed about him and stored in my memory as words: I cannot see him in my mind’s eye. I have always known I can’t visualise faces – even those of my family members -but I hadn’t realised how much I think in words rather than pictures or sounds.

It was only this summer I discovered aphantasia as a concept, and suddenly everything made sense:

  • My poor spelling and inability to recall numbers when they are read aloud to me – I can’t recreate an image of the word or number to hold it in my mind;
  • My failure to learn a language, copy an accent or sing a note – I cannot replay what I’ve heard in my head;
  • My inability to draw anything unless it’s in front of me – I cannot recreate the image in my mind’s eye.

This made me think about my own creative process and the many workarounds I use to help me in my creative life. How do I create if I cannot create things in my imagination?

The following are some examples from my experience of creative workarounds for aphantasics.

Creative Workarounds For Aphantasics

Start With a Catalyst From The Real World

I lack a visual imagination and struggle to create from a blank sheet. My artwork and writing usually start with a question sparked by something I’ve seen or experienced. I bounce off things around me. 

For example:

  • A glance at the contents of a discarded shopping list caused me to wonder about the person who wrote it. This led to a flash fiction story and then an artist’s book based on found shopping lists.
  • Driving home one afternoon, I spotted a couple kissing. So far, so ordinary, but they were on a bridge spanning a busy, diesel-fumed road, and she was holding a helium balloon! Why on earth did they choose to stop and kiss there? This led to a chain of thought, ultimately resulting in a new novel (due out this summer!)
  • A parcel I received was packaged with springy, cross-cut paper. It was quite beautiful in itself and made me ponder how I might use it. I experimented with dipping it in liquid porcelain clay and then draping it over pots to be fired. From there, I moved on to use other packaging materials and lace.
2016 art verdigree bowl on stand sdc 2 scaled 600x450 1
Verdigris lace bowl

In each of these instances, a catalyst sparked the thought that led to the creative work. This is a great way to come up with ideas.

But how can we develop a store of sources to spark our inspiration?

Build a Store of Sources of Inspiration

From an early age, I’ve collected things that ‘call to me.’ Sometimes I know that an item has the potential to inspire something creative, even if no ideas come to me at the time. So I’ve always kept anything I discover that intrigues me or sparks a question or an emotion. These might be two-dimensional – articles, photos, images – or objects. For example:

  • As a mature student, I went to art college. Everyone else’s sketchbooks were filled with – you’ve guessed it – sketches. Mine was full of quotes, lyrics and text, glued in pictures, bits of fabric, blobs of colour and lots of words. I am now a fiction writer, and my notebook is similar, a repository for inspiration.
  • Mathom is the hobbit term for trinkets, anything that has no use but they want to keep. I came across the word as a youngster when reading The Hobbit. The term was invented by Tolkien and derived from an old English word meaning treasure or precious thing. My desk has always had a ‘Mathom drawer’ – a place where I stash interesting objects.

A shelf in my art studio holds, amongst other items, the following found objects:

  • A child’s toy farmyard pig sitting on a doll’s house rocking chair
  • A mummified newt alongside a plastic version
  • An old wall can opener and a glass Bovril jar were found in an abandoned pond.

I go to my treasure troves when I’m stuck and lacking ideas. I pair things that don’t belong together to see if it sparks a new thought. I jot down thoughts in words and make mind maps to see where they take me.

So, to the next step: how to turn these ideas into a reality?

Experiment and Iterate

Because I need to see things in the real world rather than in my imagination, I work best when I can work in stages. I cannot draw my ideas or what I want to create nor visualise the end product in any detail, so I work one step at a time. This approach lets me see what works; ‘this looks right, that doesn’t.’ I make scale mock-ups, collage images, and create mood boards, so I can literally see. These strategies help whether I’m designing a room, making ceramic or writing a story. By seeing something take shape before my eyes, I can inch closer to turning my idea into a reality.

To take an example from my writing: I do not visualise my characters, and – to be honest – unless it’s important to the plot, it doesn’t matter to me what they look like, what their home is like, how they dress. When reading novels, I skim over descriptions as I can’t visualise the place or people, and it’s just unnecessary clutter in my head to try to remember. However, most readers do care! I have to find a way of bringing my characters to life for others. I start with a vague idea of the protagonist: their approximate age, colouring, and build. I may identify an actor who they resemble, but otherwise, I start an online image search, looking through the options until I spot him or her – ‘That’s them!’ A copy of the photo is then stuck into my notebook, and now I have something to describe.

When iterating in this way, there will be mistakes and dead ends along the way, which leads to my next point…

Embrace Happy Accidents

The Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi embraces ‘the imperfect, impermanent or incomplete.’ It is a philosophy that appreciates the beauty of aged and used objects, asymmetry and the natural. Kintsugi is a related concept where imperfection, the broken and the blemished, are marks of life. They are part of the object’s history and are to be celebrated. Broken ceramics are traditionally mended with gold inlay to draw attention to the beauty of the flaw.

At art college, a tutor said that cracks and breaks in ceramics during the firing process are ‘gifts from the kiln gods.’ I take it as a creative challenge when things go wrong in my artwork or writing. How can I spark off from this in a new way? Can I take things in a different direction?

I keep parts of my discarded ceramics and find ways to incorporate them into other projects. Odd jottings of ideas become part of another book or poem. In true Hobbit style, nothing is wasted.

Enjoy the Creative Journey

I feel my creative work has benefited from developing and using these creative workarounds. Had I started with a clear image of what I wanted to achieve, the journey may have been more akin to following a map of the direct route to the goal. As it is, the goal changes, and the route becomes scenic with many discoveries, detours and potential adventures that lead to other creative options. I have aphantasia to thank for that.

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Hi Kes and Arthur

Thanks for commenting on my article.

I find the individual differences fascinating. I trained in NeuroLinguistic Programming (NLP) and most of the techniques assume a ‘mind’s eye’ so it’s really interesting to discover more about the extent to which we all vary in our ability to picture/hear/feel/taste something that is not actually there. 

The point Arthur makes about ‘insensitivity’ is also an interesting one. Sometimes a description can force me to think about something (in words) that I’d rather not, but I don’t/can’t picture it so I guess my reaction would always be more muted than someone who experiences it in the round. 

Thanks for your thoughts. Best wishes, Julia


Its very interesting, I am a very creative person, enjoy reading a lot and I’ve always been good with spelling and alright with maths (although in school I did carry a notebook to maths lessons to make messy jotting every time i got somewhere with a sum or equation i was trying to work out in my head). Despite this, I have total Aphantasia. It does explain things like, I take ages to remember a name, of people or characters, and have always found writing descriptions very difficult without an image to draw from. My solution to this was to draw the image. A place i’d never seen before, a floating city even, but when i do i’m constantly making readjustments and removing bits, the same with character design (which i’d say i do the most of). I find this so interesting because a lot of people writing these articles say they have difficulties with things I do every day, even though they have the exact same condition. (For the record, I’m hopeless with direction)

Hello Julia, thanks for this very interresting article. Juste a few things. When I discovered a few years ago that I was aphantasic, I thought I could explain why, I had no sense of direction, little autobiographical memory, difficulties reading novels… Over time, I realized that not everything was that simple. Some aphantasiquest a very good sense of direction and others greatly appreciate novels. This is why I participate in many research to know what is really due to aphantasia.  For example, for my part, I have a very good spelling, I am very physionomist even if I see nothing in my head. What the various studies seem to certify is for example the poverty of autobiographical memory and insensitivity to the reading of horrific novels. I read Lovecraft or Stephan King before falling asleep without any difficulty.

Sorry if I made some mistakes, I am French. Thanks again for your article.