Making up Metaphors

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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:

  • Time is money
  • Consumed by love
  • The sweet smell of success

A lot of people think of metaphors as a fancy writing tactic—a way to spice things up or sound more poetic.

Well, knock that idea out of your head, because metaphors aren’t just for poets. Metaphors are for everyone. They’re baked into our language, and we can’t communicate without them.

In the design world, we depend on metaphors all the time. From the icons we use, to the terms we choose, metaphors show up everywhere in design.

That ⚙️ icon that shows up in a lot of apps? That’s a metaphor for settings. “Add to cart”? That’s a metaphor for an order.

The difference between an intuitive design and a confusing one often comes down to whether you’re using the right metaphors. Let’s dig into this idea a bit more, so you can see how metaphors play a big part in the language of design.

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.

In his book Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and co-author Mark Johnson show how everyday language is packed with metaphors. Whether we realize it or not, metaphors shape how we view and understand the world around us.

To see this in action, let’s take a closer look at one conceptual metaphor: Unknown is up. Known is down. In English, we have a bunch of phrases built on this idea.