Background to New Metaphors

Much—perhaps all—user experience and interaction design makes use of metaphors. Initially they’re often used by designers to introduce users to new approaches to interaction or data visualization, giving us a link to something we already understand. But over time they can become so familiar that we no longer think of them as ‘metaphors’ any more. Do we even notice the metaphorical aspect of desktops and windows and folders and files? What about the cloud, feeds, threads, forums, the net, browsers, the web, websites, or the notion of a ‘site’ itself?

Sometimes designers look for new metaphors intentionally, for examples where a new technology offers new possibilities that need some ‘anchoring’ (itself a metaphor) to a familiar concept to be understood. But if we go beyond thinking solely about interaction with technology, new metaphors potentially have a much bigger role.

Many challenges facing humanity today and in the future are complex, involving relationships, complexities, and timescales which are difficult to understand and represent in simple terms. By mapping features of an existing or familiar situation onto a new
or unknown one, it can make it easier for us to grasp it more quickly. Sometimes it can be valuable as a form of user research to investigate the metaphors people are currently using (consciously
or not) to explain an issue, and what implications that can have.

Nevertheless, metaphors are not the thing itself—they are always an abstraction, a model of the situation. They can be a map to a territory, but should not be mistaken for the territory itself. All metaphors are wrong, but some are useful; they can become a kind of disruptive improvisation technique for helping us think differently and reframe issues.

Expanding our conceptual vocabulary

Artists and poets are experienced in playing with metaphors, but
intentionally creating new metaphors to enable new ways of thinking—giving us a kind of expanded vocabulary—has been proposed by people in many fields, from anthropology (e.g. Margaret Mead and Mary Catherine Bateson) to politics (e.g. George Lakoff).

Economists and social scientists have examined how the metaphor of ‘the national economy as a household budget’, or even ‘a container/bucket/pot’, commonly employed by media and politicians, can lead to specific policy decisions being made that arguably cause harm. How would political discussion on
the economy be different if a different metaphor were used? We can imagine ideas such as the economy is a garden or the economy is a loaf of bread being baked. The New Economics Foundation and partners tested new metaphors such as the economy is a computer that can be reprogrammed through surveys with the British public. Indeed, we (the Imaginaries Lab) hosted a webinar for the Disruptive Innovation Festival 2018, run by circular economy charity the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, in which new metaphors were generated and discussed relating to circular economy issues, including organ donation as a metaphor for circular business models, and leaves changing colour as a metaphor for product end-of-life.

From global issues (e.g. engagement with government), right down to the personal level (e.g. mental health), there is an opportunity to create and explore new metaphors, and adopt and adapt them from other cultures, traditions, and contexts. It could inspire creative approaches to designing new interfaces, products, services, communication campaigns, ways of explaining ideas, and more widely, help reframe societal issues around technology and other issues of global importance, providing an expanded ‘conceptual vocabulary’. A method for doing so could be a useful part of the designer’s toolbox—hence the cards you have with you right now.

The hunt for “defensible metaphors”, to use cyberneticist Gordon Pask’s term, is not necessarily easy, and while the role of ‘metaphor designer’ is emerging, there’s little in terms of specific methods for designers to use. There are computational and machine learning approaches, particularly in the growing area of generative creativity, often through bots. But among ‘human’ creativity methods there are only a few projects of which we’re aware (see Other Resources).

The cards and process

What we’re offering here with New Metaphors is (as you’ll have seen from the first section of the booklet) very simple, perhaps even trivial. The method is basically browsing sets of images and text cards and then combining them in creative ways to suggest possible metaphors and think through what they might mean.

There are no right or wrong answers. The characteristic-mapping or other processes using the worksheets are helpful, but optional. The combination is a process of bisociation—as described by Arthur Koestler, “the perceiving of a situation or idea… in two self-consistent but habitually incompatible frames of reference” and shares a lot with certain approaches to humour.

Or we could think of it as just a simple juxtaposition of ideas as a provocation, in the style of Edward de Bono or games such as Mad Libs or Cards Against Humanity. This kind of juxtaposition is a common feature of creativity facilitation, and can be fast-paced, intended to be a creative trigger method to generate multiple ideas quickly and then enable subsequent evaluation and development.

Or, as explained earlier, you might choose only to use the image cards, and/or create your own cards, using them together with a specific problem or topic you already have for which you seek a new metaphor. This is closer to the way that Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies cards work: almost oracle-like, for overcoming creative or personal blocks, more similar to the I Ching or the ‘event scores’ produced by some artists in the Fluxus movement of the 1960s and 70s. With the Design with Intent cards, previously produced by one of the authors, we found that there were many different ways people used the cards, from treating them almost like a book, to picking one or two cards each week to act as inspiration, to using them to categorize or classify existing things in the world.

In Gregory Bateson’s words, metaphor is a “pattern that connects” two concepts. In some ways, a ‘forced connection’ method such as New Metaphors could be a creative exercise in finding patterns where maybe none exists, but treating it as if one does—a kind of ‘apophenia as method’.

We are confident that you’ll find interesting ways to make use of New Metaphors, particularly as you add your
own cards over time, and would love to see and hear what you do—please share them here.

How the images and concepts were chosen

There is nothing inherently special or ‘right’ about any of the cards included here. They’re just drawn from our own noticings, and from concepts which have been suggested by students, previous
workshop participants, some very helpful Twitter followers, and topics in previous projects ranging from energy use to career paths. In a way, our choice of images and concepts is kind of what makes us the ‘authors’—they’re our selection of ideas we think you’ll find inspirational and generative.

The 100 image cards are an arbitrarily chosen mixture of natural and artificial phenomena (and sometimes combinations of the two). The examples were partly drawn from sensory or synaesthesia-inspired ideas, such as sweetness, and partly from everyday phenomena that seemed interesting as potential ‘design’ material—particularly drawing on work around qualitative interface design, indexical visualization and data physicalization—from the hum of a fridge to hanging clothes out to dry.

For the 50 concept cards, these ranged from invisible system relationships (e.g. power relations between people or even financial markets) to intangible emotions, feelings or personality properties (e.g. confidence or anxiety). We thought that each phenomenon was something we would be interested in seeing (or otherwise experiencing) an interface or display for, or a rethink of how it was explained or presented.

The early prototype versions of the cards featured more concept cards and fewer images, but through lots of workshops, we realised that the images are often the more ‘generative’ part of the method, and that the concept cards are essentially mainly needed for getting into the method, before substituting your own concepts in their place.

Some of the photos and examples in this booklet are drawn from New Metaphors workshops run with design (mainly interaction and UX) and futures practitioners, and students, in France (workshops at IxDA Interaction 18, Lyon, and the Plurality University Network’s Portes Ouvertes, in Paris, both with practitioners), Portugal (workshop at the UX Lisbon 2018 conference, with practitioners), Chile workshops at the Universidad del Desarrollo in Santiago and Concepción, both with students), and the USA (workshops at the Google SPAN 2017 conference, with practitioners, and the Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship at Carnegie Mellon University, with students).

We have mainly used industry conferences and events as venues for running the workshops—although we developed the cards in a university, these are not meant to be a purely academic
tool. We have also explored using variants of the workshop method and cards for teaching within conventional classroom and design studio settings, and in workshops at academic conferences, and in digital versions.