“In modern Athens, the vehicles of mass transportation are called metaphorai. To go to work or come home, one takes a ‘metaphor’.” – Michel de Certeau, 1984
“Metaphor consists in giving the thing a name that belongs to something else.” – Aristotle, 1457b
“Metaphors can be used to become aware of alternative conceptualizations and …can inspire one to articulate one’s own assumptions.” – Alvesson & Sandberg, 2011
Metaphors are a powerful way to make sense of and communicate abstract concepts. There are an abundance of metaphors floating around that frame our understanding of design. These metaphors have been informed by the many disciplines and contexts associated with design. In my experience, the metaphors I have used to describe design have shifted over time based on my own evolving assumptions about what design is and should be. While these metaphors carry strong connotations, it is rare that we take the time to adequately question the value and limitations of the metaphors we use.
On October 16th, 2017, 22 practitioners, teachers and researchers from across disciplines gathered for a short workshop on “Rethinking the Root Metaphor of Design” at the Service Research Center (CTF) at Karlstad University in Sweden. Together participants worked to deconstruct and reconstruct popular metaphors that inform the understanding and practice of design. The session began by participants unpacking their invisible backpacks and what influences their perspective of design (including their past experiences, roles, disciplines, etc.). The group included diverse participants with backgrounds in art, design, engineering, marketing, quality improvement, communication, and business.
Next, participants rotated around tables in a speed-dating format to deconstruct ten popular root metaphors of design. Hung above each table by fishing line was an object that symbolized each metaphor. Together in a process of collective reflection, pairs noted what each metaphor reveals and hides from their own perspective, as well as what might be considered “good” and “bad” design based on each metaphor. Participants’ analysis of each metaphor is summarized in the chart below.
After reflecting on the ten different metaphors, a discussion ensued amid the large group. Participants had personal affinities to different metaphors, seemingly in-part driven by their disciplinary perspectives. There were also frustration about the limitations of particular metaphors. One participant found the “thinking outside the box” metaphor over-simplifed design and emphasized instant solutions in a way that they felt was not reflective of reality. Participants also highlighted the value of certain metaphors in specific contexts. For example, while some people found the double diamond hid important aspects of complexity and contextuality, they also acknowledged its value for describing the design process to people who are new to design.
It also became clear that some metaphors sparked fundamentally different interpretations to people. For example, for the metaphor of “design as window dressing” some people saw a window of opportunity, while others saw superficial beautification. Furthermore, it was highlighted that these metaphors often rest at different, sometimes nested, levels (e.g. you might use a tool within a conversation). It was also highlighted that some metaphors were more focused on design as a process, whereas others focused on design as an outcome. Especially in conversations across disciplines, it seemed that there was value in making the metaphors that guide our thinking about design, more explicit and openly discussing their limitations.
At the end of the session, participants also came up with ideas for alternative metaphors of design. One alternative metaphor created was that design is water – you can drown in it, but you can also learn to swim. One person suggested that design is a map – it helps you navigate, but you can set your own course. Another suggested that design is an engine – it catalyzes movement, it consumes energy, and it needs maintenance. Yet another suggested that design is ultimately a learning process – about the topic at hand and about yourself. There seemed to be agreement that more work was needed to continue to reconstruct the root metaphor of design.
At the end of the session, I was left with several questions:
- How could rethinking the root metaphor of design help us to develop a more dynamic, contextual and systemic understanding of design?
- When collaborating on design research and practice, might an open conversation about the metaphors of design we employ help us to understand the perspectives and assumptions of those individuals we are working with?
- If all metaphors hide particular aspects of design, how can we better acknowledge the limitations of the specific metaphors we use?
- How can we engage in a respectful dialogue with others who use metaphors of design that we feel are outdated, unhelpful, or out of context?