If you ask me to interact with an affordance, you‘re asking me to do the impossible.

Ulu Mills
MPS Seminar One
Published in
5 min readSep 9, 2018

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This week I was asked to “find a specific affordance and write about it in great detail. Describe what you see, what you feel when you touch it, how it feels. Bring it to life by focusing on it. Provide a photograph. This should be one specific example of one affordance in one location to which you have access.” I’m not going to do that, because I can’t.

Let’s say I asked for a photograph depicting love. What could I expect to see? Probably something not unlike this, which was among the top hits in a Google Image search for “love”:

This is not a photograph of love. At best, it is a photograph of people mutually experiencing love, but we cannot perceive that accurately from the photograph.

You can’t photograph love. Love is intangible. The only way to know for sure if love is present is a first-person account of its presence. The closest we can come to photographing love is by photographing what we perceive to be love.

You can’t see an affordance. You can’t visualize it. You can’t touch it any more than you can touch love. At best, you can see something you perceive to afford something to you, or touch it to determine if its perceived affordances are actual affordances. But affordances themselves, like love, are intangible.

An important fact about the affordances of the environment is that they are in a sense objective, real, and physical, unlike values and meanings, which are often supposed to be subjective, phenomenal, and mental. But, actually, an affordance is neither an objective property nor a subjective property; or it is both if you like. An affordance cuts across the dichotomy of subjective-objective and helps us to understand its inadequacy. It is equally a fact of the environment and a fact of behavior. It is both physical and psychical, yet neither. An affordance points both ways, to the environment and to the observer.

Above, James J. Gibson beautifully illustrates the space between two entities in which an affordance exists (and he should, since he coined the term). An affordance is a relationship between an animal (humans included) and another entity (be it substance, object, or another animal) that defines what could take place between them.

“Affordance” cannot alone act as a predicate nominative. That is to say, I can’t fill in the blank of this sentence with a concrete subject: ______ is an affordance. Despite taking the form of a noun in definition, in description we only use it as a verb, “to afford,” occupying the space between subject and object, where Gibson says affordances actually reside.

We often mistake “affordance” for “intended/acceptable interaction.” My sofa affords sitting. It also affords hiding coins, storage of dirty laundry, using as a plate for chicken picatta. As interaction designers, it is often just as important to acknowledge what is an unacceptable/unintended leveraging of an affordance.

This afternoon as I read Gibson defining affordances, the passages involving the affordances of other animals, and the idea of consent, wouldn’t leave my mind. The arm of a woman in the street affords grabbing, and the face of her attacker affords punching. Affordances highlight everything we are capable of, for better or worse.

In the newest edition of The Design of Everyday Things, Don Norman explains that designers have adopted the word affordance to mean an indication that a user is able to interact in a certain way. In an effort to dispel the perpetuation of the misnomer, he introduced the term signifier as a substitute. A property of an object that indicates its affordance(s) may also act as a signifier. But signifiers can also mislead and deter: the rubber posts that signify that entry into a driveway is impossible are false signifiers. A single woman wearing a fake wedding ring still affords hitting on by creeps, but the ring acts as a false signifier that deters objectionable behavior.

So what am I supposed to do here? I’ve established that I can’t include a photograph of an affordance; any object I photograph will likely have multiple affordances to me, so I will have failed to document “one specific example of one affordance.” Even I found an object with a single affordance to me, I would be photographing the object, not the affordance. Even if I photographed myself and an object participating in an interaction that was made possible by an affordance, I would not be photographing the affordance, but the interaction.

Oh well. Here’s a photo of my couch. It has more affordances to me than I can even perceive, but I really only use it for sitting and sleeping.

PS: On a related note, why is this an acceptable sentence?: Couches afford sitting.

If the existence of an affordance is dependent upon both the subject and object of interaction, why can we omit the instigator of the sitting? Or is it just generally understood to be ‘the average adult human being?’ And if so, what implications does that have to the assumptions we make about who we are designing for?

Perhaps I’m rambling now. There will be much to discuss on Monday.

PPS, here’s my hard copy of The Design of Everyday Things, which I bought while panicking over the decision to come to CMU. The title translates to: Who Is This Designed For? — A Cognitive Scientist’s Principles of Design. In the bookstore where I got it, it was in the psychology section.

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