4. About Affordances

My Design professor describes understanding affordances as the difference between going from thinking about Design to Designing. Different thinkers like to describe affordances in different ways but they tend to all describe the relationship between a subject and object. We will begin by looking at affordances with the creator of the word, psychologist James Gibson. James Gibson describes affordances as action possibilities or the possible actions that can be taken on an object as recognized by the subject.

For example, a person may recognize that a large rock can be sat on but not thrown, while the same person may recognize that a small rock can be thrown but not sat on. The example is rather crude, but it helps further the discussion on affordances. The example illustrates how a strong person may have a different perception of the affordances because they are able to throw the large rock just as they may be able to sit on it. It then raises further questions on how might the context of their situation change a person’s perception of an object’s affordances. When you move beyond objects like rocks and think about more complex items such as a ladder the importance of convection becomes noticeable. A ladder itself is an arrangement of poles, yet because of convention we recognize that a ladder has bars that we can grip with our hands as well as horizontal platforms to step on.

To help further our understanding of affordances we have to look into the works of philosopher Martin Heidegger. Martin Heidegger’s work is incredibly complex and he is rightfully a controversial figure in philosophy for his affiliation with the Nazis, but his work does help us in our understanding of objects. First off his work is helpful for making us aware of the interconnectedness of “being”. Our life is experienced in relationship with the world around us and the objects we interact with, the object also exists in relationship to us. This is important for understanding that though affordances are the relationship between a subject an object, there are several other objects and other people that influence that relationship.

Heidegger also provides helpful terminology for understanding the way we relate to objects. He does this through the example of a hammer. When we are hammering we are not particularly aware of the hammer instead our attention is on the practice of hammering and on the nail and surface in which the hammer is being applied. We notice it only when it fails or behaves in an unexpected manner which draws attention to itself. We also notice a hammer when we are not hammering because we see and think of the hammer as an equipment and tool that is useful.

Understanding affordances is challenging enough but putting it into practice may be even more difficult. The process of putting affordances into practice begins with being aware of the affordances of the objects and environment around you. As you become more aware you will notice the breakdowns that occur in your own Designs and understand why these breakdowns happen. Prototyping your Designs instead of just having them as ideas become important here.

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