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Josef Albers (image via Wikimedia)

The 20th-century artist and academic Josef Albers made many significant contributions to the field of geometric abstraction, though the most enduring element of his pedagogical legacy is his 1963 textbook Interaction of Color. The landmark work of color theory continues to influence new generations of students in architecture, design, and art. This year, when we learned that Yale University Press (YUP) was releasing an iPad version to commemorate the tome’s 50th anniversary, we were eager to see how the book’s time-tested content would make the jump to a new medium.

We were provided with a review copy of the app, which retails for $9.99 in the App Store (a pared-down free version is also available) and was developed for YUP, the original book’s publisher, by the “interaction design” firm Potion. In short order it became clear that Albers’s work was fundamentally at home in the medium. It functions like this: on the app’s home page, select between two categories, “Text” and “Plates & Commentary.” Things proceed logically from there, with the “Text” category consisting of 27 chapters accompanied by didactic videos, some of Albers himself, and various other multimedia. “Plates & Commentary” replicates the original book’s illustrations under a “Study” subcategory while allowing for a surprisingly well-designed “Create” option, which transforms the works into blank templates.

The centerpiece of the app’s design triumph is surely the color wheel used for the “Create” function, which other software designers in the arts would do well to replicate. Those familiar with Interaction of Color may also appreciate the enhanced textbook element of the app, but new students of Albers probably have the most to gain from the new package, which is both cheaper and more enriching than the original text. The free version strips out the textbook content and focuses instead on the most widely appealing component of the app, the create-an-Albers function, and allows one to export designs to social media.

Our quibbles with the app were minor and logistical: it would be helpful to define color more rigorously for those intending to use the app as a design tool (e.g. provide color codes), and it can be a bit sluggish on the old, first-generation iPad, though that’s probably not a fair critique anymore.

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Interaction of Color is available in the App Store for $9.99, with a free limited version.

Mostafa Heddaya

Mostafa Heddaya is the former managing editor of Hyperallergic.

7 replies on “Color, Coded: A New App for Josef Albers”

  1. A noble, but entirely flawed effort….unfortunately. The reality is that the “color space” of a iPad, or any (existent) digital screen, is not at all equivalent to the “color space” of physical paint explored at depth by Albers. Philip Ball’s “Bright Earth” discusses this phenomenon at length. The artist Rafael Rosendaal also addressed this question rather thoughtfully in a recent blog post. It is not physically possible for the app to *actually* “replicate” the original print plates. It’s just not….

    1. to wit: Albers “time tested” work is “fundamentally” NOT “at home” in this medium. The app is an approximation at best, suggesting otherwise is a disservice to the depth of Albers’ work (any lack of disclaimer to that effect is a major oversight by the Yale Press). As far as the assertion that the app is inherently “more enriching than the original text”….HARDLY.

  2. Just two comments: when the plates are exported (to email, Twitter Facebook, etc.), the app creates two files as attachments, in .png and .svg formats. Both of these contain the exact RGB values used in the study. You can also create and export palettes of swatches that contain the same numerical values so that color combinations can be replicated in software programs.

    The original plates were solutions completed by Albers’s students, of which there were thousands over the years. The brilliance of Albers’s philosophy, and of Interaction of Color, is that the exercises and the principles can be accomplished and seen with any materials at all: cut paper, pigment, found materials, or RGB pixels on a touch screen. It doesn’t matter that the red is a *particular* red, it matters how that red behaves next to its neighboring colors, whatever or wherever they are, and whether–and how successfully–one can get the colors to perform according to the principles Albers defines. The principles are more important than the studies.

      1. ….often overlooked is the fact that Albers (as recounted to me by his students, my teachers) in fact made careful study of the subtle differences in actual hue of different manufacturers/lots of a particular “color”. This detail is not irrelevant. Whether the “principles” can be demonstrated via any means of color isn’t actually relevant to my point here.

        1. That’s absolutely true. Albers was extremely particular about this for his own paintings. But the aim of his students’ studies (and the aim of Interaction of Color) was to “train eyes to see,” and to recognize that color constantly deceives. As he wrote in the introduction, “Each exercise is explained and illustrated–not to give a specific answer, but to suggest a way of study.” For Albers, this could be accomplished in any medium: he used dried leaves, magazine scraps, glass, printers’ remnants, wallpaper, anything, really, to help his students understand how to see. I think he’d be okay with pixels, too. Not, certainly for his own Homages, for for use in the classroom.

          1. ….maybe, maybe not. We’ll never really know. Personally, i tend to think he would have embraced the pixel, but with full recognition of its limits.

            In any event, I never suggested the app wasn’t a potentially useful tool.

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