Monday, August 17, 2009


I have been doing some reading up on the concept of 'affordances' recently. Because my background is from architecture not technology, I have rather missed out on developments in human-computer interactions. An affordance is a quality of an object, or an environment, that allows an individual to perform an action. At its basic level, the aim is that the object and the ‘afforded’ action match. But in addition, the affordances of an object or space can refer to all the action possibilities that are feasible. Some authors, would limit this to the possibilities of which the individual performing the action is aware, or can easily discover. People like Donald Norman in his books, The Design of Everyday Things and The Design of Future Things have both popularised and developed this work.

What is powerful about these kinds of approaches, is that they engage at an intimate level of detail in the interactions between people, things and spaces. (Go to Dan Lockton's website Design with Intent to see some great examples.) The problem, though, is at the conceptual level: around the slippage as to whether affordances are inherent in an object or place - part of its 'nature' - or only exist through cultural conventions and processes of human interpretation.

Architecture has the same problem. Does form and space 'tell' us how to behave, or do we apply 'readings' based on our own personalities, preferences and cultures? Norman tries to separate out the realities of physical constraints/inherent properties which will affect affordances from cultural conventions, that is where there is nothing inherent in devices or design to afford a particular action, and we could try and do the same with Learning Spaces. But, for me, the underlying problem remains; this is a behavioural view where people and things relate through a kind of stimuli-response mechanism. Occupation is much more an interactive encounter than this, where we both change, and are changed by our activities. Space doesn't 'make' us do anything, but nor is it without effect.

Image from www.ingridhora.com

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