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Why Metaphors Matter

Posted 4 years ago by Linh Nguyen

All the world’s a stage. Organisations are ecosystems. The self is a blank slate. Metaphors like these are illuminating, helping us to see things in a different way. They provide new insight and can even change the way we think.

Metaphors are more than devices; they’re central to how we understand the world. They don’t belong solely to language, but help us to reason and understand what’s around us. In the influential book Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson observe how metaphors are so seeped into the collective consciousness that we use them everyday. Without even thinking about it, we talk about how time is money, affection is warm, hate is cold.

“The way we think, what we experience, and what we do every day is very much a matter of metaphor.”

Metaphors are useful in design because a large part of the craft is about seeing things in a new light. And when things are seen in a new light, new solutions may reveal themselves. Metaphors do more than cloak something in a poetic veil: like design, they broaden our minds and help us learn how to see. What does one thing have to do with another thing? And how best to explain a connection when we make it? Through metaphors, of course.

Ideas are frustrating because they’re hard to manifest into the world – imagination will always be compromised by reality. No exact words will do either, so ideas are equally frustrating to explain. Our mind works in interesting ways. We can find it difficult to grasp something physically, like the universe itself; but when given an abstraction of the physical through metaphors, something clicks into place, and we understand it on a conceptual level. Isn’t it both a strange and wonderful thing that we can grasp how love can be deep as the sea? Or how life comes in chapters as if it were a book?

Metaphors help to add depth to the explanation of an idea. All of a sudden, we have a vision. Pinterest is a ‘moodboard.’ The original iPod was described as ‘1000 songs in your pocket.’ All our data belongs to this entity called ‘The Cloud.’ And look at the way we use colour to add meaning and perspective. Green makes us think of nature; blue is more corporate and high-tech, think of Linkedin and WordPress; red is urgent and demanding, used profusely on sales days, encouraging us to buy things. We don’t see things as they are, we react to them with an association based on culture, context and character.

Metaphors, as journalist Michael Erard writes in an article for Aeon, are about “assist[ing] understanding.”

“I see my job as being able to assist understanding. My metaphors close the gap in people’s ability to grasp something, or speed up what they’re already on track to see. I’m not creating fantastical scenes of my own invention or distracting people from what they should be looking at. The windows and doors of the metaphor room are supposed to provide another way of looking at reality.”

A great metaphor can tell us how we might use something.

This new way of looking at reality extends beyond the written word. Metaphors are powerful tools for visual communication too, from pictographs to advertisement. Skeuomorphism, which is the application of real life objects to the web, is an example of visual metaphors but in a more literal way. The stuff we see on the web is just a load of pixel made to look like something from the physical world. A button isn’t a button but looks like one because it’s intended to function like the real thing. We’re encouraged to click on it. A magnifying glass lets us know we can zoom in on something. Tabs work just like actual tab documents. One of the earliest metaphors used in interface design is the desktop metaphor, in which the computer monitor is treated like the user’s desktop. Objects can be moved around, and we are presented with other desktop essentials like a notepad, folders and a calculator. A favourite metaphor of mine, and less literal, is Google’s ‘Unable to connect to the Internet’ T-Rex, conveying to us that having no wi-fi is like being in the dinosaur age. True that.

By imitating real life, designers help to make the web experience familiar because we learn to connect new things to what we already know. Familiarity helps to get us onboard as we begin to understand what a product is for. But before we can even make the unfamiliar familiar, we must consider our audience first. Metaphors differ from culture to culture. If we go back to the example of colours, red may suggest anger to us, but in China it means good luck. In order to design the right metaphor, we need to think about what’s already in the system. What do people recognise? Because it’s not just about understanding, in the case of the interface metaphor, but also navigation. When we go onto a website, we always want to go somewhere with it. We expect cause to have an effect. A great metaphor can tell us how we might use something. It’s like a form of mapping that guides us to our intended destination.

This is also know as affordances in web design, which is when an object is perceived to perform a particular action. For example, a chair offers support, it affords sitting. Affordances can be explicit, saying ‘click here’ or a bit more suggestive like the form of a button. Design with affordances done well guides users to do what it wants, to take one action over another. The beloved Mailbox (it was a sad day when it shut down) taught us that a few swipes in certain directions will perform different tasks, but in a really intuitive way. I’m aware swiping is a feature common now in other apps such as Google’s Inbox, but Mailbox’s clean and minimal interface made it so much easier to navigate, and more pleasurable to use because it was so streamlined.

Design is a practise in metaphor-making because it’s about finding the best way to communicate something. It’s also related to analogies, which is finding solutions by connecting two disparate things. Metaphors are associations; analogies are applications via associations. The story of James Dyson is a great lesson in metaphor-making and analogising:

“My inspiration to invent and redesign is fed through frustration. I spend a lot of time taking things apart and putting them back together, considering how they work and how they might work better. Observation is important. The inspiration for incorporating a cyclone on a vacuum cleaner came from a visit to a sawmill. Using an industrial cyclone it was able to remove the sawdust from the air. I found myself thinking ‘Could we use this principle on a smaller scale?’ Five years later I had developed the G-Force, my first bagless vacuum cleaner.”

The Dyson metaphor is that a hoover is a cyclone. It’s interesting, because the purpose of the vacuum cleaner didn’t change (which is to clean), but it was reworked. This reworking is inherent in both design and metaphors.

Great design metaphors strengthen the bond between the human-computer interaction, so that we can see beyond the machine, the pixels, the 1’s and 0’s.

Metaphors, according to Lakoff and Johnson, are ubiqutious yet largely invisible. We use them without even realising we’re using them. Because metaphors are so intrinsic to how we see the world, it makes sense that the web should be steeped in metaphors too. Languages on the web that are robotic don’t do well for communication because we don’t speak or think in that way. Accessibility starts with readability. Metaphors are a means of communication between designers and users. Great design metaphors strengthen the bond between the human-computer interaction, so that we can see beyond the machine, the pixels, the 1’s and 0’s: The computer is seen as a network or a vast library. Dropbox’s logo let us know it’s a place where we go to store our valuable stuff. These associations, as well as real world references, make our digital tools accessible and therefore effective.

Metaphors on the web present just one version of reality, one version of how we experience the world. Different metaphors create different experiences. What makes them powerful and worth appreciating is their ability to develop new meaning from the connection of two distinct entities. They help us to see more than just the tip of the iceberg.

Why, hello there! I’m the word-generator at Marvel with a background in the humanities. I also like walks, talks, and…rhymes. You can contact me on good ol’ email.

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