Affordance: The Indicator of Good Design

The best designs are both intuitive and inclusive, and we identify designs that fit the bill through analysis of affordance. More than just an indicator of good design however, affordances reveal a picture of the social and moral responsibilities of the designer.

Connor Finlayson
9 min readOct 1, 2018
Naoto Fukasawa’s CD Player (Image: MUJI EU)

In Designing Interactions — a book detailing the stories that formed the discipline of interaction design — pioneer Bill Moggridge writes of the computer desktop:

“Who came up with that idea? What were they thinking about, and why did they choose to design a desktop rather than a floor, or a playing field, or a meadow, or a river? Why does this desktop have windows in it? You usually think of windows being on the wall, not all over the surface of your desk. Why does it have a trashcan on it? It would seem more natural to put the trashcan on the floor.”

When considered like that, having a desktop on your desk does seem rather peculiar. In the context of 1974 however, it was the product of highly resolved user research conducted by Tim Mott and Larry Tesler — designers at Xerox Palo Alto Research Centre — who faced the daunting task of figuring out how on earth anyone besides software engineers might interact with a computer. Their work led to the creation of the first graphical user interface, based on a skeuomorph of the office — an environment potential users were already familiar with. Desks, paper files, folders — it all made sense in the real world — this was just digital.

Desks, paper files, folders — it all made sense in the real world.

Tesler later joined Apple, which led to the concept continuing into the Apple Lisa, and later — the Macintosh. The Mac was really the first democratised computer — a device that could be used by anyone* (more on that later). It featured icons made by artist Susan Kare, designed to make the interface seem welcoming and inclusive to a market not already sold on the new technology. In the introduction to her book ‘Icons,’ Steven Silberman writes, “To creative innovators in the early ’80s who didn’t see themselves as computer types, her icons said: Stop stressing out about technology. Go ahead, dive in!

The “universally inviting and inclusive” interface that Silberman describes was also regarded as such by Steven Wilson in an article for the Wall Street Journal. “It made the screen feel like a space you wanted to inhabit, to make your own. The Mac was a machine you wanted to live in.

The success of the graphical user interface is largely thanks to the metaphor of the office and the desktop that Mott and Tesler conceived. This kind of interaction is referred to as skeuomorphic design — design which allows users “to make connections with objects that they are familiar with in the physical world,” as written by James Pannafino in his book ‘Interdisciplinary Interaction Design: A Visual Guide’. “Digital skeuomorphs often show analogue examples of digital theories.

It’s a design concept closely aligned with the psychological theory of
‘affordance’ — first coined by James J. Gibson in 1979. An affordance is
a relationship between the visual cues provided by an object and the capabilities of a person, which determine how said object could be used. Take a door handle for example; the shape of the handle, combined with the ability of a person to grab it and apply force, reveals how the mechanism is operated.

A product designed with particularly strong affordances is a CD player designed by Naoto Fukasawa for Muji. According to the V&A:

“Fukasawa wanted to design an object that would trigger an instinctive or unconscious response in its user. He described this instinctive response as ‘Without Thought’, arguing that products should not need an instruction manual, that their functionality should be evident instinctively.”

The player is inspired by the form of a simple extractor fan — a wall-mounted square object with rounded corners, a circular vent with fan blades spinning beneath and a pull-cord hanging below to activate the rotation — only the rotating blades have been replaced by a spinning compact disc. Of course there are other buttons besides the cord to adjust the volume and move between tracks, but the most important function — play — can be achieved ‘without thought’ as Fukasawa intended.

Having said that, with CDs now gathering dust, Fukasawa’s iconic design has been updated to fit into the age of electronic music, by becoming a Bluetooth speaker, and the affordances are not so clear. While the device is still switched on and off with the pull-cord, there is no placement of the CD in the centre (which is now a speaker grille) and no spinning media to confirm the action worked as intended.

Much of the magic of Fukasawa’s design came from its central physical interaction,” writes Kyle Vanhemert for Co. Design magazine.

“There was action and reaction, both satisfying. Here, you don’t get that reward. You tug the cord–and then what? You grab your phone and tap through your music app to find the Rihanna song you want to play.”

The Modern Bluetooth Model (Image: MUJI EU)

Given that affordances should make it obvious how to operate a device, perhaps Fukasawa’s Bluetooth speaker has lost them. In fact, the pull-cord interaction which added so much power and simplicity to the CD player is actually somewhat unnecessary in the speaker, considering choosing a song and switching tracks can be achieved without physically walking to the device. This demise of simplicity is a reminder that affordances created by even the best designers can lose their power with the passage of time.

There was action and reaction, both satisfying. Here, you don’t get that reward. You tug the cord — and then what?

The same thing has happened with Susan Kare’s illustration of a floppy disc for the save button on the Macintosh; people still associate her icon with the save function, but they learn that from using the computer as opposed to the reverse. In her book, she argues on reflection that “a metaphor as a solution would have been better for icon longevity.”

Save (Image: Susan Kare)

On that point, these examples highlight that the affordances designers try to include in their objects are actually based on their own culture and perception. Fukasawa’s CD player assumes that its user has previously encountered an extractor fan, and also that they are physically able to pull a cord. In this example, the issues are not likely to occur, and as a result, it would be unfair to say that Fukasawa has designed with an ablest perspective, but in a more complicated object, the implications of making assumptions about users abilities — or perhaps even ignoring them altogether — could be far greater.

Dissatisfied with application of JJ Gibson’s definition of affordance applied to design in isolation, Heidi Overhill (University of Toronto) suggests that Gibson’s theory of affordance be combined with Marshall MacLuhan’s observation that “media are the extensions of mankind.” By considering MacLuhan’s observation in this perspective, it becomes clear that one can modify the environment through a design, but also extend the abilities of the user, and both will affect affordances (the relationship between the environment and the abilities of the user). “The point of distinguishing between them,” writes Overhill, “is to clarify the intent of a design; whether it aims to modify the abilities of the user (like oven mitts) or change features of the environment, (like the oven).”

“Person holds tray of muffins on tray” by Taylor Grote on Unsplash

Overhill talks of technologies which are experienced as extensions of the human body, and notes that that the association of technology and our species can lead to “natural born cyborgs” as a description for human beings. She writes:

“By definition, a cyborg has technology installed under the skin, which describes artificial hips, heart pacemakers, and intraocular lens implants; but eyeglasses, hearing aids, clothing and smart phones also effectively function as an integral part of the corporeal self. We experience changes to these objects as changes to ourselves.”

If the objects we design are experienced by the user as changes to themselves, then the implication of designing the oven mitt is that the user needs to be changed.

The World Health Organisation defines disability “as a complex interaction between features of a person’s body and features of the environment and society in which he or she lives.

Speaking of the implication of this definition, Graham Pullin, author of ‘Design Meets Disability’, concludes that “people are therefore disabled by the society they live in, not directly by their impairment.”

When designers create new objects from the perspective of extending the abilities of the user, they must remain mindful that in doing so, they are perpetuating the ablest viewpoint that disabled users need to be modified to conform to normalcy, as opposed to normalcy becoming inclusive of all users.

In ‘Disability and Social Theory: New Development and Directions,’ Bill Hughes asks “How instead might the relationships of impaired people and technology unsettle the everyday understanding of normal?

In his Book ‘Digital Outcasts,’ Kel Smith writes:

“There is a distinction between a facility that shows evidence of universal design and one that is merely ‘accessible.’ The accessible facility may be aesthetically clunky compared to the other, or it may segregate a disabled individual by its location or appearance. The goal of universal design is to diffuse the boundaries between these delineations so that features are neither notably accessible nor inaccessible — they simply get used.”

Take OXO Good Grips for example: kitchen utensils designed for everyone, but also for those with limited dexterity. Rather than designing utensils they can use themselves, the designers of Good Grips consider hands of various different shapes and sizes. The utensils are soft and contain ergonomic “gills” (where the name comes from) which make them much easier to hold than traditional tools. It comes down to design culture; whether universal design is at the core, or whether accessibility is considered as an afterthought. “Every day in the office, OXO employees view a pile of discarded gloves their CEO has collected off the sidewalk,” writes Smith, in another part of his book. “This ‘found art’ represents the wide range of people who will be using their Good Grips products, a daily reminder of the need to design for all.

Having said that, Pullin reminds us that “eyeglasses have been transformedfrom medical necessity to fashion accessory. Why shouldn’t design sensibilities also be applied to hearing aids, prosthetic limbs and communication aids?” If designing the oven mitt eventually leads to changes in the oven, perhaps it doesn’t matter which is designed, so long as the designer has considered which they are designing.

Do you remember T9 — or typing on 9 keys? It’s the predictive text software of the pre-smartphone era, that evolved on a similar journey to eyeglasses. Mark Milian of CNN describes it perfectly:

“Rather than pressing 44–33–555–555–666 on a keypad to spell “hello,” as early texters did, T9 reduced that to simply 4–3–5–5–6. The software guesses what you meant to type from a dictionary, and if it flubs, you can cycle through other options.”

T9 was created by Cliff Kushler, Dale Grover and Martin King, an evolution of their eye-tracking software (T7) designed to enable those with paralysis to input text — and since became hugely popular in mainstream culture.


T9 transformed how users interacted with their mobile phones,” writes Priya Ganapati for Wired. “It took people beyond just voice calls on mobile phones, giving them the ability to type out short messages and longer e-mails. In fact, T9 became so popular and widespread it’s still around today.

From physical/digital metaphors to icons; pull-cords to universally graspable utensils — designers regularly consider the ways in which one can interact with their objects.

The aim of good design is always to include clear affordances, so that interactions are both intuitive, and available to users of all abilities.
Having said that, designers must be aware that affordances are relationships between the properties of objects and the abilities of their users, meaning that the intentions of a designer can be ascertained through the affordances present in their designs.

One can choose either to design to enhance the environment, or the abilities of users, and in either case, must consider the wider societal impact of choosing one or the other. Design for disability doesn’t just lead to fairer, more inclusive products that includes even small parts of the market, but also results in better design.



Connor Finlayson

Designing a better experience for applicants and staff at the University of Dundee • IxD Grad • Ambassador, Holocaust Educational Trust • Dundee, Scotland