Foundations of Affordance Based Design

Year: 2005
Author: Maier, Jonathan R. A.
Supervisor: Fadel, Georges M.
Institution: Clemson University
Page(s): 257


Despite the importance of design to engineering, industry, and the overall economy, design science remains a young and underdeveloped field. The justification for studying design as science rather than art stretches back over four decades. Since that time, however, relatively little theoretical work has been done compared to the effort expended developing methodology. Current practitioners, researchers, and students of design are left to navigate a patchwork of methods addressing various phases of design, but without a unifying theoretical framework. Moreover there is a peculiar reliance on the concept of function, yet there exists no theory of function itself. The aims of this dissertation are therefore to bolster the theoretical basis of engineering design, to unify many of the existing approaches to design, to enrich our understanding of the concept of function, and to supplement the concept of function with another more powerful concept. These are the goals, and it is claimed, the contributions of a novel theory of design, known as Affordance Based Design, which is introduced in this dissertation. Affordance Based Design is built upon complex systems theory and the theory of affordances originally espoused by James Gibson in the field of perceptual psychology. The theory of affordances is further developed and generalized to apply to engineering situations. It is shown how the concept of affordance, which describes the potential behavior of a system consisting of subsystems such as users and artifacts, is more powerful than the concept of function, which is shown to be appropriate for describing and designing relationships only of a closed transformative character. Several new methods for designing using affordances are also introduced. These methods and the overall theoretical approach are tested using six case studies. Advantages of Affordance Based Design include the ability to describe and explain the actions of novice as well as experienced designers, the evolutionary development of products over time, and the value of prototyping, especially early in the design process. Affordance based methods are shown to streamline some phases of the design process while fostering innovation and guarding against failure and danger to users. Finally strategies for building upon the foundations of affordance based design developed in this dissertation are offered in order to encourage further research and understanding of its parent design science.

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