The Little Black (and Blue or White and Gold) Dress

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On February 26, 2015 a simple picture of a dress sparked a viral debate with millions of people arguing over whether the dress is black and blue or gold and white. Even in my own household both my daughters saw the dress as gold and white, while I saw only black and blue. The phenomenon of the dress goes to the heart of this site, it’s all about visual perception.

In a Buzz Feed news article, Cedar Riener, associate professor of psychology at Randolph-Macon College says “We are always making decisions about the quantity of light that comes into our retina. This light, called luminance, is always a combination of how much light is shining on an object and how much it reflects off of the object’s surface. In the case of the dress, some people are deciding that there is a fair amount of illumination on a blue and black (or less reflective) dress. Other people are deciding that it is less illumination on a white/gold dress (it is in shadow, but more reflective).”

In the same article, the dress phenomenon, according to neuroscientist Dale Purves of Duke University, “shows how strongly people are wedded to the idea that colors are properties of objects, when they are in fact made up by the brain.”

As presentation designers, this event showcases the importance of ensuring there is no ambiguity in our visuals if we want to guarantee clarity of our message. On the other hand, look at the “buzz” this photo has generated, including it’s own Wiki page. With a judiciously placed ambiguous image you could leave your audience with a lot to talk about. Artist Rob Gonsalves has some amazing optical illusion photos that would be perfect for this purpose.