Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
Has your office lost its collective mind about The Dress? Whip out this app and let color science stop the madness.
Color is relative, as the whole world knows after a picture of a striped dress crushed the Internet last night. Friends and family members divided sharply on the question. Politicians and celebrities agreed to disagree. Taylor Swift cried out to her 53 million followers: How could this dress not be blue and black?
When it comes to a color conundrum like #TheDress, one book has helped artists shake it off for decades. First published in 1963, Josef Albers's Interaction of Color is an essential guide to all the reasons that colors are never what they seem. The slim handbook is so essential that Yale University Press turned it into an award-winning app in 2013.
The blue-and-black dress—call it white-and-gold, if you must insist—was an accidental Tumblr illustration of an optical illusion first identified in the 19th century. Here's how Albers explains it:
There is a special kind of optical mixture, the Bezold Effect, named after its discoverer, Wilhelm von Bezold (1837–1907). He recognized this effect when searching for a method through which he could change the color combinations of his rug designs entirely by adding or changing 1 color only. Apparently, there is so far no clear recognition of the optical-perceptual conditions involved.
The Albers book works by outlining key color-theory concerns, then illustrating how they work through color plates. These plates resemble Albers's iconic Homage to the Square paintings, a series he explored for more than 30 years. The book is slim, moving from one revelation to the next.
Interaction of Color is a useful book for learning technical concepts like color intensity, vibrating boundaries, and the Weber-Fechner Law. Or for figuring out what color that damned dress is. But the book (and the app) are crucial for developing a more skeptical approach to the way we see the illuminated screens that we increasingly depend on in our daily lives.