If we bring together ten or twelve objects to sit on gathered in a room including mostly chairs but also a couple of non-chairs e.g. an old computer, some telephone directories, and a 40cm diameter inflated exercise ball etc, this is a good starting point for some experiential learning. Say there is a group of sixteen people; get eight of them to sit in or on everything in turn, as in the game musical chairs, and the other eight to watch and observe. What do they notice? Ask the observers to note or comment upon anything they notice about the behaviour of the ‘sitters’. Then swap, so that everybody does both the exploratory sitting, and the observing and noting. Then ask people to report and comment upon what they noticed. Right away, the experience of being with, and using chairs has been theatrically engaged with, illustrated and communicated. The contrast with a process of just looking or choosing is obvious. The beginnings of an extended language has been struck for the group. Nothing they didn’t already know has been ‘put in’, but the movement and enactment and observation has created a complex set of links to everything that all in the group know about chairs, to be drawn out subsequently and developed in the coming sessions. Aspects of the participants’ ‘haptic knowledge’ (that is, touch and movement-related knowledge) have been made partially visible, and established as an extendable design language of greater sophistication than one that deals only in appearances, which as we know can be deceptive.
Having set the scene by these means it is then possible to grab a chair, to walk around it, to pick it up, to knock it over, to stand on it, lounge in it, work in it, try to test it, etc., all by following around with the relevant body movements all the affordances of the object i.e. the fully fledged extended dance of use that the object can afford to us through our expectation, imagination, and dependence. This is the outer life of the chair; the relational properties of it, all of which can be thoroughly explored as a set of principles or phenomena before considering the individual object design and construction. It is, if you like, an exploration of ‘chair-ness’, in the human context.
This approach to ergonomics links to the already formed haptic intelligence of the participants from which can be quickly developed a personalised design technique which, rather than being theory based, becomes an evolution of knowledge already present. It is so much easier and more natural to take something you already know (even if you don’t know you knew it) and then refine, add, or subtract from this; rather than try to ‘apply’ something you do not know, i.e., have only encountered in the form of a representation, such as a book, charts, diagrams etc. Whilst this example about the affordance of the chair is a specific one, in general terms the way this approach relates to such things as fluid dynamics, scientific visualisation, illustration, spatial design etc., is compelling. This concentration upon the affordance of the designed product goes further than chair design of course. It could be thought of as a core principle of ecologically configured design and sustainable social processes.