When most people think of camouflage they think of blending in with the environment, but camouflage can also take the opposite approach.
It has long been hypothesized that stripes on zebras make it difficult for a predator to distinguish one zebra from another when the zebras are in a large herd. The stripes also might make zebras less attractive to blood sucking horseflies. This is called disruptive camouflage.
When it comes to humans, the greatest, most jaw-droppingly spectacular application of disruptive camouflage was called Dazzle.
Dazzle painting emerged in the 1910s as design solution to a very dire problem: American and British ships were being sunk left and right by German U-Boats. England needed to import supplies to fight the Central Powers, and these ships were sitting ducks in the Atlantic Ocean. They needed a way to fend of the torpedoes.
Conventional high-similarity camouflage just doesn’t work in the open sea. Conditions like the color of the sky, cloud cover, and wave height change all the time, not to mention the fact that there’s no way to hid all the smoke left by the ships’ smoke stacks.
The strategy of this high-difference, dazzle camouflage was not about invisibility. It was about disruption. Confusion.
Torpedoes in the Great War could only be fired line-of-sight, so instead of firing at where they saw the ship was at that moment, torpedo gunners would have to chart out where the ship would be by the time the torpedo got there. They had to determine the target ship’s speed and direction with just a brief look through the periscope.
The torpedo gunner’s margin of error for hitting a ship was quite low. Dazzle painting could throw off an experienced submariner by as much as 55 degrees.
Our expert this week is Roy Behrens, a professor graphic design at the University of Northern Iowa. He’s published several books about camouflage, and also runs the Camoupedia blog.