The Printing Press and The Blue and Black Dress: A Lesson in Innovation

In the 15th century, an innovation was bestowed upon Western society: the printing press. This is a device that enables the mass production of written material. Prior to this, people communicated primarily through oral means and books were written by hand: making them rare, expensive and inaccessible for a large portion of society. This revolutionised the way information was transferred, giving birth to mass communications.

The increased consumption of news and democratisation of knowledge meant that on local levels individuals were exposed to a broader range of debate, contradictions to ‘universal truths’ of the time and new ideas. On a wider scale, the advent of the printing press had a profound impact on the Reformation, the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution: all characterised by a societal shift and mass change in public thought that was met with great resistance. 

Now you’re probably thinking, so what’s the relevance and how is a dress going to come into this? Well, the printing press not only exposed people to masses of information, but also masses of differing opinions. It is a truth universally accepted that humans have a range of differing opinions and perspectives; from your favourite Harry Potter character to your political ideologies (are these two things linked? A question for another day…), no two people see the world in the exact same way. 

This was brought to the fore in the most literal of senses in 2015 when pretty much overnight the blue and black (or gold and white) dress went viral, with millions of people seeing different colours. Were you doing something better with your time? Reference here. We were all looking at the exact same image but seeing different things. It was later revealed that real dress was in fact blue and black, and seeing gold and white was down to differences in human colour perception: case solved. However, this points out that what we believe to be true becomes our reality, something that we should consider when it comes to innovation. 

Author Kevin Kelly writes that “Innovating is about more than just having the idea yourself; you also have to bring everyone else to where your idea is.” Allowing space for healthy debate is important to the success of any innovation, and even if someone cannot get to exactly where your idea is, helping them get that bit closer does count for something. There’s a reason why as a word, innovation is not black and white, and does not have one strict definition. Innovation provides us with a space to play with our differences and when two opposing ideas come together, sometimes something even better is born.