Metaphor draws from the familiar to introduce something new. It enable the audience to grasp a new idea using an existing grip.



One day, my fellow designer Greg Bosque referred to me as metaphorman. I stopped but then decided it was a compliment. He was right of course. It’s true that I tend to express my ideas using metaphors, usually created spontaneously in a moment of need.

Doing the work of design is frequently filled with such moments because our task is often all about putting a recognizable face on abstract things. We deal constantly in complex and often intrinsically difficult to understand clusters of information that are often even harder to explain. The right metaphor can frame it up instantly with a certain spin of perspective that helps the entire conversation and therefore the endeavor move forward,

So, yes, I am metaphorman. This little character I call “iMetaphorman” is my avatar, He is himself, a metaphor of sorts, a proxy, helping me with presentations, He is my straight man.


What is a Metaphor?

It is the nature of a metaphor to challenge the audience’s notion of reality. it is up to the audience to conclude whether it is indeed a metaphor or a matter of fact statement of what is. That’s how it works. Its what makes metaphor different from simile or other forms of analogy. it doesn’t announce itself. It is up to the audience to discern its presence and its meaning.

Metaphor by nature employs deliberate ambiguity as to whether it is in fact a metaphor. This question of whether a a given thing is a metaphor or a statement of what is what has been the cause of many great theological and philosophical debates through the ages.

This is true of UX design as well. Whether something on your phone that looks like a book or a clock or a lock actually is those things or is a metaphorical reference to them, you decide. The blurring of identity between real and virtual things is precisely the point.


What is metaphor for in ux design?

Metaphor in digital technology is an super effective means to convey new abstract ideas wrapped in familiar concrete imagery. Metaphor has played a hugely important role in the adoption of digital technology. While we attribute widespread adoption of computer devices and apps to the advent of the graphical user interface, it was metaphor embodied in the graphics that was really responsible for the heavy lifting.

the same Metaphor is a pure statement of what is and it is up to the audience to detect that someone is pulling their leg or yanking their chain to make a point. If you’re inspecting your leg and looking for your chain, you might be missing my point.


What is the cloud?

The cloud is a metaphor used to describe the nebulous ambiguity of data stored elsewhere. The fact is the data could realistically be almost anywhere and it doesn’t really matter where. It is likely in some data center somewhere, a server farm. It could be almost anywhere in the world, though there are emerging a few physical locations which are becoming server farm meccas.

Where is the cloud? Oh, you mean Quincy?

Near the shores of the Columbia River just east of the Cascades is a small farming town of Quincy Washington. Electricity is relatively inexpensive from the nearby hydroelectric dams. The local legacy of the fruit orchard industry ensures the skills and resources needed to build and maintain large concrete warehouses with AC / refrigeration are present.

I have personal friends, such as John Kulm, who grew up in the Quincy area and some still operate their family farms just as their parents did. John is also a cowboy poet postman and The only difference now is that some of their neighboring farms are server farms, many of name brand IT companies, such as Microsoft, Dell, Yahoo, Intuit,


quincy quincy quincy

When I was the Principal UX designer at Intuit, the Quincy data center came up in our tech conversation frequently as it was where we hosted our cloud-based professional accounting app, Intuit Tax online, that was prior to the full move to AWS hosting.

So, consider when we say the cloud, we could mean a data warehouse in Quincy or one of the river near East Wenatchee, Washington where there happens to be some of the largest bitcoin mining operations in the world, Salcido which is also a bit controversial by the way. See the CNBC report.

There are countless similar places around the wold. In fact, many people may be supersized to learn that anytime you click on a link to a web page, different parts of that web page are likely loading from many places in the world simultaneously in seconds. Even the designers of the web site may not really know from where it actually resides.


if the cloud is in quincy, then where is Quincy?


now, back to metaphors


It is the natural progression of language that new ideas are introduced wrapped in the familiar.. From the parables of the Bible to the icons on your virtual desktop, this has been the pattern for effective introduction and adoption of new ideas,

new becomes the familiar

Eventually as those new ideas become established things themselves, the metaphor falls away like scaffolding and the ideas stand on their own. Or the metaphor remains a permanent part of the thing, though often or be abbreviated into some minimal form. The familiar simplified form may be refereed to as iconic where just a hint of it stirs a whole set of established meaning with the audience.

metaphor in culture

It’s no secret that great writings including the Bible are filled with metaphors, allegories, and other analogies, Spiritual concepts are conveyed in familiar terms using stories and props familiar to the listeners. Iconography based on such stories fills the walls of cathedrals to this day. Language itself from ancient hieroglyphics to on-phonetic modern Asian characters are based on pictures, mini metaphors representing ideas in pictures.


skeuomorphism to flat



When Apple introduced the Iphone, they drew heavily upon familiar images and concepts from real life to explain the features in the phone. Skeuomorphism is a word that was used to describe the early Iphone user interface as it used imagery that was highly pictorial in nature.

It was a great idea but arguably may have had a lifespan. It was a short term strategy that paid off. Yes it was predictable that eventually,, the concepts in the phone would become familiar enough that such metaphorical representation is not necessary. In fact, it can become burdensome.


Iconography is now simpler. Then, having established this new platform, Apple decided it was time to simplify. They went flat, really flat. Suddenly, skeumorphism was sooooo last year. the flat craze was here. everyone had to outdo everyone else in flatness. Of,course, i had to try to interpret flatness in 3d art. It was easy. And i found it a nice opportunity to explore layers and space..

Really, flat layers more closely resembles the way a designer sees the flat icins during the making,


skeuomorphism inverted?

Now, just for fun, What would happen if we took real objects and had them pretend to be icons?


The floppy disc and the save icon

Someone’s kid found an old floppy disk and said how clever it was to make a storage device that looks like the save icon.

Digital photo of a piece of physical art depicting a digital Save icon which is based on the look of an actual 3.5 inch floppy drive that saved digital data to a physical disc.

Was the floppy disc really floppy?

Yes and no. In case you are wondering, this object was not really floppy to touch, but the magnetic material inside of it was. There was a time when the whole thing was floppy and much larger, It was larger on the outside and smaller on the inside, if you know what i mean, unlike the Tardus. Might this actually be a Roger MacGuffen?


What is Blockchain?

The name itself is an effective metaphor explaining the concept. The structure is a bit like a neural network, locked blocks connected together. The security is described as a zero trust concept, meaning that every connection is discretely secure. There are many purposes and implications.

Making art about blockchain is easy and hard. The imagery implied is already within the art that I make so making with this in mind is fairly automatic. The greater challenge is going beyond the obvious to explain or give an impression of its purpose without being overly didactic. Drawing from the metaphorical imagery, then taking it new places is interesting and inspiring to me.


I stood by while a block-chain expert engineer pointed to me art and explained ot me where I had gone wrong in terms of where the diagram i had made in this art piece didn’t quite match the data architecture of blockchain. I’m saying out-loud, “Oh,,,” while inside I am saying “Yes!” he is really telling me that this this is far closer then I had imagined it would be.


crypto currency

Bitcoin is a metaphorical name as well. This is a vast topc. I’m saving it for later.


Now, where is the cloud, again?