I Can't Afford to Get This Wrong

July 28, 2023

Glancing at the glinting white stripes on the pavement, they suddenly looked strange and unapproachable. What do I do with them? When a throng of waiting pedestrians funnelled over the curb and onto the painted lines, I was reminded that this is where you walk. For a moment, the ‘crosswalk’ had disappeared and the invisible world of design we often take for granted showed itself.

Our understanding that objects and environments suggest how to interact with them is owed to psychologist James J. Gibson. In his 1979 book, The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, Gibson coined the term “affordances” to describe the relationship between ourselves, our things, and our environment – speaking to both the organically formed and mechanically constructed world. In the case of the pristine crosswalk, its consecutive obstacle-free lines extend across an otherwise bare section of road, suggesting: step across one, then the next. What an object, setting, or thing affords is the outcome or result we get from using it. 

To give another example: if an extraterrestrial comes face to face with an Alessi 9093 tea kettle their alien eyes may see the slightly angled and articulated plastic ridges as incapable of transferring hot liquid into a cup, but if they have digits like ours, they may quickly deduce that the bumpy contours comfortably form a handle with which to pour. However, they may not, and what we identify as usability in the iconic Alessi design could be incomprehensible for beings outside our socialisation, constitution, and circumstances. This is what Gibson means when he writes that an affordance is "equally a fact of the environment and a fact of behavior. It is both physical and psychical, yet neither. It points both ways, to the environment and to the observer."

Locating the idea of what something might afford in the interaction between object and actor enables us to think in terms of design possibility. In The ECAL Manual of Style: How to best teach design today? Johanna Agerman Ross considers her starting point to be: “To look at an object and ask of it: what does it communicate? What does it enable? And what need does it fulfil?” Most items contain within them a variety of different possibilities for use, and continuously thinking about what else we can do with them spurs ingenuity – like bubble wrap, for example, which was originally intended to be used as wallpaper. But iterative innovation and technological advancement cuts both ways, and after years of flipping between reading “real” books and digital ones, I still sometimes find myself reflexively touching unfamiliar words on paper to define them – as one can do on an e-reader. Maybe it’s more of a glitch, or misplaced affordance, than an absolute design failure, but it's nonetheless undeniable that we morph how we engage with the world through our experience with objects. 

Thousands of items fill our homes, cars, and workspaces, and neurologically we can’t seem to stop ourselves from buying more. But if good design is about tinkering with how we access the world for the better, we can also reflect on who good design is making the world better for. As Jenny L. Davis writes in How Artifacts Afford, thinking about objects as sites of power helps us understand why it’s easier to sign up for subscriptions than cancel them, or how disinformation spreads because of a well designed share button. As we continue to navigate our increasingly complex technological world with ever greater ease, it might be worth momentarily pausing and considering: what do we want the future to afford? 

East Room is a shared workspace company providing design-forward office solutions, authentic programming and a diverse community to established companies and enterprising freelancers. We explore art, design, music, and entrepreneurship. Visit our news & stories page to read more. Marina Sulmona is a writer, editor, and producer who lives in New York City. She holds an MA in Media and Cultural Studies from NYU, where she specialized in visual culture and took every opportunity she could to write about film or curiosities like why people get married by Elvis in Las Vegas. Her work is interested in the zillions of different ways there are to live a life.