Josef Albers in the iPad Era

Carolyn L. Kane

In a crisp white shirt, his right knee on the floor, famed former Bauhaus instructor and future head of Yale University’s department of design Josef Albers holds a half-smoked cigarette in one hand and a color swatch in the other. He is demonstrating to a class of students at Black Mountain College the precarious principles of color theory. The students gather behind him, engrossed in the lesson––at least this is what Joseph Breitenbach’s 1944 photograph of the Summer Institute suggests. Perhaps it is accurate. A second one from 1948 shows Albers with arms raised, mimicking a color relationship as one faithful student in the front row follows in kind.

People don’t write, read, or engage in face-to-face activities like these as much as they used to (or so we are told). Students gawk at social media, apps, and personalities that may or may not relay the beauty and power of color. The 2014 social media frenzy surrounding the so-called white and gold or blue and black dress is a case in point, instantiating Albers’s principle of “simultaneous contrast,” whereby the same hue may appear different due to the influence of neighboring colors.

Color plates illustrating the perceptual effect known as  “Simultaneous Contrast.” Each small square in each row is identical, yet each one looks different due to the influence of the neighboring colors.


A picture of the two-tone dress that went viral on social media in 2014, after prompting a debate over whether it was white and gold or blue and black. The “original” image is in the middle. At left, the lighting is white-balanced to make the dress appear white-gold and at right, the image is white-balanced to make it appear blue-black. (Result: everyone is correct!)

Yale University Press has responded to the new conditions of media culture by releasing both a 50th-anniversary softcover reissue of Albers’s 1963 classic Interaction of Color and a version of the same text as an app for the Apple iPad, adding to a two-volume, clothbound hardcover from 2009 of some of Albers’s original prints and color exercises.

University presses have lately gravitated toward e-book publications. Yet the format’s success has been limited, and adoption in the classroom scarce. This may change with the release of more sophisticated products, like the Albers e-book. My research assistant reports successful use of e-books in her first-year design course, and it is undeniable that they offer an innovative way of learning about color that’s simply not possible with a traditional paper codex. But newer is not always better.

Reviews of the Interaction of Color e-book on the Yale University Press website, not surprisingly, trumpet its success, declaring it “visually stunning” and the “colors in this iPad app” to be “absolutely gorgeous!” For Kathleen Raymond, “the experience of viewing this is profound.” But one quickly begins to wonder if “this” refers to the iPad technology more generally, rather than to this e-book specifically, and if these “reviews” have anything to do with Albers’s conceptual content. And yet, e-book in hand, I found myself having a similar set of gee-whiz responses.

Aesthetically speaking, the e-book interface is elegantly designed, integrating audio-video options and interactive color lessons with original text, 60 color plates, a color palette tool capable of simulating Color Aid swatches, and the capacity to create, save, and export self-made color designs through email, Facebook, or Twitter. Once I achieved basic navigational comfort, the colors indeed took on a sparkle of new life. Ease of movement in changing and rearranging color combinations became a powerful tool for learning about color.

The spirit of the app seems in line with Albers’s insistence that learning about color must occur through physical, empirical observation and practice. The capacity to save the color swatches and combinations, to return to them later or to email them to a professor or group member, is also a convenient feature for students. The clean, crisp graphics and organized layout enhanced the deliciousness of the book, propelling it into a realm beyond anything a black-and-white book can replicate, at least on the level of eye candy.

University presses have lately gravitated toward e-book publications. Yet the format’s success has been limited, and adoption in the classroom scarce.

The e-book also includes numerous short video commentaries: brief conversations between Brenda Danilowitz, curator of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, and Frederick A. Horowitz, an author and former student of Albers; artist commentaries on color; and archival footage of Albers explaining color principles and aspects of color perception. Some videos are better than others. My top pick is Albers’s lesson on negative afterimages, an excerpt from the film To Open Eyes, found in module VII, “Why Color Deception?” As Albers instructs us to stare at a red circle, we might note the degraded film footage, a potential distraction, but the lesson works excellently. After he removes the red circle from the image, a brilliant turquoise one appears in its place. The afterimage is produced through the phenomenon of subjective perception, a result of having one’s retina “overdosed” with red stimuli for a prolonged period of time. The apparent magic is merely one illustration of the way color has perpetually confused scientists and artists by existing as both a material and an immaterial phenomenon.

The pivotal question I kept returning to was, could this e-book be used in the classroom, and if so, in what type of classroom and for what type of student? I have benefited from teaching color courses to different types of students (MFA students at Hunter College, and talented undergraduates at Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design). These largely analytic classes included assignments that relied on Albers’s softcover Interaction of Color. If the e-book version were implemented, it would be in the context of student assignments and activities. Given the capacity to set up color swatches as solutions to color problems, and rearrange them at will, the e-book appears to be a handy learning tool.

But how many of these students own an iPad? The question is key because, due to the proprietary nature of the device, the e-book cannot be viewed on any other platform. The majority of my students bring their own laptops to class. At Ryerson University, where I currently teach, we encourage them to do so, a near necessity in our hybrid theory-and-production courses. Since the first iPad’s release, however, only one student has brought one of the devices to class. Strangely enough, this occurred last week during an in-class color exercise. The student working with the iPad struggled with her partner to get their assignment completed and uploaded by the end of class. Out of 50 students, they finished last. They vowed to lug their heavy laptops with them the following week.

Yale University Press might consider amending their claim as follows: if students own an iPad, and if they choose to use it in the classroom (instead of using a laptop, which is clearly more convenient for a wider range of tasks, including note taking), and if they choose to purchase the Albers e-book for their iPad, then, and only then, can students “work out problems directly on their iPad and lay out the results on a table for everyone to see.” Using the Albers e-book in a color course is thus a nice idea in theory, but is significantly more challenging in practice.

Yet another set of problems emerges with color itself. In color studies there is a general distinction between two basic systems: light-based color systems and pigment-based color systems.

Differences between RGB and CMYK color systems

The former is known as a red, green, blue (RGB) system, where all colors mixed together produce white, as with a computer screen, projector, LED display, household lighting, or rainbow. The second system is rooted in cyan, magenta, yellow, and black (CMYK), as found, for instance, in the Pantone color index, and as used primarily in printing textiles, inks, pigments, dyes, and other reflective surfaces. This distinction becomes a problem if one is using the e-book with students in such disciplines as fine art, interior design, or fashion, where part and parcel of their education involves translating particular color choices into either pigment- or light-based systems, depending on the final product. For example, in online computing environments, there is a set color gamut of “web-safe colors” that can be used because they will be recognized and dictated with relative accuracy and precision on different computer processing systems.

But in these 216 web-safe colors we find only a fraction of the thousands of colors and nuanced color relationships perceivable by the human eye. Such problems have yet to be accounted for by the e-book, or by art and design fields in general. As Albers puts it, “in visual perception a color is almost never seen as it really is––as it physically is. This fact makes color the most relative medium in art.” Colors change appearance on every screen, platform, or mode of visual presentation, a key concern largely neglected in the “all-in-one” miracle app. The Albers e-book steps into a future color pedagogy so thick in e-tech that the body’s phenomenal relation to the earth, air, and contextual atmospheres recedes beyond recognition, catapulting us back into a myth of objective perception.

A final issue arises in reading the e-text. The experience is like poring over a fragmented scroll, with no clear beginning or end, parceled into eight or nine uncomfortable lines at a time. Granted, digital media has a capacity for structuring media experiences in ways suitable to multitasking, channel-switching, and nonstop data feeds. But when it comes to good old-fashioned reading, the new technology feels like a regression.

Using the Albers e-book in a color course is a nice idea in theory, but is significantly more challenging in practice.

Reading, in the linear, historical practice and meaning of the word, requires the use of “deep” analytic faculties, concentration, and focus. As a significant amount of recent research has shown, complex ideas and nuanced concepts depend on intensive strategies of absorption, all of which tend to be foreclosed by a hyperactive, hyper-distracting interface and media environment. This is not a judgment about electronic literature or analogous forms of scholarship, but rather an observation about how the material structure of a platform or medium lends itself to particular ways of thinking, acting, and being. Having half a page of text cut off by interactive elements, animated colors, or buttons does not help one to sustain focus. Moreover, to “turn” a page, one’s body needs to be positioned in a specific posture, and one must use finger and hand gestures in a particular way dictated by the interface design (even movement becomes proprietary). There is also the ever-present temptation to watch a movie clip or mess around with the color slabs instead of taking the time to concentrate on reading through the black-and-white text. At the end of the day, e-reading becomes more laborious than sitting back with a stack of paper.

At the same time, I would be remiss not to acknowledge the realities of contemporary culture. The structure of the iPad interface is who we are and how we think. Creative production emerges largely through our conditions of possibility. Still, creativity does not need to be restricted to these new conditions. It is contingent on the degree to which we fail to retain or value other and older models of reading and learning, from books to face-to-face exchanges to in-class physical activities.

New models of neuroplasticity demonstrate that the brain’s synaptic connections are constantly co-evolving with our tools, technologies, and media environments. After one acquires a basic level of familiarity with the e-book interface, the “product” became somewhat mundane. Only then did I consider actually reading the text.

Discovering the discomfort of reading on an iPad, I began to crave the use of sharpened pencils, fluorescent Post-it notes, and the humble sense of progress gained from flipping a page. I even missed the sense of mastery in knowing exactly where, how, and when I could return to a page to retrieve a juicy bit of text or image. But then again, in a future where multitasking and multiple channels of digital data have opened up entirely new fields of thinking and learning, who’s to say that new neural pathways won’t enable students to master and control digital environments to the same extent, making my old-fashioned brain obsolete. Until then, we are stuck with the contradictions of mixed-media and experiential color magic, forced to live with the tensions betwixt and between.