Sep 12, 201312:00 PMPoint of View

Designing with Metaphors

Designing with Metaphors

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When you make a design choice, how do you justify it to others? Do you wrap it in a layer of industry jargon? Do you construct an elaborate post-rationalization? I admit I’ve done both when I’ve been at a loss to express my intuition. But new scientific research confirms it is exactly that intuition—built upon universal experiences and human truths— that determines whether a design is relevant or not.

That research belongs to a field of psychology called embodied cognition: the theory that our societies, behaviors, and preferences are rooted in physical experience. It's a relatively new idea that dawned in the 1970s, debunking the 16th century Cartesian notion "I think therefore I am," and also the more contemporary construct that our bodies are hardware and our minds software. Now scientific research suggests that our five senses affect the way we understand and create our world. As a culture we tend to divide the mental from the physical, but embodied cognition teaches us that mind and body are bound together, inseparable.

How is this relevant to design? As shapers of human experience, we manipulate chaos into order. Strategies become packaging. Services become environments. We take what is unappealing and disorganized and reframe it into order and delight. Though we are masters of such transformations, we struggle to find words to express why they worked. But take heart, designer! Embodied cognition has given us a tool: the metaphor.

Here is how it works. We use the adjective "heavy" to describe important matters. That language hails from a physical experience of heaviness—solid gold is heavier and more valuable than tin for example. Accordingly, if we want to design an object that expresses importance, we will make it feel heavier. You may recall this being played out a few decades ago in the debate over the quality of imported cars. Much of the talk hinged on the lightness of the doors and how that implied shoddiness. Today automakers design doors to latch with a satisfying, low frequency “thunk” to assure us of mass. Another example: If we want to create a room that helps people listen to one another, we employ warm colors and soft materials, because warmth and softness cue empathy. George Lakoff, the UC Berkley professor of linguistics and pioneer of embodied cognition, attributes this association to maternal affection in our earliest years.

At IDEO’s Boston studio, we've been inspired by turning these metaphors and psychological concepts into design principles. If a design needs to communicate the concept of "advanced," we’d give it a forward posture, or create a situation in which a consumer leans forward, invoking studies in which people lean or point forward when asked to think about the future. The Progressive Insurance logo is effective because it looks like what it says.

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Sep 14, 2013 07:32 pm
 Posted by  R.L. Hart

Great post. "Embodied cognition" is a powerful idea that's still largely neglected in architectural education. It's not so much a new theory as a new name for insights eloquently set out in Gilbert Scott's "Architecture of Humanism" ("We transcribe architecture into terms of ourselves and ourselves into terms of architecture.") ---and more recently developed by Charles Moore and Kent Bloomer in "Body, Memory and Architecture" (the three-dimensional body as an "organizing metaphor" for experiencing architecture.) --- and applied to language by the amazing George Lakoff in "Metaphors We Live By" ("We typically conceptualize the non-physical in terms of the physical...") --- and now being put to work in practice, and effectively, by IDEO, but few others.

It's one of the underlying ideas in the "New Humanism" posts (esp. Part18 plus parts of 13 and 14) where I assemble those ideas with other up-dated thinking in ecology, evolution, and the neurosciences (Part 2) to explore how we human beings experience architecture and why we respond to design the ways we do -- or in your words, how do we produce "relevant ....order and delight."

It's a key part of a broader outlook, a level of awareness that could open professional minds to the visceral pleasures of "the sun, the winds, the sky and the earth" - the refreshed human connections to the natural world, described (in a parallel POV post) in Susan Szenasy's vision of a "21st century Machu Picchu."

Sep 15, 2013 08:20 pm
 Posted by  R.L. Hart

A follow up on my earlier (9/14/13) comment above -- Where I said "IDEO, but few others," I meant others in the architectural field. The understanding of embodied cognition has been in the conventional wisdom if the entertainment, sales and marketing industries for years, (look at Disney) and that's why those businesses, far more than architects, are shaping our culture - high and pop.

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