More Than Flourishes of Style, Design Metaphors Are Incredibly Functional

There’s a universal theory for everything

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.

We’ve also begun using such metaphors to tackle less tangible work for services, organizations, and brands. Putting a sharp angle on an object, for example, makes it less user-friendly. And I can apply that physical experience to a retail service moment by “taking the edge off” metaphorically. The discovery of embodied cognition is freeing. It implies that we needn’t rely on fashionable methodologies and instead can look to intuition, supported by science, to arrive at design solutions. There are other aspects of the creative process, of course: inspiration, novelty, craft. Still, I can’t resist human truths. Embodied cognition has given us (and our clients) a new lexicon for intuition and a confidence that we’re making solid (that is, sturdy and dense) choices.

Visual concept by Mitch Sinclair with Jane Fulton Suri, Ingrid Fetell, Jeewon Jung, Michael Hendrix, and Gian Pangaro

Many metaphors from everyday language are based on real-life visceral experiences. Our perceptions of these experiences associate them with broader concepts and deeper meaning (e.g. literally feeling “warm” vs. the concept of “warm” as being inviting, friendly, etc). As designers, we can influence perception by stimulating the viewer’s five senses to invoke broader conceptual associations. While we are used to doing this intuitively, scientific studies in the field of embodied cognition provide additional support to our rationale. We’ve prototyped this tool to make associations easier and welcome additions to improve it.

R. Michael Hendrix is an associate partner and managing director of IDEO Boston.

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