The Uses of Metaphor

I was so pleased to be invited by RGD Ontario to speak at their annual Design Thinkers conference, held in Toronto from 2-3 November 2011. They encouraged me to tackle any subject I wanted to, and, though I considered many options, I was most excited to to continue investigating the use of metaphors in design, particularly in the design of interfaces, which was a topic I had started thinking about in earnest earlier in the spring. That investigation was prompted by reasons I discuss in the talk, but there is some shared territory between this talk and my essay “I am a handle" for the Bulletins of the Serving Library. That essay came first and is the more literary effort; this talk both refines and adds to the essay’s thinking, but it’s a bit more nuts-and-bolts.

One thing I was happy to see was how many other speakers at Design Thinkers — including Craig Mod, Christian Schwartz, Jessica Hische, Robert Wong, and even the great George Lois — reflected on this topic, directly or indirectly, through their own talks.

As I was preparing the talk the world also said farewell to the incredible Steve Jobs, and I think much of what I’ve described here represents a study of some of the lessons I have learned from his astounding work and legacy. It’s also interesting to note how quickly things change. In 2011 the debate around skeuomorphism and realism in user interface design was raging; posting this now, the debate has moved to the subject of flatness. The final part of the talk, which is not included in this video, was to touch on this “life cycle of metaphors,” which I argue become more common as they become more networked. Verbally, this cooptation of the original metaphor results in new buzzwords. Visually, the same operation results in new styles. For Apple, removing the buttons people were used to using on their cell phones meant rendering new buttons that were “so good you could lick them” — a surrogate that was good enough to click. As people have become more comfortable with the flat surface of the phone, however, buttons need no longer signal that same candy-curved surface in order to afford clicking. As Jobs himself noted to the New York Times when the original iPhone was released, not only had he removed buttons, he had overhauled the very operation of clicking-to-act with the principle of direct manipulation. “In [old] systems,” he noted “users select an object, like a photo, and then separately select an action, or ‘verb,’ to do something to it.” However: “There are no ‘verbs’ in the iPhone interface.”

My thanks again for RGD Ontario for the opportunity, inspiring occasion, and good company.


The Uses of Metaphor on Vimeo.

I am a handle

This text was commissioned by Dexter Sinister for The Serving Library. It was originally delivered as an iChat “lecture,” from a studio in Manhattan to a library in Banff, Alberta, on 11 August 2011 at 12:32 PM Mountain Time.

Good afternoon.

I am a handle, writing you with the same software that is writing me.

When I carry one idea over to meet another, it’s a metaphor I’m making.

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