The Visual Cliff: Eleanor Gibson & the Origins of Affordance

By Erica Robles Anderson & Scott Ferguson

Originally presented at Hidden Histories: Gender in Design, Design History Society Seminar, April 14, 2022.

Part I: TED Talks and Teapots

In a 2003 TED Talk titled “Three Ways Design Makes You Happy,” Donald Norman announced that “The new me is beauty.” Norman – a professor, design firm principal, and the first Vice President of User Experience at Apple – ranks among the most influential figures in the field of user experience design. Yet above all, he is associated with the concept of “affordance,” an invented term now widely employed to refer to the forms and features of any useful thing.

Norman brokered the term from psychology to design in his 1988 book The Psychology of Everyday Things. Citing J.J. Gibson’s 1979 book The Ecological Theory of Perception as his source, he offered this definition: “The affordances of the environment are what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes.” In the 1980s and 1990s, the medium of computing was taking form as a mass “personal” technology. Norman was part of a movement to constrain the material and semantic scope of personal computing through psychological principles of use.

The book cover of "The Psychology of Everyday Things" depicts a tea pot with a handle that is directly underneath the spout.
Donald Norman popularized the term “affordance” in his 1988 book The Psychology of Everyday Things, later re-titled The Design of Everyday Things. Norman’s original title self-consciously references the quotidian neuroses Sigmund Freund famously analyzed in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. Norman’s book nods even more directly to Freud in the opening chapter “The Psychopathology of Everyday Things” linking daily experiences of frustration to the need for a new psychology of materials. Unlike the psychoanalyst who might help explore repressed desires and unconscious motivations, the designers’ task is to ease frustrations by generating immediate understanding.

A decade later, at the turn of a new millennium, in the aftershock of the Tech Bubble burst, Norman was now thinking about what feelings afford. He dramatized his thought process on stage:

“I really have the feeling that pleasant things work better, and that never made any sense to me until I finally figured out — look … I’m going to put a plank on the ground. So, imagine I have a plank about two feet wide and thirty feet long and I’m going to walk on it, and you see I can walk on it without looking, I can go back and forth and I can jump up and down. No problem. Now I’m going to put the plank three hundred feet in the air — and I’m not going to go near it, thank you. Intense fear paralyzes you. It actually affects the way the brain works.

That’s what fear and anxiety does; it causes you to be — what’s called depth-first processing — to focus, not be distracted. And I couldn’t force myself across that. Now some people can — circus workers, steelworkers. But it really changes the way you think.”

Donald Norman on-stage delivering a talk.
Donald Norman, “Three Ways Design Makes You Happy,” TED, 2003.

The pleasure of well-designed things has something to do with anxiety. In 2003, unease would have been a salient emotion. The United States was waging a so-called “War on Terror” and the national economy was just pulling out of a recession. A plank across an abyss affording safe passage to the skillful and the daring could be an allegory for neoliberal precarity. But Norman’s demonstration also surfaced a different moment and a history underlying affordance that seems, at first glance, to have very little to do with computing or design: Dr. Eleanor Gibson’s visual cliff

To the best of our knowledge, there are no citations of Eleanor Gibson’s work in design literature. We correct that omission. Eleanor played a foundational role in developing a paradigm that came to shape how we perceive aesthetic, technological, and political-economic possibilities.

We are currently writing a media history of affordance. The first sustained cultural analysis of the concept, we account for the term’s diffusion through networks of social scientists, designers, and technologists during a period marked by discourses about market growth and government constraint. We fundamentally reject zero-sum metaphysics. Our engagement with this history is an effort to revisit late-twentieth-century aesthetics in order to enlarge their critical possibilities toward more capacious ends.

Our analysis of Eleanor Gibson rejects additive models of gender history, with their fatal deferrals to “someday”, or “also”,  or “her or they too.” These logics reproduce inclusion as perpetual supplementarity and thus configure the project of history as an asymptotic climb toward completeness. Gibson’s visual cliff was always already a story of affordance. Our task is to critically interpret its world-shifting Gestalt.

The cover of Eleanor Gibson's memoir depicts the horizon. An overlay of lines converge toward a vanishing point.
Eleanor Gibson, Perceiving the Affordances: A Portrait of Two Psychologists (Routledge, 2002).

Part II: Baby on the Brink

In April 1960 Eleanor Gibson and Richard Walk astonished Scientific American readers with photographs featuring a baby boy crawling atop a sheet of glass laid across a checkerboard platform. On one side there appeared to be a drop-off of a few inches. The other seemed to give way to a small chasm several feet below. Although perfectly safe, the juxtaposition of opacity and transparency created the impression of a precipice, as vividly portrayed in filmed recordings of the experiments. The visual cliff staged the problem of affordance, although it was not yet named as such. Images of mothers beckoning infants to traverse the makeshift gorge entered popular culture through New York Times and Life features. They have been canonized in psychology textbooks for more than half a century. We are bringing babies back in order to think about what affordance affords.

The Cover of Scientific American shows a kitten staring over a precipice.
The “Visual Cliff” was the cover image for the April 1960 issue of Scientific American. Babies of all kinds – human, kitten, goat, rat, lamb, puppy – were placed on the apparatus.
Four images of babies on a visual cliff are depicted. In some, the mother can be seen encouraging the child.
Eleanor Gibson & Richard Walk, “The Visual Cliff,” Scientific American, April 1960.

Eleanor and J.J. met at women-only Smith College during the Great Depression. She was a student, he was an Assistant Professor. She completed her undergraduate and master’s degrees in psychology, before finishing a Ph.D. at Yale in 1938. The Gibsons spent decades at Cornell University where J.J. was a professor, but nepotism rules prohibited Eleanor from eligibility as a faculty hire. She worked as a contingent scholar, with no lab of her own nor license to apply for grants as a Principal Investigator. When J.J. retired, Eleanor became the first developmental psychologist in the Department of Psychology as well as Cornell University’s first female endowed chair. She was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1977 and she received a National Medal of Science in 1992, which is the highest scientific honor in the United States. 

If mid-century psychologists were preoccupied with social attachments, stimulus responses, and mental associations, the Gibsons, together, developed a paradigm they called perceptual ecology and the visual cliff was a crucial experimental foundation. By isolating the child from its mother, they established an ontogenetic basis for “independent locomotion” and “discrimination of depth” untethered from the psychosexual dramas and ambivalent interiorities that riddled midcentury white middle-class prosperity. As unnerving as they are exciting, photographs of babies on the brink raise the question: What does the infant see? In the experiment, almost every toddler refused to venture over the cliff. For Gibson and Walk, this not only proved the babies’ perceptual fitness, but also established that mobile depth perception is a direct ecological “endowment,” not a matter of habits, associations, or institutions. 

Newspaper clipping depicting Dr. Eleanor Gibson, President George H.W. Bush, and Dr. Allan Bromley at the White House.
“Eleanor Gibson receives the U.S. National Medal of Science in 1992,” by Roger Segelken in Cornell Chronicle.
Scientific diagrams explain the visual depth cues in the apparatus designed as a "visual cliff."
First- and third-person views of the visual cliff featured in Eleanor Gibson & Richard Walk, “The Visual Cliff,” Scientific American, April 1960.

PART III: ALL ABOUT THE GIVENS

Cybernetics has long been narrated as the paradigm that shaped human-computer interactions. Perceptual ecology reveals another path, equally foundational but ontologically distinct. Perceptual ecology is not concerned with signals, feedback loops, or uncertainty. It theorizes a sensory-rich, ever-changing world inhabited by animate perceivers. The terrain is a substance. The ground is a surface primordially differentiated from the sky at the horizon. The atmosphere is an immersive, boundless medium. Animate perceivers do not receive bits of information through discrete channels. Instead, they register the constant flux of light on surface as an “ambient optical array.” Persistent sensory information is called “invariance” and it corresponds to the “solid angles” in a shifting world.

A line drawing of a landing field is shown. Arrows indicate multiple perspectival directions of view, which vanish at the horizon and at the point of aim.
Diagram demonstrating the underlying invariant structure of the optic array from James J. Gibson, The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception (Psychology Press, 1979).

Perceptual ecology, like other paradigms that shaped human-computer interaction, addressed the predicament of the soldier moving through the world in machines. During World War II, Eleanor took leave from teaching and research to raise children and J.J. led a U.S. Army Air Forces Aviation Psychology Program called the Psychological Test Film Unit. The Unit jettisoned the instrumentation of cockpits and radar screens to make motion pictures. The animated mobile point-of-view shots we associate with first-person shooter games and virtual reality experiences were developed to train pilots and to build a psychological theory of being-in-the-world that is perceptual and ecological at once. In 1947, J.J. wrote that “All spaces in which we can live include at least one surface, the ground or terrain. If there were no surface, there would be no visual world, strictly speaking.”

A gunner door on an aircraft is open and a plane flying nearby, likely a target, can be seen.
Point of view shot from Position Firing, an animated U.S. Air Force training film directed by an un-credited John Hubley and featuring waist gunner “Trigger Joe” voiced by Mel Blanc. The film was developed to teach gunners the basics of how to hit attacking fighters from bombers like the B-17 & B-24. Position Firing is one of many test and training films discussed in James J. Gibson’s previously classified text, Motion Picture Testing and Research, Report No. 7 (1947), written under the auspices of the U.S. Army’s Psychological Test Film Unit after the Second World War.
A room is drawn as if receding from inside the head of the observer. The nose appears close up, the feet appear further back, then the boundaries of the room, then the view out the window, all the way to the horizon.
The cockpit perspective comes home. The first-person view of the wartime pilot is transmuted into a mid-century view from a living room lounge chair. CIT The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception.
Two renderings of a house are juxtaposed. In the first every edge of the shapes composing the structure can be seen. In the second, only the edges that would be visible to an observer are in view.

Perspective views of solid objects modeled by Lawrence G. Roberts. Throughout the 1960s, Roberts drew extensively from J.J. Gibson’s Perception of the Visual World (1950) to formulate a highly influential theory of computer vision focused on surfaces, edges, and lines. The pictures above were featured in Ivan E. Sutherland, “Computer Inputs and Outputs,” Scientific American 215, no. 3 (September 1966). For a media archaeology of this image in computer graphics see Jacob Gaboury, Image Objects: An Archaeology of Computer Graphics. (MIT Press, 2021).
A hand reaches out, as if attached to the player, to punch an avatar on screen.
First-person combat view from Superhot VR, a virtual reality game designed for Oculus’s Quest & Quest 2 headsets.

The visual cliff brought surfaces and animate perceivers into the lab in order to prove that discrimination is a psychological, rather than merely a physiological, problem. Babies of all kinds – human, kitten, goat, rat, lamb, puppy – were placed on the apparatus to the same effect. Surfaces are meaningful in terms of an organisms’ proprioceptive sensory capacities within an ecological niche. Their perceptual thresholds act as optical footholds or levers for immediate responsive action: edge detection. Affordance names the frame-of-reference as organism-environment relationality. 

Donald Norman’s version of “affordance” channeled perceptual ecology into design. Norman explains, “Affordances provide strong clues to the operations of things. Plates are for pushing. Knobs are for turning…when affordances are taken advantage of, the user knows what to do just by looking: no picture, label, or instruction is required” (Norman, 1988, 9). “Good design,” he argued, “leads to immediate understanding” (Norman, 1988, 23). 

Good, here, means ease, not True or Beautiful. Norman’s “natural design” breaks with Beaux-Arts, Bauhaus, and Arts and Crafts traditions. The aesthetic of “immediate understanding” took hold through the language of “user experience.” In the moment when graphical conventions were being developed, affordances constrained interface functions and forms. Affordance diffused through training programs, professional organizations, and publications. It circulated through engineering, social science, business and marketing, the arts, and the humanities. In the process, terrestrial surfaces became digital media ecologies and affordance became a term for technology, writ large.

A hand pushes upward on a seat adjustment lever attached to the side of a car door.
“Seat Adjustment Control from a Mercedes-Benz Automobile” An example of “good design” as constraint mapping, from Donald Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things (Doubleday, 1989)
A small desktop computer with a portrait of a child's face on-screen is placed on a floating white background.
Macintosh Color Classic, an all-in-one Macintosh with color display targeted at educational institutions was released the year Donald Norman joined Apple as Vice President of User Experience.

At first glance, affordance seems to be a popularized social science term. It is capaciously relational, perhaps almost to the point of banality. Upon critical reflection, however, one begins to perceive how affordance-thinking contracts the view. When ‘what you see is what you get’, social difference, intermediaries, and ethical disturbances disappear from the schema of the given.

If these politics often evade notice, perhaps it has something to do with how elegantly affordance nominalizes the verb to afford. By focusing on “the complementarity of the animal and the environment” it omits political economy, by design. To afford is to provision, to bear the expense of accomplishing something. The Gibsonian neologism replaces the political-economic provocation ‘What is to be done?,” with the perceptual ecological question, ‘What is immediately given?’

Direct experience is a rather narrow and ambivalent mode of ease. It relies upon mediations and hidden labors that must go unseen. A gender history that adds specific figures to the canon can never go far enough. There is trouble with a model that takes what is seen as the limit of what can be given. If we are to reckon with affordance we need to promote the concept to the status of a metaphysical reckoning with being-in-the-world. Like I-Thou relations, a phenomenology for Dasein, a biosemiotic Umwelt, Kantianism, or Cartesianism, there is a big move underway on the visual cliff. But there is also a sensational melodrama of eyeballs on the brink, which Norman’s turn to emotional design brings to the surface.

By queering and expanding the term we could embrace perceptual ecology as political economy as design. We can openly declare that society is not condemned to forever teeter on the cliff, whether narrative, fiscal, or metaphysical. There are many worlds that we can, in fact, afford.

About the Authors

Erica Robles Anderson is a professor of media, culture, and communication at New York University. She is a cultural historian of network society interested in architecture, technology, and religion, as forms of collective life. She is a founding member of the OIKOS working group on kinship and economy, and the Editor of Public Culture.

Scott Ferguson is a professor of film and media in the Department of Humanities and Cultural Studies at the University of South Florida, editor for the Money on the Left Editorial Collective, and research scholar at the Global Institute for Sustainable Prosperity. His research focuses on money, media and aesthetics in Western modernity.

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