Designing with metaphors

Uday Dandavate
Co-Founder and CEO, SonicRim.

A Personal note

My curiosity for uncovering the design principles behind how "Life" works has taken me in several directions, metaphors being one of them. Being trained in Industrial Design at NID, it would have been easy for me to look at skeuomorphism as a direct application of metaphors. However a life-centric curiosity makes me more interested in the discourse surrounding an object that leads to sense-making in the collective conscious of the community in which the design must live. That is why my interest in provoking this conversation is to inspire designers to look at our opportunities as sense-makers through use of metaphors. Uday Dandavate October 22, 2013

Designing with metaphors

“Most technical innovations, it should be acknowledged, result from using metaphors appropriately. Not all metaphors work, of course, but those that do can change the world. Since metaphors cross apparently distinct experiential domains, people who can move with ease through many domains and feel free to use metaphors in conversations with others have a better chance to innovate than those who hold on to the literal language of experts in any one domain.”
Klaus Krippendorf, The semantic turn: A new foundation for design.


The purpose of this white paper is to clarify how to “Design with metaphors.” When presented with fragments of information or an abstract set of concepts, metaphors allow the mind to picture the fragments as parts of a familiar concept, a category, or a form (for example, a desktop). By gaining sensitivity to metaphors that naturally work in the subconscious, designers can develop engaging, meaningful, and delightful interfaces.

Why metaphors are important

“Metaphors help compensate for our natural weaknesses. Most of us are not very good at thinking about abstractions or spiritual states so we rely on concrete or spatial metaphors to (imperfectly) do the job. A lifetime is pictured as a journey across a landscape. A person who is sad is down in the dumps, while a happy fellow is riding high. Most of us are not good at understanding new things, so we grasp them imperfectly by relating them metaphorically to things that already exist. That’s a “desktop” on your computer screen. Metaphors are things we pass down from generation to generation, which transmit a culture’s distinct way of seeing and being in the world.”
David Brooks

Designers of the desktop interface took into account a novice computer operator’s need for making sense of complex information, concepts, and procedures while conceptualizing the desktop metaphor. In the old days only a skilled computer operator could work on complex computer operating systems. The design of the graphical user interfaces (GUI) incorporating the look, feel, and nomenclature of a physical workspace made it easy for novice users to understand computer commands as if they were instinctively handling documents in a physical workspace.

The mind’s capacity to fill in

Metaphors draw upon the mind’s capacity to fill in.

The mind’s capacity to fill in

The mind is endowed with the capacity to frame meaning from scattered information available to it.

Image source: McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics., The Invisible Art. Harper Perennial. New York. 1993

The mind’s capacity to fill in

It strives to connect pieces of information into a meaningful whole.

Making sense of fragments

We are often faced with fragments of information which can seem disconnected, conflicted, incoherent, or incomplete. The mind strives to connect the fragments to construct the whole picture.

Making sense of fragments
To make sense of information fragments, the mind applies two mechanisms:
1. Associating fragments with a higher order category. 2. Relating fragments to a memory of a past meaningful experience.

Making sense of fragments

1. Associating fragments with a higher order category.

2. Relating fragments to a memory of a past meaningful experience.

In both situations the mind imagines a superstructure or a form within which the fragments can be envisioned as parts of a larger whole.

Metaphoric sense-making

“Linguistic research suggests that people use a metaphor every 10 to 25 words. Metaphors are not rhetorical frills at the edge of how we think. They are at the very heart of it.”
James Geary, “I is an outsider”

Metaphoric sense-making is a very personal experience driven by an individual’s memories. At the same time, a community of people with shared cultural, social, or linguistic memories can draw similar meanings from fragments of information if the fragments are associated with metaphors drawn from their shared memories.

Metaphors in language

“Metaphors are constructed through mappings from one domain to another. Sometimes these mappings are explicit, sometimes they are hidden, sometimes they are clear-cut one-on-one connections, and sometimes they are fuzzy and cross-levels of categorization.”
Klaus Krippendorff

The purpose of using metaphors in design of a living system is to influence how people see, decide, and act when confronted with complex sets of information. It involves mapping an experience from a source domain (memories of a past experience) on the target domain (a new design application).

Metaphors in design: An example

Donald Schon, a leading expert in reflective professional learning, provides an example of what a metaphor does for designers. A design research team was trying to improve the performance of a paintbrush. The team was focused on improving the bristles, but after experimenting with different synthetic materials and bristle designs, they could not achieve any significant improvement After many futile efforts someone suggested, “You know a paintbrush is a kind of pump; when a paintbrush is pressed against a surface, paint is forced through the spaces between the bristles on the the surface. The paint flows through channels whose size is controlled by the painter's bending of the brush. Painters even vibrate a brush to facilitate the flow of paint.”

Talking of a brush in terms of a pump radically altered the researchers’ conception of their task. When the “paintbrush is pump” metaphor entered their deliberations, the designers experienced a gestalt switch from seeing a brush as a bundle of bristles to seeing it as a system of capillaries that soak up the paint and enable the painter to squeeze it onto the surface by controlling the painting rather differently. The metaphor changed the designers’ perceptions and led to better paintbrushes and several patents. The metaphor not only changed individual perceptions occurring in language, it also coordinated the actions of the development team members, which is a social process.

Metaphors in language

Most artifacts occur in language before they are put to use, and often continue in language well after they fall out of favor. Artifacts that are being talked about enter the language of particular communities and become social or cultural artifacts, often well before they are actually used by individuals. The meanings that artifacts acquire in use are largely framed in language, and enacting these meanings occupies only a small part of their life.

Designers should learn metaphors in language because they: •  Direct attention; •  Frame perception; •  Create facts; •  Are relational; •  Are an embodied phenomenon. Therefore, understanding language is critical to developing the ability to practice design as meaning-making activity. Designers can find use from understanding language as a: •  System of signs and symbols; •  Medium of individual expression; •  Medium of interpretation; •  Process of coordinating the perceptions and actions of its speakers.

Structural metaphors

The metaphor, “Argument is war” is reflected in our everyday language through a wide variety of expressions, e.g.:
•  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  Your claims are indefensible. He attacked every weak point in my argument. His criticisms were right on target. I demolished his argument. I’ve never won an argument with him. You disagree? OK Shoot! If you use that strategy, he’ll wipe you out. He shot down all of my arguments.

Many of the things we argue are partially structured by the concept of war. Though there is no physical battle, there is a verbal battle and the structure of an argument – attack, defense, counterattack, etc. – reflects this.
From “Metaphors we live by” by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson

In illustrating an argument, a designer does not need to show visualizations of “war attributes.”

Structural metaphors

The metaphor “Time is money” adds meaning to the perception of time as a valuable commodity, e.g.:
•  You are wasting my time. •  This gadget will save you hours. •  I don’t have the time to give you. •  How do you spend your time these days? •  That flat tire cost me an hour. •  I’ve invested a lot of time in her. •  I don't have enough time to spare for that. •  You’re running out of time. •  You need to budget your time. •  Put aside some time for ping pong. •  Is that worth our while? •  Do you have much time left? •  He’s living on borrowed time. •  You don’t use your time profitably. •  I lost a lot of time when I got sick. •  Thank you for your time. From “Metaphors we live by” by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson

Orientation metaphors

While structural metaphors involve representing one concept in terms of another, orientation metaphors give a concept a spatial orientation: up-down, in-out, front-back, on-off, deep-shallow, central-peripheral, e.g.:
•  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  Happy is up; sad is down. Conscious is up; unconscious is down. Health and life are up; sickness and death are down. Having control or force is up; being subject to control or force is down. More is up; less is down. High status is up; low status is down. Good is up; bad is down. Virtue is up; depravity is down. Rational is up: emotional is down.

From “Metaphors we live by” by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson

Every effective metaphor has an experiential basis which must be understood with reference to the physical and cultural context of that experience.

Ontological metaphors


Ontology is the philosophical study of the nature of being, becoming, existing, or living in reality, as well as the basic categories of being and their relations. Ontological metaphors are based on our experiences with physical objects (including our bodies). These metaphors involve viewing events, activities, emotions, and ideas as entities and substances, e.g.:
Inflation is an entity: •  •  •  Inflation is lowering our standard of living. If there is much more inflation, we’ll never survive. We need to combat inflation.

The mind is a machine: •  •  •  My mind just isn’t operating today. Boy, the wheels are turning now. I’m a little rusty today.

The mind is a brittle object: •  He cracked up.

From “Metaphors we live by” by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson

Ontological metaphors

The idea of territory is a basic human instinct. We perceive ourselves as containers, set off from the rest of the world by the surface of our skin, and we experience the world around us as the outside us. We also project our own in-out orientation onto other physical objects that are bounded by surfaces.

Room/house is a container:
•  I am moving out of the room.

Visual field is a container:
•  •  •  The ship is coming into view. I have him in sight. There is nothing in sight.

An event is a container:
•  •  Are you in a race on Sunday? He is out of the race now.

From “Metaphors we live by” by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson

Ontological metaphors

Specifying a physical object as a person allows for comprehending a wide variety of experiences with non-human entities in terms of human motivations, characteristics, and activities, e.g.:

•  Life has cheated me. •  Inflation is eating up our profits. •  Our biggest enemy right now is inflation. From “Metaphors we live by” by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson


Metonymy is a figure of speech in which a certain concept is used to stand in for another concept with which it is associated, e.g.:
•  Crown - in place of a royal person. •  The White House - in place of the President or others who work there. •  The suits - in place of business people. •  Dish - for an entire plate of food. •  The Pentagon - to refer to the staff. •  The library - for the staff or the books. •  Pen - for the written word. •  Sword - for military might. •  Hand - for help. •  The name of a country - used in place of the government, economy, etc. From “Metaphors we live by” by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson

Designers can support exploration of artifacts by using common metonyms as metaphors. For example, Apple computers started to use the image of a garbage can for users to drag unwanted files to it for deletion.


Metaphors can be used in design in a variety of ways:
1.  To develop navigational attributes of a software product. 2.  To envision experiential qualities of a new product interface (hardware and software) based on people’s cherished experiences with another entity (a product, a relationship, a person, an environment). 3.  To synergize team creativity by providing a metaphor as a guideline for brainstorming ideas.


“Being aware of metaphors reminds you of the central role that poetic skills play in our thoughts. If much of our thinking is shaped and driven by metaphors, then the skilled thinker will be able to recognize patterns, blend patterns, apprehend the relationships, and pursue unexpected likenesses. Even the hardest of the sciences depend on a foundation of metaphors. To be aware of metaphors is to be humbled by the complexity of the world, to realize that deep in the undercurrents of thought there are thousands of lenses popping up between us and the world, and that we’re surrounded at all times by what Steven Pinker of Harvard once called ‘pedestrian poetry’.”

David Brooks, “Poetry for Everyday Life” in The New York Times

Examples: Metaphors for communication

At SonicRim, a global exploratory study of communication behaviors for a leading technology company led us to recommend “City” as a metaphor for development of an ecosystem of communication and online tools. Below are the qualities of city life that make this metaphor suitable.
A city is made up of many random, unknown people (a lot of random people are on social networks): •  Make it easy to discover other people on the services on the communication portal. Engaged in constant activity (someone’s always posting something): •  Design the communication portal services to feel like a place that always has something going on. Life in a city is marked by mixed-use of spaces and destinations (lots of things to do on the Internet, e.g.: play, shop, chat, flirt, etc.): •  Make the communication portal service the place where people connect to a range of online services and activities. •  Enable the communication portal service to be embedded in a variety of online activities (e.g.: shopping, viewing media, interacting on blogs, etc.). They create unplanned/accidental interactions (seeing people’s posts triggers conversation and spontaneous plans): •  Find ways to show people interesting things that their network is doing or talking about. Visible patterns of interesting behaviors encourage spontaneous interactions (going where the crowd is, seeing a highly thumbed copy of a book at the library): •  Find ways to show people patterns in their and their network’s communication activities.

Examples: Metaphors for vehicle interiors

A global study on the future of “smart experiences in the vehicle” – conducted for a global company responsible for innovating interior systems for the automobile industry – led to development of four key metaphors. The identification of metaphors helped organized a series of ideation workshops where designers, engineers, marketing executives, and automotive company representatives were engaged in conceptualizing specific electronic and mechanical features that would enable people to experience different moments of their drive, as moments resonant with experiences from other spaces – moments from their life outside of the vehicle. The shift in focus from designing automotive components to designing experience features that bring alive desired attributes of metaphors allowed participants to come up with break-through ideas that would delight drivers with the comforts and conveniences of real-life experiences associated with the metaphors.

Examples: Magazine as a metaphor
A leading retain chain hired SonicRim to explore behavioral and aspirational aspects of how people shop for a specific category of products. The objective was to develop a strategic framework that inspired conceptualization of a customer journey and an in-store branded experience. Through ethnographic research and cognitivemapping activities we compiled a large number of stories from people that revealed their habits, motivations, values, and challenges. We realized that in order to understand and develop a branded experience, the client team needed to internalize the stories from the life of their target audience as a resource to shape their understanding of customer habits, motivations, values, and challenges. As a visioning activity, we designed a fictitious magazine as a metaphor that would drive team activities at the client’s company. We recommended that through an ongoing editorial compilation and narration of stories from the lives of everyday people, the client team would develop deep understanding of the emerging category, and then craft marketing messages that would resonate with their customers.

Examples: Metaphors for digital tracking

Recently we completed a global study FRIENDS ANTICIPATE YOUR NEEDS. for a digital agency where we explored how, when, and why people consume FRIENDS CHALLENGE YOU. video- based ads and how those FRIENDS ARE FUN. videos influence family decisions. A key question that we addressed was, FRIENDS RESPECT YOUR BOUNDARIES. “how receptive are people towards being tracked in order to deliver personalized video content to them?” The answer to this question was discovered in the form of a metaphor that plays out in the imagination of the participants. As long as the relationship with the device or the digital portal was that of a friend who understands them and shares experiences with them as a confidant, they would allow the digital agency to UNDERSTAND them.

“Even the hardest of the sciences depends on a foundation of metaphors. To be aware of metaphors is to be humbled by the complexity of the world, to realize that deep in the undercurrents of thought there are thousands of lenses popping up between us and the world, and that we’re surrounded at all times by what Steven Pinker of Harvard once called ‘pedestrian poetry’.”

David Brooks 

Examples: Metaphors in politics

Metaphor and other forms of figurative or symbolic language have been thought to be persuasive devices for many years. Dozens of political theorists have extolled the virtue of metaphors as effective persuasive devices or have demonized metaphors as manipulative tools of politicians. Such linguistic devices are important- even necessary-tools of political discourse because political events are abstract and too numerous for public consumption. Metaphors allow the general public to grasp the meanings of political events and feel a par of the process. They are also effective because of their ability to resonate with latent symbolic representations residing at the unconscious level. Finally metaphors fit into the prevailing notions of information processing models of public knowledge of politics. Because of information processing demands, people cannot pay attention to all aspects of political evidence. Therefore, something is needed to simplify decision-making, and metaphor and other shortcut devices (e.g. cognitive heuristics) address this need. Jeffery Scott Mio in Metaphor and Politics, California State Polytechnic, Pomona.

How to design with metaphors

How to design with metaphors

Using generative research methods, design researchers explore memories of various significant moments tied to the topic of design (e.g.: a driving experience).

Organizing stories and participantgenerated artifacts (such as cognitive maps) help identify metaphors that lend meaning to specific experiences tied to the topic of the study.

Using metaphors as a source domain, designers help transpose experiential characteristics of the metaphor on to a target domain (an experience associated with the design project).


Brooks, David, OPED “Poetry for Everyday Life” in The New York Times, April 11, 2011. Geary, James, I Is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World. Harper Collins Publishers, New York 2011. Krippendorff Klaus, The Semantic Turn, A New Foundation for Design, CRC Press. Boca Ranton, London, New York, 2006 Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live by, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London 1980 Lakoff, George, Women, Fire and Dangerous Things. What Categories Reveal about the Mind. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London 1987.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics., The Invisible Art. Harper Perennial. New York. 1993 Schon, Donald. Generative metaphor: A perspective on problem setting in social policy. In Metaphor and Thought. Ed. Endrew Ortony. Pp 137-163 Scott Mio, Jeffery in Metaphor and Politics, Metaphor and Symbol, 12(2), pg 113-133 California State Polytechnic, Pomona. 1997

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