Heidi Overhill | Sheridan Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning, Toronto, Canada

Design as choreography: information as affordance

Exhibition design differs from many other forms of design in that its explicit aim is to effect a transformation in the viewer who experiences the designed environment. The transformation is often understood as an intellectual one, in which “information” of some kind is transferred from the environment to visitors, who leave knowing more than they did when they first arrived.

As a medium for conveying information, the exhibition is generally considered to differ from media like books or television in that it caters simultaneously to different learning styles. For example, in Howard Gardner’s terminology, an exhibition permits a child who is a bodily kinesthetic learner to run around the space, while one who is a social learner can engage in discussions of the exhibits with fellow visitors. This paper will argue that the sensorial engagement of the body with the exhibits goes beyond simple “double coding” of the same message through different media, and also permits communication of bodily messages that are not intrinsically verbal in nature. Drawing on acting theory, it discusses the feedback loop between body posture and emotion. The visitor becomes in a meaningful way the performer of choreography, as the body is guided into a experience by the physical devices of the environment. Stepping, turning, bending and pausing manipulate meanings beyond words.

Describing the meaning of the design as a form of choreography invites a new interpretation of the essential idea of “information.” Using the terminology of James J. Gibson, information becomes an “affordance” — a relational entity that is located neither in the viewer nor in the design but arises out of their ongoing interaction. Meaning is not located exclusively in either the design or the perceiver — “information” is not assembled inside the mind out of raw stimuli but is perceived directly in the world by a perceiver who actively seeking meaning. This definition of information admits a broad range of nonverbal messages, not just intellectual ones. The definition also begins to describe why the medium is the message.

To test this interpretation of experiential design, the author took a professional modern dancer (formerly with the Danny Grossman troupe) to the Art Shoppe, and invited her to comment on the bodily positions imposed by different kinds of furniture there.