MAS.961 | Spring 2008 | Graduate

Special Topics: Designing Sociable Media


Assignment 1: Metaphor and Design

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The physical world grounds our thinking. Lakoff and Johnson argue that our more abstract thoughts are built metaphorically upon a physical foundation. The world of information is inherently formless - and in that nebulous state, very difficult for us to comprehend. Interface designs shape and define information through metaphoric structuring. Thus the Web consists of “sites” and “pages,” email is put into “folders,” operating systems provide “windows” and “folders.”

Metaphors help us make sense of abstractions, but in the process also limit what we make of them. Organizing the formless stream of emails into folders both makes us better able to handle them, but also limits this potentially more versatile electronic form to the functions of the metaphor’s physical counterpart, e.g. an email can only go in one folder, though it may be relevant to ten.

Not all metaphors are as obvious as pages and folders. A clock puts time into the metaphor of a circle, an endless, seamless cycle. A stock market graph uses the metaphor of growth to be intuitive: higher numbers are up, lower ones are down.

Any information system uses metaphor to make comprehensible its abstract contents. When the system is simple, such as a diagram, the visible form is the function. When it is more complex, such as an application interface, the visible form and verbal labels provides cues to identify the metaphor that structures the underlying functionality. E.g., The name “facebook” is a metaphorical cue to the funcion of that application.

Since metaphors limit as well as empower, it behooves the designer to choose their metaphors carefully.


Hollan, Jim, and Scott Stornetta. “Beyond Being There.” Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, 1992.

Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. “The Grounding of Structural Metaphors,” “Causation: Partly Emergent and Partly Metaphorical,” and “The Coherent Structuring of Experience.” Chapters 13-15 in Metaphors We Live By. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1980, pp. 61-86. ISBN: 9780226468013.

Arnheim, Rudolf. “The Intelligence of Visual Perception [i],” and “The Intelligence of Visual Perception [ii].” Chapters 2 and 3 in Visual Thinking. Berkely, CA: University of California Press, 2004, pp. 13-53. ISBN: 9780520242265. [Preview in Google Books.]

Norman, Donald. “The Psychology of Everday Actions.” In The Design of Everyday Things. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2002. ISBN: 9780465067107.


  1. Read the selections listed above. We will discuss them in class.
  2. Find two examples of metaphor in online social applications. These can be whole sites (e.g. a “bulletin board system”, “Second Life”) or particular features within a site, etc.
  3. Answer the following questions. Please draw from readings in your discussion.
    • Explain what the metaphor is.
    • What are the cues that help the user know what it is?
    • What are the traits and affordances that the metaphor implies?
    • Does the example follow the metaphor strictly or loosely?
    • How does the metaphor help the user understand what is available or what actions are possible?
    • Does it overly limit what can be done? Is it too concrete? Could greater abstraction make the design more versatile?
    • Can you think of a different metaphor that could be used for this information/situation - if so, what would it change?

Student Work

Seth Hunter

Sohin Hwang

Lana Swartz

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Course Info

As Taught In
Spring 2008
Learning Resource Types
Problem Sets with Solutions
Projects with Examples