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What is a Metaphor?

I mean, really: what is that?

You and I, we’ve done something terrible. We’ve used certain words, although we only have a fairly vague idea of what they mean. Yet we use them, either because we want to sound smart or we feel that they’re appropriate in a certain context. Or because we actually think we know what we’re talking about.

That’s terrible, but most of the time it sort of works, because our vague ideas are often more or less similar. But you know it works only sort of, because boy are we glad we didn’t get found out by having to explain the word.

Have you used the word metaphor before? Because not only since Google’s introduction of Material Design the tech world is abuzz with it. Do you know what a metaphor is? Do you have a vague idea? That’s alright, we’ll be more confident in a few moments.

Really understanding the deep structure of a concept or a word helps articulate ideas more clearly. Let’s start with some ground work:

Metaphor: Middle English methaphor, from Greek metapherein “transference”, “to transfer”: meta- + pherein, “to carry”.

So, (taking etymology into account,) when you use a metaphor, you transfer and apply one concept to another. Here’s how that works:

The Literary Metaphor

The metaphor as a literary trope is basically a shortcut; a mental and a linguistic shortcut for expressing a comparison. But in taking the shortcut, it becomes more than a comparison. Let me elaborate: If we liken one thing to another, we call that a simile, for example “Your mouth is (red) as a rose”. The appropriate metaphor would be: “Your mouth is a rose.” The so-called verbum proprium (the actual word, in this case mouth) is charged with the characteristics of rose, the verbum improprium (i.e. deep red, velvety, redolent, etc.).

The verbum proprium (mouth) may also be left out and has to be deducted from the context, leaving us with “Your rose ...”. Consequently, as we saw above, the verbum proprium is not just replaced by the verbum improprium, but it becomes semantically charged, that is, enhanced with new content that is not originally in the word mouth itself. Likewise, if we say “the pearls of her mouth” and mean “her teeth”, they obtain that quality of hardness, shine, durability, value, and jewelry. However, a metaphor only works, if the reader can interpret it with moderate effort. Anyone will stare at you blankly if you say “the pearls of your rose”.

Metaphors help us express ideas and concepts that are hard or cumbersome to utter. Take the famous beginning of T.C. Boyle’s Drop City: “The morning was a fish in a net“. What he might want to refer to is brightness, glistening, sparkle. But this short sentence encompasses so much more, from freshness and purity to powerful death throes, violent displacement, captivity—you get the picture.

The Digital Metaphor

How does this help us understand a metaphor in the digital context? Clearly, a digital metaphor is different from a rhetorical or philosophical metaphor in that it does not exactly substitute one thing with another. Applying a high level of abstraction in a digital context also does not seem feasible—after all, we want to communicate as clearly and directly as possible in the digital space. And the semantic charging is, at best, very low. Why, then, do we talk about metaphors at all?

“A metaphor makes us see one thing as another by making some literal statement that inspires or prompts the insight.”
—Donald Davidson, What Metaphors Mean

Compare that with the introductory statement in Google’s Material Design Guidelines:

“A material metaphor is the unifying theory of a rationalized space and a system of motion. The material is grounded in tactile reality, inspired by the study of paper and ink, yet technologically advanced and open to imagination and magic.”

In the digital space, visual cues help us interact with metaphors. So, if we see black letters on a white background, we probably cannot modify them. Something that has a shadow to create the illusion of depth, however, can probably be modified and interacted with. Still, both can be metaphors: the first may be the ink on paper of an ebook, the second may be the bin you use to delete files.

Here we can bridge the gap between the rhetorical and functional. The common denominator is the shortcut: We see or hear something and we instantly know what it means and how it works. We know that because we know how the natural world functions, we have experienced the touch and scent of a rose and we have written on paper, stacked it or moved it out of the way. When we move in a non-natural space (language or user interface), the metaphor allows us to transfer our knowledge of the natural into that space. We don’t need to be told about the qualities of a rose or of paper, so we can show rather than tell and still make meaning. That is the shortcut that makes for such efficient communication.

So in language, as in design, we usually use metaphors where more concrete concepts fall short. When we draw a picture of something, we are able to remember and relate to it much more easily. That’s why our brain is always in metaphor-mode.

We make an as-if construction and pretend the world is not as it is. In doing so, we obtain new perspectives and are able to see analogies between objects. As Raoul Schrott says, “the metaphor creates its own universe, in which categorial gravity and semantic force of attraction take on different levels and directions. It is a form of optical illusion—one that, paradoxically, makes us see the real world more clearly.”

Metaphors work best if they are consistent and form an integral part of a design system. They begin at one end of the digital experience and move you swiftly through, all the way to the other end: your desired goal. The greatest danger that threatens to make your metaphor worthless is mixing it with other metaphors that don’t share similar qualities (like using paper and ink with one element and crab cake with another).

Ultimately, metaphors can help you add a system of cohesion and coherence to your design. Ideally, that system is glued together by the metaphor and just falls into place. That’s why we always hear that simple design is so hard: we have to find a concept that is consistent and clear—which incidentally is the opposite of “fairly vague”. It’s something we can confidently talk about. It doesn’t make people think, it makes them know.

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