Interacting with Color: Josef Albers comes to the iPad

Copyright Yale University.


A new iPad app version of Josef Albers’s Interaction of Color (1963) is a clever spin on the e-book form, augmenting the classic work with an interactive component. A considerable part of Albers’s legacy is his contribution to our understanding of the crucial role of color in art and design, perhaps most notably through this book. The book delves deep into the principles of color theory, with 250 unique studies illustrating Albers’s ideas. He included movable flaps in many of these, prompting interaction with the book. The pairing of written and visual explanations allows readers to explore color theory, with Albers as a guide.

The complete edition was re-released in 2009 by Yale University Press after being out of print for many years, but with a hefty price tag-it lists at $250. In order to give a larger audience access to Albers’s work, Yale produced the app in time for the book’s 50th anniversary. This beautifully designed digital version interweaves intuitive text with interactive media that nicely illustrate Albers’s theories. A basic version is free on the Apple app store, with a more comprehensive version available for $9.99. The former includes a feature that allows users to make their own color studies using Albers’s templates and a collection of 250 color swatches.

In the spirit of the interactive component of the book, the app makes it very easy to save newly created color studies and share them across social networks. The paid version is for those who want a more in-depth understanding of color theory, and it includes the full text, the complete set of Albers’s color studies and a large selection of video content. One standout moment is archival footage of the crusty Albers pontificating about his theories in the classroom, ultimately saying, “I have not taught painting because it cannot be taught. I have taught seeing.”

Albers would be the first to point out the problems with the e-book medium, like how the colors in his printed book are seen through the subtractive process (the pigments on the page absorbing light) while the iPad uses the additive (light from the screen combining with natural light). In the end, though, the app feels true to his vision. Its success comes from focusing on the strengths of the medium (community and interactivity) instead of simply trying to emulate the traditional book format.