Saturday, August 30, 2008

Design Metaphors

When working on complex design projects, it’s helpful to have a design metaphor to hold the creative work together and make sure it stays focused on the project’s goals.

The trick is to come up with a “universal” metaphor that resonates with all aspects of the project. Trying to “shoehorn” a project’s creative elements to fit a flawed metaphor will usually generate disappointing results.

When I was Sr. Creative Director at AGENCY.COM, I had to come up with design metaphors for several large and complex projects. That responsibility was exciting — and a bit scary!

Whether you spend ten seconds or ten weeks generating an idea for your project’s metaphor, if it’s right for the project, you’ll know it. You’ll wonder how an obviously perfect solution hadn’t occurred to you right off the bat — it’ll almost seem self-evident.

Some design metaphors show up blatantly in the visual design of a project. Other metaphors are so subtle that they are invisible to the causal observer. In those cases, the metaphor helps the design team keep focused and on track. To the end user, the project will just ‘feel right”.

One giant project I worked on was an intranet/extranet system for Omnicom’s DAS group of marketing companies. DAS is more of a confederation than a federation. There are dozens of independent companies in the DAS group, each with its own branding, clients and resources.

Omnicom wanted an intranet/extranet system that every DAS company would participate in while retaining each company’s brand identity. Each company would—
-have the freedom to choose their level of participation in the intranet/extranet system.
-be able to leverage the combined contacts, specialized knowledge and other resources that the DAS group contained.
-choose which modular features and functions to include on their site.

It wasn’t easy coming up with a design metaphor for a project where dozens of individually-branded companies — each using a different mix of features and functions — would come together to share and leverage resources.

After much brainstorming, research and head scratching, I thought a DNA metaphor might fit the bill. Each company is a chromosome within a larger organism (DAS). With the chromosomes communicating and working together, the DAS organism becomes greater than the sum of its genetic parts.

There we no double helixes in the design. This was a case where the design metaphor helped keep the designers focused as they worked on all the parts of the project. The only visible nod to the design metaphor was a very subtle digital DNA readout pattern in the background of the style guide’s main visual.



A Style Guide was created to help the Omnicom/DAS companies customize the Intranet / Extranet System.

Several years ago when I was consulting for Acsys Interactive, I worked on the pitch and redesign for the Victorinox/Swiss Army site. In that case, the design metaphor was the result of a group brainstorming effort.

We ended up with one of those ideas that should have been obvious from the start.

Everyone knows about Swiss Army’s knives with their multiple tools that can be pulled out and then tucked back out of the way. Swiss Army’s clothing and luggage also contain handy hidden tools — items that you might not be aware of until you’re exploring your new purchase back home.

For instance, hidden in one pocket of a Swiss Army jacket I bought was a retractable keychain with a small LED flashlight attached. Another pocket had a compass secured with a tether.

So, the Acsys creative team decided the Swiss Army site should reflect the company’s products with handy tools that appear when needed then recede out of the way. The company’s perennially popular multi-tool knife became the metaphor.

The result was a successful and award-winning site.

If a design metaphor that rings true can not be found for a project, a solid and clearly defined design direction may have to suffice.

Recently, at a NYC UPA (Usability Professionals’ Association) event, Molly Stevens from Google’s NYC office talked about the use of design metaphors.*

Stevens found the advantages of using design metaphors included—
-Placing context around a domain
-Non-experts can understand better
-They can help extend an idea
-They're fun.

Disadvantages of metaphors include—
-They can be too rigid.
-They don't always match up 100%.
-The metaphor might not work across cultures (e.g., a U.S. style mailbox doesn't work in the U.K.)

Please post your thoughts, or any good design metaphors for this column!

*Thanks to usability consultant Susan Fowler of Fast Consulting for allowing me to crib off her notes!

1 comment:

Sebastian Mondrone said...

Hi Carl - The blog is off to a great start. I have really enjoyed your first two topics - You sir, have inspired me to finally launch my 'eclectic' blog - still needs a lot of tinkering, but please check it out:

http://back2brooklyn.wordpress.com/