Affordances: Designing for action

As designers we constantly ponder ‘What is the ultimate measure of success for design?’ In my opinion its easy adoption by the end user, which basically means minimizing cognitive load in comprehending the designer/designs intent.

Affordance is one such concept that can help us better understand user-interactions with designed artifacts. Consider this how many times have you pushed a door that should be pulled open, or pulled a door that should be pushed open?

This picture shows a door giving mixed messages: The sign explicitly tells you to push the door open, but the handle implicitly tells you to pull the door open; because, after all, handles are for pulling on!

The property of an object, or an environment, which allows an individual to perform an action is known as ‘Affordance’. Affordances are catalysts for deriving a desired behavior/action.

The term ‘Affordance’ was first coined by the perceptual psychologist,  James J. Gibson in his 1977 article “The Theory of Affordances” and explored it more fully in his book The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception in 1979. Gibson’s theory stresses that affordances are all “action possibilities” furnished by an artifact/environment, which may or may not be perceived by the user, but are dependent on the users capabilities. In 1988,Donald Norman in his book, “The design of everyday things” appropriated the term affordances to refer to “perceivable action possibilities”. It makes the concept dependent not only on the physical capabilities of an actor, but also the actor’s goals, plans, values, beliefs, and past experiences.

A classic example to elaborate the significance of Affordances: I once worked in an office where the entrance door opened only in one direction. However there were identical handles on both sides. Since handles afford pulling, people constantly struggled with the door. Had the designer replaced the handle outside with a flat plate it would have instantly solved the problem, because a featureless surface affords pushing.

The concept of affordances is not unique to any particular artifact or environment and also applies to a wide variety of scales. This emphasizes the universal applicability of the concept of Affordance across different design fields.


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One thought on “Affordances: Designing for action”

  1. I totally agree. I think the functionality of design, mapping it to the ways our brains work, is as important as making it look good. Great article, very insightful…

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