Using Metaphors in Design

We are used to think of metaphors as a part of literature or marketing texts. But metaphors are also an extremely powerful visual tool. And we practice creating and using metaphors way more often than we could possibly think.

In a word, metaphor is an unexpected comparision of two dissimilar objects. Comparing a car to a cheetah because of its speed capabilities, or comparing a car to a spaceship because of an innovative technology used — these are metaphors. The important consequence of these two examples: metaphor is a simple, clean and powerful way to represent competitive advantages of your product.

Metaphor and UI elements

But let’s start with something simple. Putting magnifying glass as a symbol of search, small icon of house as a reference to the main page — are also metaphors. What should you know about UI metaphors? Traditions are appreciated here more than creative approach. Do not invent new symbol for search or zoom out button. If you want your user to add something, put the plus icon. Don’t try to come up with something new: it will be not innovative, but will also confuse others.

Metaphorical Interface

Metaphorical Interfaces (e.g. bookshelf for library app or office desk for dashboard) were quite a trend about 6 years ago. But not anymore: it’s ok to use simple grid for the list of books. And bookshelf background will be considered busy in our age of minimalistic, clean and flat UI.

But metaphorical interfaces are still widely spread in apps for children, because of peculiarity of children’s abstract thinking. It’s not developed enough in childhood.

Logo, Illustrations and Ads

That’s a world of visual metaphors. As opposed to icons, creativeness and unexpected ideas are welcomed here. Or, in more specific words — necessary.

As a designer you get a brief, you get a product description from your costumer and move to the “Now what?” phase.

You need a fresh, vivid visual metaphor, how do you create one?

How to create a Metaphor

1. Association lists: similarity

Try to express product advantage in one world. Is it speed? Safety and security? Freedom? Connection to other people? When you’re done, make a list of these associations to this quality. For example, new insurance program gives a client feeling of safety and protection. Go ahead and list all the things, situations and objects that are “safe” for you personally. Don’t judge or limit yourself. Seat belt, parachute, safety rope, guardian angel, bodyguard, armor suit… Write at least 20 items, don’t stop and think too hard when writing.

Go through your list: I bet there’s already something to start with.

2. Association lists: contrast

Do the same, but list everything that is dangerous. This way you will express the problem that is solved by your product. Talking about client’s problem is also a perfect way of presenting a new service.

3. Using pop culture and well known symbols

Write down at least 20 characters, places and objects from everyday culture. Then try to combine it with your product.

Batman — even superhero could be using this insurance.

Mona Lisa — why is she smiling this way? What if her secret is a good insurance?

Shakespeare — “Our doubts are traitors,
and make us lose the good we oft might win,
by fearing to attempt.” No more doubts with this awesome new insurance program!

It may look weird or make you laugh. Or make you disappointed. But remember: nobody will ever see these silly lists. It’s a path to brilliant ideas, and it’s ok to write whatever you want if it’s something that will work in future. And it will!

4. “What if…”

Ask yourself some wild questions about the product or life itself. What if music had a color? What would happen if people could read each other’s minds? What if your product was used by Dalai Lama? What if an alien saw your product? What if an alien made the same product? This way of looking for metaphors is a bit dangerous, because you’re not focusing on product advantage and there’a a risk to come up with funny idea that will not sell anything. But it’s not a reason not to try.

Just keep it in mind.

5. Using idioms

Language is a great source of metaphors: take one and draw it. “A little bird told me”, “in a nutshell”, “red tape”, “the coast is clear”, “to be in red”, etc.

So take a look at your product advantages, come up (ask Google if needed) with a list of idioms with this word and try to visualize them.

Working with visual metaphors is really helpful for improving your imagination and creativity. And beneficial for you design career as well.

There’s some further reading to dive into the topic:

Metaphors in Mind: Transformation through Symbolic Modelling
by James Lawley, Penny Tompkins

Creativity for Graphic Designers Paperback
by Mark Oldach

Zajno Crew

Zajno is an international digital solutions boutique. We help startups and established businesses alike to achieve their goals and score big. We believe in giving you the freedom to have ideas. It’s our job to turn those ideas into reality.

Yegor Mytrofanov

Written by

Co-founder & COO at @ZajnoCrew. We are specializing in creating mobile & web applications that help your business grow.

Zajno Crew

Zajno is an international digital solutions boutique. We help startups and established businesses alike to achieve their goals and score big. We believe in giving you the freedom to have ideas. It’s our job to turn those ideas into reality.