Illustration by Curt Rice

Making up metaphors

How metaphors can make or break your designs

If you’ve ever taken a writing class, you’ve probably played around with metaphors. A metaphor is when you talk about one thing in terms of another:

  • Consumed by love
  • The sweet smell of success

Metaphors we live by

George Lakoff is an expert in metaphors and wrote several books on the topic. I was lucky enough to take one of his classes in college, and he opened my eyes to the fascinating life of metaphors.

Metaphors we design with

When we talk or write, we often use metaphors without realizing it. The same is true when we design products.

  • Edit = ✏️
  • Attach = 📎
  • Delete = 🗑
  • Account = 👤
  • Notifications = 🔔
  • Search = 🔍
  • Comment = 💬
  • More = ⋯

Words of wonder

In product design, metaphors aren’t just used for icons. A lot of the words in a product are based on metaphors, too.

Why metaphors matter

Metaphors affect how intuitive a design is. If a design is based on something real and relatable, it’s easier for people to figure it out. If a design is based on something too abstract, there’s a good chance it’ll leave people scratching their heads.

Is this on or off?
Other ideas for on and off

When metaphors get messy

Like a good pair of jeans, metaphors go well with a lot of things, but they aren’t appropriate for every situation.

A literal icon vs. a metaphorical icon

Loaded metaphors

One of the hardest things to do as a writer is to name things. Headlines, headings, buttons, babies, you name it.

Mastering the metaphor

By now, hopefully you see the huge role metaphors play in the world of design. With the help of metaphors, you can communicate almost any concept by connecting it back to something in the real world.

1. Noun Project (thenounproject.com)

The Noun Project is a giant database of icons for just about anything. Type in a word, like start, and then browse icons related to that concept (start is a home, start is a launchpad, and so on). It’s a goldmine for inspiration, whether you’re a designer, illustrator, or writer.

2. Google Images (images.google.com)

If the Noun Project is coming up empty, try searching Google Images. The results can be noisy, but you can strike gold sometimes. Search for creativity, and you’ll dig up interesting metaphors like creativity is color, creativity is a lightbulb, and creativity is art.

3. Thesaurus.com (thesaurus.com)

Meg Robichaud is one of the incredible illustrators at Shopify. In one of Meg’s stories, she explains how a thesaurus is one of the most frequently used tools for an illustrator. Why? Because it helps you see things through different angles. Search for improve, and you’ll find ideas like raise, polish, and make strides—all very different metaphors.

4. Idiom dictionary (idioms.thefreedictionary.com)

An idiom dictionary is a copywriter’s secret weapon. It’s not a silver bullet for everything, but it’s great when you’re hunting for clever or creative metaphors. Many idioms are based on the physical world, so idioms can be especially helpful when you want to draw a mental picture for people.

5. Wordnik (wordnik.com)

Wordnik is the world’s largest online English dictionary. One of the coolest things about Wordnik is their “Relate” section. In addition to synonyms, it also gives you words found in a similar context and other related words. The results might seem random at times, but Wordnik can be a lifesaver when you need a lot of ideas quickly.

Metaphors make sense

Metaphors give meaning to the world around us. They help us make sense of even the most complex ideas.

Design @latticehq. Always chasing rainbows.