Social Camouflage

Camouflage has been used extensively in modern military applications for over one hundred years. However, social camouflage has been used by artists and designers for even longer within clothing, body-worn accessories and more recently automotive and product design. Most practising designers learn this tacit heuristic through trial and error or passed on through master-student experience.

The explanation of underpinning theory links the principle to application.

The main Gestalt principle applied within the social camouflage heuristic is the ‘law of pragnanz’ or ‘law of simplicity’, that states people will perceive and interpret ambiguous or complex images as the simplest form(s) possible. (Lidwell 2010: 144-5) This Gestalt law or principle is associated with other laws such as continuation and closure, already highlighted earlier. In terms of camouflage, the ‘dazzle’ pattern used on early 20th Century warships is a good example of breaking up the outer profile of a ship when viewed on the horizon.

Camouflage is used in nature by many animals for hunting or survival. A scientific approach has been extensively used in modern military applications for nearly one hundred years. Baumach, (2012: 79-102) provides a good introduction to the military application of camouflage.

Key points from this summary are:

  • Distance at which the object is being viewed will affect the choice of camouflage options;
  • Blending of colours or patterns into the surround environment;
  • Disrupting the outline of an object against the background;
  • Baumach cites Burle Industries (1974) and Graham (1966) when defining resolution of lines at a set frequency in different lighting conditions through stereoscopic vision (0.5 minute of arc per line pair);
  • Using a Farnsworth-Munsell 100 hue test, Baumach cites Graham again to highlight that the human eye is least sensitive to hue differences in the blue and red regions of the colour spectrum;
  • The eye is least sensitive to chromatic change within the green region of the colour spectrum.

Baumach goes on to further discuss the processing and interpretation of what the eyes see through the brain and mind, citing the work of the psychologist Max Wertheimer. Wertheimer’s principles of Gestalt are a good practical guide to how the mind interprets the world from vision. (Ellis 1997) The principles of Gestalt highlighted as being useful in camouflage are: Proximity, Similarity, Continuity, Closure, and Common fate. (Baumach 2012: 87-78)

The principles applied rely mainly on the understanding of ‘Phase One’ or ‘bottom-up’ visual processing within perception. Ware (2012) and Crilly (2004) have produced models of this mechanism of processing, leading to object recognition and assignment of meaning. Object recognition and assignment of meaning primarily involves ‘Phase One’ or top-down’ processing. Whilst ‘Phase One’ processing takes 200-250msec to complete ‘Phase Two’ is parallel processed alongside ‘Phase One’, taking around 400msec to complete.

An example is the Kura Care cutlery range, which used a white outer to frame a high-contrast black centre. The centre section was made to match a conventional straight, parallel sided cutlery handle where possible. The non-colour preference was chosen based on experience from undertaking other cutlery assessments, where most participants would accept a non-colour for the handle but had different preferences if a colour choice was offered.

Kura Care cutlery range (Nottingham Rehab Healthcare limited)

Useful links

Baumbach, J., 2012. Colour and camouflage: design issues in military clothing. In Advances in Military Textiles and Personal Equipment (pp. 79-102).

Crilly, N., Moultrie, J., & Clarkson, P. J.,2004. Seeing things: consumer response to the visual domain in product design. Design studies, 25(6), 547-577.

Ellis, D.W., 1997. A source book of Gestalt psychology. (Ed) Ellis. W.D. reprint, The Gestalt Journal Press, Gouldsboro.

Lidwell, W., Lidwell, W., Holden, K., Butler, J., 2011. Universal principles of design: 125 ways to enhance usability, influence perception, increase appeal, make better design decisions, and teach through design, 2nd Ed, Rockport, Gloucester.

Marr, D., 1982. Vision: A computational investigation into the human representation and processing of visual information. MIT Press. Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Torrens, G., Storer, I., Asghar, S., Welsh, R., Hurn, K., 2019. Social camouflage: A survey of 143 students of their preference for assistive technology cutlery and the visual mechanisms being influenced. In: Contemporary Ergonomics and Human Factors 2019, (Conference), Eds. Rebecca Charles and David Golightly. CIEHF. Available at: (, Acccessed: [25/01/2021]

Torrens, G., Storer, I., Asghar, S., Welsh, R., Hurn, K., 2019. Social camouflage: A survey of 143 students of their preference for assistive technology cutlery and the visual mechanisms being influenced. Figshare. Fileset., Figshare. Available at: (, [Accessed 21 December 2018]

Ware, C., 2012. Information visualization: perception for design. Elsevier.
World Health Organization. (2018). Assistive Technology. Available at: (, [Accessed October 21, 2018]