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Much of what designers do involves generating and deploying metaphors. The way we make sense of the world around us in all its increasing complexity is by activating metaphorical understanding from adjacent areas. Design has traditionally been good at configuring metaphor in ways that adapt to changing circumstances. Nietszche considered metaphor to be interchangeable with knowledge, and that metaphor was the basis of language and perception. In the same way that words and sentences are metaphorical representations of things we encounter in the world, so a graphical icon of a file stands for a certain configuration of bits arranged in such away that allows us to act upon it. Almost all of what we think of as interface design is metaphorical. Desktop, file, folder, trashcan etc are cognitive shortcuts that get us past computational processes and allow us to act with, and through, computers in productive ways.

The key text here is Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By, written in 1981, in which they show how metaphor is the main mechanism through which we comprehend abstract concepts, and perform abstract reasoning. They suggest that most ideas, from the most mundane to the most abstruse scientific theories, can only be comprehended via metaphor. Metaphor allows us to understand an abstract or inherently unstructured topic in terms of more concrete, or at least more highly structured, subject matter. More precisely, Lakoff and Johnson came up with the idea of metaphor as a mapping process. They describe this mapping as taking place across domains. Metaphor acts as a conceptual bridge between entities in a source domain, such as the spatial, and a target domain, such as a hierarchy. So up means good, superior, advanced, and down means inferior, smaller, cheaper. These are called orientational metaphors.

If harnessing metaphor in digital design is limited to interface mechanics, the task is a relatively programmatic one with well-established habits and customs. That’s why we see dashboards, menus, buttons, sliders, templates, and pages. They’re all familiar information interfaces from the non-digital world with broadly understood affordances. Where they are not familiar, eg in cultures where reading is from right to left, or where visual customs are different, the designer must first provide ways of indicating how interactions map to effects (for example by using arrows or colours), and second provide ways of learning the interface easily, for example by using progressive disclosure. This limited palette of visual metaphors in current interface design practices is why designers get so worked up by skeuomorphism. As interface designs get more and more familiar, we need reduced metaphorical cues, and the taste for more sophisticated metaphors develops.

Where it gets interesting is when the metaphor takes over the concept and we find ourselves trapped in a misconceived metaphor so dominant it starts to negatively affect the way we see the world. Evgeny Morozov points out how internet freedom is understood through the metaphor of the cold war. This fundamental misconception causes US diplomats to misjudge the social and political repercussions of their acts. He argues that the metaphor of the Chinese fire-wall, for example, conceals widespread ignorance about what lies behind the history of Chinese foreign policy, and tends to reductively technologise geopolitical movements. Cloud computing is the current dominant metaphor for distributed non-local computer storage. The concept of cloud computing suggests intangibility, rapid transformation, and distant transitory effects. Clouds can’t be controlled, operated, or owned and the metaphor ends up serving unaccountable private interests such as Amazon or Dropbox. The cloud computing metaphor obscures the material nature of computing, such as remains tractable to everyday understanding.

My research is about countering these hazy metaphors in a direct confrontation with material circumstances, physical, social and contextual. I’ve started calling this radical re-materalisation. Because we have come so far from any real grounded understanding of how computational or algorithmic process work, one way of reconnecting them to what Nietszche saw as adjacent social and physical experiences is to embody them in tangible materials, observable and shareable actions, and real world settings. I see design and the tacit knowledge of designers as playing an important role here. What then are appropriate metaphors for digital processes available to design skill and knowledge? There is no single answer to this. Metaphors must be felt out, suggested, explored in dynamic interaction with participants and materials. I do think there a few important safeguards against the imposition of new misconceived metaphors however.

1. Participant action. If the designer offers people the chance to configure their own representations, within actionable constraints, then perhaps some degree of autonomy will result and unsuitable metaphors will be less likely to arise.

2. Flexibility. If the design of new metaphors leaves room for personalisation, adaptation, and transformation then fixed and immovable representations will be subject to mutation. In this way the rapid pace of technological change can be matched by an adjacent development of appropriate metaphors.

3. Openness. Mass connectivity implies increased possibility for distribution of ideas and concepts. Ensuring designs remain accessible, shareable, and configurable means they have a chance for widespread dissemination.

There is lots more to say on this topic, not least that designers should be aware that our trade is in metaphorical meaning and with awareness comes responsibility. With increasing computational complexity, the black boxing of technological systems become more necessary. Unlocking the boxes through appropriate representations can be a way of spreading self determination and autonomy.

Image: The Numskulls, DC Comics

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