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PHD-DESIGN  May 2018

PHD-DESIGN May 2018

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Subject:

Re: Gibson, perception and affordances....

From:

Heidi Overhill <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

PhD-Design - This list is for discussion of PhD studies and related research in Design <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Thu, 17 May 2018 16:17:28 +0000

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Dear folks,
This thread is veering off-topic. When Terence Love differentiates betweens "output" and "outcome" he addresses the broader subject of change in general, rather than the tighter issue of Gibsonian perception, which concerns the affordance relationship between a single 'thing' and its lone witness. Similarly, the comments of Richard Herriot on aesthetics, David Sless on learning, and Keith Russell about the brain mechanisms of tricksy perception glasses are interesting, but not about Gibson. I believe that dragging in such broader (or narrower) points muddies the waters of this debate — if it concerns the significance of Gibson for design.
This debate is also (as usual) marred by ahistorial innocence, which I blame on that designerly desire to be original: to reinvent everything from first principles rather than make the effort to read what came before. Richard Herriot's original message asking for the 3D implications of Gibson can easily be answered by reading Gibson in the original, in particular his observations about whole-body perception systems, which do not engage only eyeballs staring at paper, but rather reveal the world through the visual flow induced by bodily motion. True, that's a pile of reading, but perhaps then Herriot could write that short paper for the rest of us to read more easily.
On the point of not reading, Yoád Luxembourge's first message answering Herriot offers a description of perception dating from the mid 1800s. He describes the classical model in which stimuli like "sounds" are processed or "linked in the brain" to memories of "experiences and modelling" and thereby interpret their meaning. This top-down model of cognitively-processed perception was first proposed by German physiologist Johannes Müller, who wrote: "The mind ...perceives the sensations and interprets them according to ideas previously obtained" (1833/43 p. 717). Note that Müller was responding to the then-novel ideas of Luigi Galvani on the electrical operation of nerves in frog legs (1771).  If Müller's description still endures today, it is perhaps because it appeals to human pride in our ability to think. Any real examination shows that it cannot possibly be true. For example, it requires that sensory information be somehow represented inside the brain to make it available for comparison with other things also located in the brain. However, if there is representation inside the brain, then there must be some kind of sentient entity, also located in the brain, that can perceive those representations. (Think of Captain Kirk looking at the screen in the round brainy control room of the USS Enterprise.) This means that the little entity must also posses a mind, inside of which can be found little representations of the things that it perceives. So, inside the mind of that little entity there must exist also another still-smaller sub-entity that is able to perceive the entity's perception of the representation; and then another one inside that, and so on to infinity — the "homunculus fallacy."
James J. Gibson offered a different reason for why the classical processing model cannot be true, based the slow speed of of nerve impulse transmission inside the body. Working with the military during WWII, Gibson noted pilots landing airplanes on aircraft carriers as an illustration of the complexity, speed, and precision of linked perception/action. This happens too fast to allow slow nerve impulses to reach the brain, get processed, and send back instructions. Something else must be going on.

Gibson's concept of "affordance" proposed that the perception of the world does not demand mental processing, because creatures perceive meaning directly. There is no collection "data" to be cognitively processed into "information" — information itself is the essential thing that is perceived. To a simple creature, meaningfulness will involve physical opportunities: affordances like "eatable" or "climbable." To a complex creature, like a person, more complex affordances become apparent, so that if the ball is "catchable" then the game is "winnable" (Pols, 2012). Gibson's proposal seems logically defensible; as Luxembourge notes in his thesis, and Norman in his most recent message, understanding the world must be the reason why perception evolved in the first place, to give survival advantage. No cognitive processing is needed for an ameoba to notice something edible nearby.
If we step back from the concept of affordances, what Gibson's thesis seems to imply is that the "ontological primitive" of perception is located not in the characteristics of an item being perceived, or in the mind of the entity doing the perceiving, but rather consists of the emergent relationship between the two. Without being purely Gestalt, this insight does accord with the Gestalt truism that "the whole is something other than the sum of the parts" (Koffka, 1935, p.176). 
Going further, Gibson's idea seems to suggest that the "whole" is the essential empirical reality for the perceiving actor. "Parts" are merely non-obvious features that can be discovered upon analysis. The coherent affordance is the point; everything else is just theoretical analysis. (We will skip here the impact of learning and analysis upon trained perception.) This point might accord with Richard Herriot's observation of fractal phenomena that scale up and down, expanding upon that idea to propose that there may be some essential level of scale at which people characteristically operate. It also points to George Lakoff's 1987 description of "basic level categorization" in which most people seem to share an intuitive level of understanding of things. Almost everyone can recognize a "dog," but further thought and/or education is required to place that creature higher or lower inside a classification hierarchy — to describe it as a "chihuahua" or a "mammal."
The brilliance of Gibson's holistic approach may be appreciated by comparing it to the designerly heritage of Modernism, and its essential approach of "ontological discontinuity." As American teacher William Everdell points out, Modernism in all fields adopted a dividing approach to knowledge: separating whole things into their parts, and then studying the parts, in isolation, as a way to gain understand the whole. This approach has proved enduring; as Everdell wrote: "We cannot help seeing theobjects of our knowledge as discrete and discontinuous — digital ratherthan analogue" (1997, p. 351). Modernist discontinuous analysis has achieved outstanding success in many areas. In chemistry, understanding of the structure of the atom explains the behaviour of metals, and the operations of bio-chemistry, leading to the operations of living cells (though difficulty remains in understanding how the the atom explains the existence of the giraffe).
In art, Modernist fracturing of wholes into parts can be seen in movements like De Stijl and Cubism, and also, more importantly, in the curriculum of the Bauhaus. Still taught today in design schools, the Bauhaus approach sets up first-year exercises using a restricted range of elements like squares and circles. Manipulation of these elements is understood to reveal entirely abstract "principles" of "visual language" that are expected to inform eventual higher-year production of meaning. 
But as Herriot observes, explorations of dots and lines do not translate easily into real design impact. There is a disconnect between what we might call the "secession levels" of design, using an analogy from nature that describes the different types of species that successively infill a habitat devastated by fire or earthquake — first little plants and bushes before a return to oak forest. Each of the levels operates coherently in its own time frame, but the progression between is less well known. Consider the angle of a line defined by two data points on a graph. No matter how well you understand both or either of the points examined separately, that understanding will not reveal the higher-order perception of the line, which emerges out of the relationship between the two. This may be Gibson's essential point for designers; suggesting that the goal of design is no more or less than the design of emergent characteristics, for which the designer must look not just at the artifact, and not just at the user, but at the relationship between them. That relationship is the subject of design; and all of the problems with design can be traced to bad definitions of it. The plastic carry bag is a magnificent design solution — clean, cheap, elegant, useful — as long as the user is a human being standing in a corner store. It's an evil violation of survival of life on earth when the user is a sea turtle looking to eat a jellyfish.
Gibson's work was far from complete at the time of his death, and has been wildly muddled since then by proliferating insights and clashing vocabulary definitions. Space here precludes discussing any of that, but it might be interesting to note that there may be a biological reality to both Gibson's direct perception, and Müller's cognitive processing perception, in a "two stream visual processing" model of perception that proposes a "dorsal stream" (or "how" pathway) to guide action, and a "ventral stream," (or "what" pathway) to aid in identification (Miler & Goodale, 1992). This is not to say that we can offer any thoughts on how those streams might aid design, but it's always nice to spot fellow travellers waving from the bushes — we might meet up later.
Apologies to the crowd for the excessive length of this commentary, but I have just launched a Gibson literature review as part of my PhD, and am accordingly filled with that good ol' PhD excessive zeal for the glorious glut of material available. The main challenge will be keeping my review short enough to please my advisor. She is not a designer, and while I try to educate her, she keeps going on about "academic rigour." I fear she is educating me, too.

Fun,Heidi

      From: Yoád David Luxembourg <[log in to unmask]>
 To: [log in to unmask] 
 Sent: Wednesday, May 16, 2018 8:57 AM
 Subject: Re: Gibson and affordances
  
Dear Richard,

You cannot remain in gestalt theory when approaching design.

Understanding what objects or structures of sensory information mean, is 
the key to understanding how we design.

As humans we swim in sensory data, our perception hunts and identifies 
sensory structures - structures of molecules for taste and smell, 
structures of sounds, frequencies, and audio events such as when 
speaking for Audio sensory, frequencies of light and visual compositions 
for sight, and structure of surfaces and tactility for touch. Each 
structure may be linked in our brain to a meaning according to our own 
experiences and thinking.

To communicate what structures can mean to other, we must understand 
what is their own thinking and sets of experiences that would lead their 
own brain in reaching the desired meaning.

Communication is a very important to humans in general.  I recommend 
that you read Krippendorff's Semantic Turn, and if you have interest in 
touch on the neurosciences that is behind design also my own thesis  - 
Exploring universal Structures in design.

Best of Luck.

*Yoad David Luxembourg *
BA (DAE <http://www.designacademy.nl/>,2004), MA (MAHKU 
<http://www.mahku.nl/>,2006)
Ph.D (University of Porto <http://www.up.pt/>, 2015)
Creative Direction at Elementum by Daniela Pais 
<http://www.luxuryistohavesimplethings.com/>
LinkedIn <http://nl.linkedin.com/pub/yoad-david-luxembourg/5b/95a/69a>
Website <http://yodalux.wordpress.com>
On 16-5-2018 12:23, Richard Herriott wrote:
> Dear Ph.D listers:
>
> I am currently looking into Gibson´s theory of perception after having looked into Gestalt theory. I can see lots of examples of how Gestalt theory can be applied to design. For Gibson the matter is less clear if one is concerned not with physical affordances (handles, buttons, levers). The optical examples usually listed are the converging ladder, the compessed lines and the way proximity to the horizon affects how we perceive size.
>
> Can anyone point to a paper or article etc where the design consequence for 3D objects are outlined? Why does an industrial designer need to worry about converging ladders etc in the way the Gestalt Laws such as
> Pragnanz and proximity matter?
>
> Regards,
>
> Richard
>
>
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