The notion of affordance is important for narrative environment design as it emphasises the active nature of perception; the importance of the moving body in perception; the co-constitution of the human, the environmental and the ecological; and the interactive nature of perceptual, meaning-making and world-making actions and processes (i.e. the making of lifeworlds as domains of meaningfulness and sustainable life-forms).
To ecological psychologist James Gibson (1979), affordances are opportunities for action that an object provides or affords a perceiver/agent. For example, a chair may ‘afford’, i.e. enable, sitting; or it may permit standing upon it, to reach something else (a double ‘affordance’, so to speak: standing and reaching); or, alternatively, it may (because of its age or delapidation) provide a resource for chopping up to use as firewood.
In Gibson’s (1986, 1979) words, “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.”
Such affordances could be understood as ‘objective’, i.e. ‘reflective’ or ‘expressive’ of ‘properties’ that the chair ‘has’ or ‘possesses’, but this would be to adopt a reductive, essentialist approach. Affordances, more properly, are relations between perceivers/actors and objects. Any person may perceive/enact more than one affordance of the same ‘object’, depending on need or circumstance, thereby changing its ‘objecti-ive’ status. Persons from different cultural backgrounds may share perceptions of the same affordances; or they may see different ones.
Furthermore, such environmental or ecological perception is part of the ongoing situation(s) in which the perceiver, as actant, is actively partaking and constituting. It is through such situations that the environments or ecologies are in part, constituted as environmental and ecological realities. That is, perception itself is an active scanning of situations and environments, not simply a passive reception of stimuli from situations and environments. Perception, in other words, is multiply motivated and involves, as Merleau-Ponty affirms, the whole body in movement in domains constituted through intercorporeal interaction.
Affordances and Design
The Interaction Design Foundation develops the discussion of the use of the notion of affordances in the context of design. The key figure in the introduction of affordances into design discourse and practice is Don Norman.
Edgeworth, M. (2016). Grounded objects. Archaeology and speculative realism. Archaeological Dialogues, 23 (01), 93–113. Available from http://www.journals.cambridge.org/abstract_S138020381600012X [Accessed 21 June 2016].
Gibson, J. J. (1986, 1979) ‘The theory of affordances’, in The ecological approach to visual perception. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 127–143.
Interaction Design Foundation (no date). Affordances. Interaction Design Foundation. Available from https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/topics/affordances [Accessed 2 April 2021]
Norman, D. (2013) The Design of everyday things. Rev & Exp ed. New York, NY: Basic Books.