Choose one of the objects that you selected and describe how your initial understanding of its initial affordances changed over the course of the exercise. Step 1 was sketching my three items (wooden pencil sharpener, cotton bud and a teaspoon). I found that by sketching the object, I was able to pinpoint which features were most characteristic and highlight these visually but annotating extended my consideration further and helped me to attune to other sensory properties (weight, texture, sound, materiality). Through interacting with the object, actively looking for other capacities for use and mentally inserting it into different contexts, I was able to distance myself from the way I am conditioned to interacting with the objects and come up with a wide range of alternative applications or affordances. I considered how different users might interact with the object, and these constraints and varying capacities helped me to be more creative in imagining how the functionality of the object might be improved for some user groups, with small adaptations to the design. For instance, I imagined that a person with a tremor could not use a teaspoon very well as lifting the spoon and scooping requires precision. I also tested whether right-handed people find it easier to use the pencil sharpener than I do, as someone who is left-handed.

Given that affordances is a relational property between a person and an object, how did the manipulation of the object and person’s abilities inform your understanding of the subject? Did it give you inspiration or insight for how to work with affordances as a designer? Discuss this through the specific objects you explored in the exercise. Gaver defines affordances thus: “Affordances are properties of the world that are compatible with and relevant for people’s interactions. When affordances are perceptible, they offer a direct link between perception and action; hidden and false affordances lead to mistakes” (Gaver 1991, P.79). From the perspective of Norman: “affordances reflect the possible relationships among actors and objects: they are properties of the world (Norman 1999, P.42). According to Gibson, “affordances are relationships. They exist naturally: they do not have to be visible, known, or desirable” (Gibson in Norman 1999, P. 39). To expand:

  • Perceptible affordances are obvious attributes with potentials that users perceive in their environment for action “without significant intermediate stages involving memory or inferences” (Gaver 1999, P.729).
  • False affordances are misleading signposts that suggest a capacity that an object does not have. “When apparent affordances suggest different actions than those for which the object is designed, errors are common and signs are necessary” (Gaver 1991, P.80).
  • Hidden affordances are when there is potential for action but these are not obvious to the user. “If there is no information available for an existing affordance, it is hidden and must be inferred from other evidence (Gaver 1991, P.80).

During Step 3 of the exercise I moved from sketching (observation) to tactile exploration. “Affordances are not passively perceived, but explored” (Gaver 1991, P.82). By imagining my objects reframed in different contexts (rooms of the house), as well as testing out their capacities in relation to my own body, I discovered the following alternative uses; many of which are not limited to the visual – “affordances may be perceived using other senses as well” (Norman 1999, P.82).

  • Teaspoon: perceptible affordances included measuring, stirring, scratching, hitting, turning (like an allen key), combing hair and making noises.
  • Cotton bud: cleaning ears, applying and removing dots, stirring, mark-making with paint or glue, mopping up small drips with absorbency (I also thought a kid might put it up their nose), rolling along a hard surface to massage the palm muscles.
  • Pencil sharpener: sharpening pencils, tiny instrument (especially if hit with spoon), pencil holder (if turned on the end). The pencil sharpener had a false affordance as it has a small hole at the end (probably to prevent graphite compacting at its end) however this suggests that something should be inserted into this hole, just as the larger hole does at the other end.

The second half of the tutorial, subverting artificial affordances was where I was able to apply the lessons of thinking using different perspectives and identifying hidden and false affordances of the objects. During this section, I practiced using my objects with a disability (only one arm, which was tethered to my body with Glad wrap and also using modified chopsticks to hinder functionality) and this allowed me to identify the primary affordances and explore constraints. My partner’s eyes were blindfolded using aluminum foil, which highlighted the non-visual perceptible affordances. We also subverted a complex object (a Swiss-army knife of cutlery) to limit its functionality, and we practiced exploring the uses of this strange object. We found the object retained most of its functionality, however it took on new affordances as a sculpture and shadow maker. I felt this process counteracted a tendency identified by Norman: the “designer cares more about what actions the user perceives to be possible than what is true” (Norman 1999, P. 39) and helped us to break free of the perceived affordances with the outcome of discovering hidden affordances and a consideration of ways to improve the original object.


Gaver, W. (1991). Technology affordances in Proceedings of the SIGHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ’91) in Robertson, S. et al. New York, USA. ACM, Pp.79-84

Norman, D (1999). Affordance, conventions and design, Interactions 6 (21:4); Pp. 36-9

Wright, P., Wallace, J., and McCarthy, J. (2008). Aesthetics and experience-centered design, Computer-Human Interactions (15:4), Article 18 (November 2008)