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Dazzle ships: From Norman Wilkinson’s military ships to OMD, a brief history

What if the best way to protect a ship from enemy fire wasn’t to try and hide it, but instead draw attention with dazzling colours, distorted lines and glorious, clashing geometric shapes?

Confuse rather than conceal. That was the inspired thinking behind hundreds of bold Allied vessels that took to the seas during the First World War in full dazzle camouflage – and it’s the type of fearless thinking that inspired our name: Dazzle Ship. We believe in creativity that challenges perception. And we want to create dazzling design that will delight people.

We’re not the only ones inspired by the early 20th century ‘dazzle designers’. Radar might have obliterated the effectiveness of naval dazzle camouflage shortly after World War I, but a century later the dazzle effect lives on. Red Bull recently employed an extraordinary logo-laden dazzle-style paint job to protect its new aerodynamic Formula 1 tech; last year Nike sought to “flummox potential foes” with its 2014 SB Dazzle footwear collection; hell, even Fred Perry’s at it. So where did it all start? We take a trip back in time…

In 1917 – so one story goes – artist, illustrator and Royal Navy volunteer Norman Wilkinson was navigating the dangerous war-time waters around Britain when he had an epiphany. Attempts to conceal Allied ships from enemy sights had so far proven impossible. So if the vessels couldn’t be hidden, why not flip the thinking around and approach the problem from a different angle? Dazzle camouflage was born.

The art of confusion
As it happens, a similarly disruptive camouflage scheme for British warships had already been proposed by British zoologist John Graham Kerr (Kerr’s ideas also pre-dated a French camouflage department, set up in 1915, which used cubist techniques to confuse aerial observers above and enemies in the field).

In a letter to Winston Churchill in 1914, Kerr explains the concept: “It is essential to break up the regularity of outline and this can be easily effected by strongly contrasting shades … a giraffe or zebra or jaguar looks extraordinarily conspicuous in a museum but in nature, especially when moving, is wonderfully difficult to pick up. However, it was Wilkinson’s scheme that won the Admiralty over. Hundreds of different patterns were painted by the dazzle designers – many of whom were women from the Royal Academy of Arts – who utilised a variety of techniques to disrupt the visual rangefinders used by naval artillery. Fleets of dazzle ships were kitted out with bold, geometric shapes at the bow and stern to break the form of the vessel; curves were used to create a false bow wave, which made it tricky to estimate speed; and angled lines on the smokestacks were employed to suggest ships were leaning in another direction. Meanwhile, bold blocks of contrasting colour simply added to the confusion.

Every design was different, with each one tested on wooden models and viewed through a periscope to assess how they might work at sea. But while crews reported feeling safer on board dazzle vessels, the effectiveness of dazzle camouflage during WWI has never been scientifically proven. And by World War II, the advent of radar – plus increasingly advanced rangefinders and aircraft – quickly rendered the patterning obsolete on the oceans.

Dazzling new uses
Where its effectiveness has been proven, though, is on land. A study by the School of Experimental Psychology found dazzle can alter the perception of speed – as long as the target is moving fast enough. So while ships move too slowly, dazzle camouflage could have a role in protecting faster-moving vehicles like military Land Rovers. Off the battle field, dazzle’s also a pretty handy tool for confusing cameras – which is why vehicle-makers like Chevy and Range Rover have long since borrowed its eye-catching patterns to protect prototype models from being photographed. And the technique isn’t just relevant for strategic use: ‘razzle dazzle’ has infiltrated every major aspect of popular culture over the last 100 years. The relationship between art, culture and military camouflage is well documented – Picasso himself allegedly claimed dazzle was a cubist technique (although others suggest dazzle was inspired by vorticism).

Either way, ever since Wilkinson’s WWI dazzle ships first moored up in harbours around Britain, the bold patterns have inspired everything from fashion, to architecture, to music – including Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s radical fourth album, Dazzle Ships. The record was highly experimental, utilising shortwave radio recordings to explore Cold War themes, and featured the design skills of iconic graphic designer Peter Saville on the album cover.

Fast-forward to 2015 and another legendary British artist has been busy flexing his dazzle skills. Earlier this year Sir Peter Blake was brought on board to transform the working Mersey Ferry, Snowdrop, with a distinctive pattern that will bring the technique into the 21st century.

Peter Saville’s album artwork for OMD’s fourth album Dazzle Ships alludes to a painting by Vorticist artist Edward Wadsworth.

Two ships have been given a dazzle makeover already: the Edmund Gardner, a pilot ship in Liverpool, and HMS President in London, one of the last three surviving Royal Navy ships built during the war. Both are on display now and Sir Peter Blake’s design, ‘Everybody Razzle Dazzle’, will be on show from spring this year – so grab your sunglasses and go check them out.

Tobias Rehberger on HMS President in London – one of a series of commissions to mark the centenary of the first world war.

Photograph: Tom Sandberg/Cartel/REX



Creative Director at Dazzle Ship
A designer who's work has been featured in numerous magazines and books. Computer Arts magazine named him a ‘Leading creative’. Hyper Island invited him collaborate as an 'Industry Leader'.

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