Affordances as the non-designer's design?

While digging through some citations for my book, I found this wonderful quote from Cameron Tonkinwise at CMU about affordances and their tendency toward future thinking:

“An affordance is an ‘actual possibility’, a ‘promised action opportunity.’ Affordances are the result of interactional perceptions, seeing not just a feature, but a future way of making use of that feature. The key to understanding an affordance is to realise its utterly unsemiotic nature; affordances are the opposite of digital communications needing decoding. If they are communications, they are direct communications, without mediation, communications, as it were, between things and my body without the involvement of my mind. I do not see a shape, but a handle, or rather a ‘handlable’; I see myself handling that shape; or more precisely, my hand sees that handlable, reaching out for it before I have even really ‘seen’ it (as if I were something other than my hand).” (Tonkinwise, Cameron. “Knowing by Being-There Making: Explicating the Tacit Post-Subject in Use.” Studies in Material Thinking 1.2 (2008)

It seems to me that Cameron is suggesting that affordances are a sort of forced abductive thinking: the perceiver must interpret possibilities for action and thus consciously shape a future state. This passage is a fantastic example of the blending of ecological and perceptual psychology with phenomenology.

I’m curious to hear others’ thoughts on it. Are affordances really a “direct communication…between things and my body without the involvement of my mind?” Does the perception of affordances always result in future thinking? What are the implications of the idea that we perceive action and potentiality (what it does) before the metaphysical properties of a thing (what it is) with regard to interaction design? Are affordances the answer to the old question of whether “everyone designs?”

These are all things the book tries to cover, but I’m interested in what other practitioners think.

Affordances are the capabilities an object offers to it’s environment. A pencil has an intended affordance to write, a car has the intended affordance to drive. But a pencil also has the unintended affordance to throw it, which a car hasn’t. Humans (and animals) learn to interpret perceptible properties (shape, smell, color) of an object as an affordance. These properties become a signifier for possible action. During the learning phase the perceiver will consciously interpret the possibilities, but it will become unconscious the more often their interpretation proofs correct. We become conscious again if an expected possibility is absent. Think of underlined text on a webpage that’s not a hyperlink, trying to pick up a pencil glued to the table.

Designers plan for reliable communication of the intended capabilities (or they plan for the absence of that communication in the case surprise or tension is desired). For designers the crux lies in the word ‘planning for’. We shape objects in a way that the intended affordances become perceivable through signifiers.

Hi Yohan

Yes, I agree with most of what you’re saying with a couple caveats. I think it’s difficult to refer to affordances as either linguistic (signifiers) or physical (properties). Gibson made it a point to say that affordances are “both physical and psychical, yet neither.” He celebrated the affordance as a concept that frees us from the need to lock everything into a subjective or objective binary, and while it’s difficult to think outside of those categories, I it’s necessary.

It seems like what you’re saying is that the user of an object is always learning, so you disagree with Cameron’s notion of affordance as “unsemiotic.” I fall somewhere in between. I recognize the need to avoid thinking of affordances as a linguistic communication, but at the same time, there is a communication happening.

You make some other good points that I was trying to get at, including the non-intended uses of an object and the unexpected possibilities. It sounds like you’re referring mostly to Heidegger’s readiness-to-hand and Ihde’s concept of multistability (and possibly Latour on scripts). If not, I’d highly recommend checking those out. It seems like you would enjoy them.

PS. Not sure if you remember, but I gave a talk loosely related to this discussion at Interaction 14, which was definitely one of the best conferences I’ve attended so far :smile:

The adjectives linguistic and physical don’t seem to apply to affordances. Affordances are just capabilities (the object affords to…). Through the object’s properties (whether physical or psychical) we learn about the capabilities of objects with similar properties. The affordances itself are unsemiotic, the object’s properties can reveal what we can do with it, and could be called semiotic in that sense. But that’s only after we learned to link a property to a capability.

In the same line of thoughts, I don’t think affordances communicate themselves. An object ‘communicates’ it’s affordances, it’s properties are the medium. But - depending on your definition of communication - the object only communicates as the properties are understood/learned as signs for affordances. Which - if you’d like - brings us back to craft of designing.

Every object, also carefully designed ones, has unintended affordances. Designers decide how well intended affordances are being communicated, and how much room is left for unintended use.

Affordances are the capability of the object, but the capability is communicated through symbols, indexes, and icons. We understand the affordance of an object by how it signals to us, which is also why people can often interpret the affordances so differently based on their subjective view. Most objects (physical anyway) have multiple affordances, and multiple signs pointing us to them.