Overview Edit

Affordances are commonly known as the relation between an object, environment, or idea and the opportunity that it lets an organism take action on.

Definition & History Edit

The term “affordance” originated from James J. Gibson’s article "The Theory of Affordances" in 1977 and was later elaborated on in his book The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception in 1979. Gibson outlined the concept when he said, “The verb 'to afford' is found in the dictionary, but the noun 'affordance' is not. I have made it up. I mean by it something that refers to both the environment and the animal in a way that no existing term does. It implies the complementarity of the animal and the environment…The affordances of the environment are what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes, either for good or ill.” In layman's terms, affordances can be thought of as the possibilities for action that an object or environment provides a person. Gibson nicknamed this concept as “action possibilities.”

In 1988, Donald Norman redefined the use of the term “affordance” when combining Gibson’s “action possibilities” with human perception. His book The Design of Everyday Things outlines the socially constructed dynamics of human perception in regards to affordances. To be specific, he mentions how one perceives an object’s affordances depending on his or her goals, past experiences, values, physical and mental abilities, knowledge level, and beliefs. It is a basic human tendency to follow affordances that society has previously developed.  In contrast, there are affordances that exist for every object/environment that may have not even been discovered yet. Norman’s book delves into this concept.

Affordances can now also be applied to the multimodal aspect of media. A good example of its application in media is the various uses of social media. Social media platforms such as Twitter and Wordpress allow people to communicate with the rest of the world in completely different ways. For example, Twitter is designed for people to only write a short sentence or two. Its affordance would be that a user is limited to 140 characters to communicate their thoughts. WordPress on the other hand lets a user write as much as they want but it lacks the immediacy of a platform like Twitter.

Examples Edit

There are many real world examples for affordances. Commonly known examples include a chair affords sitting, a keyboard affords typing, and a button affords pushing. The image below is a good illustration of very basic affordances that we associate with everyday objects. When considering Writing Across Media, affordance can take on a more intricate meaning than simply being what an object is used for. Scholars believe that individuals must, "understand the needs and capabilities and limitations of technologies in order to know the possibilities they offer for design." (Gaver, 79) Any example of an affordance in the context of WAM would likely involve technology to create an argument.


In the scope of WAM, affordances of different mediums:

Cartoon: Readers often see themselves in cartoon characters. Authors and artists can use this to draw their readers in and truly have them relate to the story.

Sound: Throughout our lives, whether we realize it our not, we develop associations between sound and certain locations or feelings. This allows artists to draw out certain emotions or memories in their listeners with specific sound clips or tones. For example, a newspaper article may be an effective way of sharing factual information, but an article highlighting a band's latest performance may be better presented as a podcast or radio show. Sound engineering is a field of study that directly deals with using the affordances of sound in presentation.

Montage: Rapid succession of video clips allows the author to present a large topic in a quick, clear, and concise manner. This rapid succession of clips is also useful in keeping the audiences attention by constant changes that represent a topic in a more dynamic way.

Visual: The saying "a picture is worth a thousand words" exists for a reason. As vividly as you can describe a place or a person, there's no easier way to convey what you're seeing, than a picture. Like the sound example, visuals may be more effective when presenting an idea that is more strongly supported by images and footage, rather than simply using sound or text

Video Games : Along with immersing players by way of the affordances offered in sound and visuals, video games promote a further sense of agency by appealing to choice, allowing players to format their own unique experiences within gameplay.

Social Media: With widespread access to the internet comes various ways to quickly spread ideas and opinions. Social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram offer quick sharing of thoughts to friends and family. Pictures and videos with captions can be shared instantly to a select group of people, giving more security than a normal blog or website.

Resources and further reading Edit

Vlad P. Glaveanu: Edit

  • "What Can Be Done With an Egg? Creativity, Material Objects, and the Theory of Affordances"
    • This article explores the link between creativity and the theory of affordances in order to reflect on the role of material objects in the creative process. 

James J. Gibson: Edit

  • Perceiving, Acting, and Knowing
  • The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception
    • By using the affordances in how a person interacts with his or her environment, this book strives to answer the question, “how do we see the world as we do?”. 

Donald Norman: Edit

  • The Design of Everyday Things
    • This best-selling book examines how design serves as the communicator between an object and the user in order to make the experience of using the object pleasurable. Through the use of case studies, Norman explores the psychology behind what is good and bad design while proposing certain design principles.

Keywords Edit


Social Media


Blog (Wordpress)

Citations == Donald Norman, The Design of Everyday Things, ISBN 0-465-06710-7. Originally published under the title The Psychology of Everyday Things

Gaver, William. Technology Affordances. Rank Xerox Cambridge EuroPARC. Online.

James J. Gibson (1977), The Theory of Affordances. In Perceiving, Acting, and Knowing, edited by Robert Shaw and John Bransford, ISBN 0-470-99014-7.

James J. Gibson (1979), The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, ISBN 0-89859-959-8.

Pincus, Alaina. "This Affords You That." Writing Across Media Fall 2014. N.p., 4 Sept. 2014. Web. 21 Nov. 2014. <>.