Josef Albers as Persuasion Theorist and Experimentalist

Consider these four horizontal and one vertical bars of color.

Albers iv i Before

Notice each bar is only one color and each color is different from the other. Focus on the vertical bar, an ocher hue, the same hue from top to bottom. We are going to take the vertical bar, that continuous ocher hue, and make the top of the bar seem to be a different color compared to the bottom of the bar.

Move the vertical bar to the center of the frame.

Albers iv i Center Ocher

Now move the blue horizontal bar to the front of the frame, covering part of the ocher vertical bar.

Albers iv i Blue Front

And then move the yellow horizontal bar to the front of the image, covering another part of the ocher vertical bar.

Albers iv i After

Look at that vertical bar now cut apart with the intervening horizontal bars. It is exactly the same hue continuously from top to bottom, yet to your eyes the top now appears to be a different color than the bottom.

This demonstration comes to us courtesy of that little known persuasion theorist and experimentalist, Josef Albers, who made his real living as an artist and an art teacher. His little book, Interaction Of Color, may be the most interesting book I’ve read on color, persuasion, and instruction. While the example is clearly about color, it teaches much more.

In order to use color effectively it is necessary to recognize that color deceives continually.

See color as a metaphor for persuasion.

As “gentlemen prefer blondes,” so everyone has preferences for certain colors and prejudices against others. The applies to color combinations as well . . . as it is with people in our daily life, so it is with color.

See that as with all persuasion variables, the effect of color depends.

See the Persuasion Rule: All Persuasion Is Local. The effect of any potential persuasion variable depends upon all of the elements in the particular Local whether that Local is a stretched canvas within a frame or Other Guys walking through a shopping mall on a weekday.

Albers had a good grasp of basic psychology, particularly the experimentalism of German psychophysics with an emphasis upon Gestalt. He also – gasp – clearly understood the work of Gustav Fechner. I was most interested to see how well he appreciated the experimental method. Part of his teaching technique about color required students to engage in controlled experiments with color swaths on paper. Here’s a diagram to illustrate.

Albers Experimental Design

Albers taught students to use the t-test design on the right versus the ANOVA design on the left. Put one color in the small box then contrast the effect with two colors in the larger background box. Albers demonstrated that you needed this kind of simplicity to break down the interactions of color. Of course, Albers looked at more complex experiments with multiple variables – how else can you understand the interaction of color? Here’s one of my favorites. He makes 3 colors seem to be 2 colors.

Albers 3 is 2

The crossing diagonals are the same color, but the contrast between the two boxes makes that diagonal color seem different. The trick here is finding those two colors for the boxes which will force this interaction effect.

I highly recommend the Interaction of Color for anyone interested in color, persuasion, teaching, or experimentalism. Albers was clearly a very smart, thoughtful, and questioning guy who not only wanted to produce an effect, but understand why the effect occurred. He also worked seamlessly between the practical and the theoretical, finding no difference between the two when properly combined.

Albers Teaching

P.S. We’ve seen this color illusion before, but in gray!