Metaphors in conceptual design

This slideshow shows some of the common frames, or schemas that help us understand much of design. They are built from a folk understanding of the metaphors at work - which means that when I was trying to figure out what the implications of common design metaphors were I sketched out the story of how I saw each metaphor playing out.

While the sketches were really made simply to help me get my head around the different metaphors at work the point of view I'm expressing is making our understanding of design more explicit, and in the process, pointing out some of the mistakes we may be making. Two of my most strongly held points of view include:

  1. Design is more than just search: So much of our talk about design revolves around the metaphor Design Is Search. Yet, new product development feels so much more than just search - it's much harder.
  2. Conflicts can be overcome: The metaphors of conflicting objectives and trade-offs imply a win/lose schema. From my training and understanding of TRIZ and creative problem-solving it's so clear to me that great design happens when we don't accept trade-offs. Unfortunately, most of the language of design, and schemas, make the win/win situation a hard thing to get your head around.

Interested? Take a look at the paper Metaphors in Conceptual Design

Using metaphors for Design

Continuing the research on metaphor use in design, Erik Kolb and I developed a tool, Meta4acle, to help designers with the trickiest step - finding appropriate design metaphors. The tool is currently in development and should be online within the next 6 months or so.

While developing the tool we prototyped some simple design exercises and developed a simple worksheet for using metaphors in design (although it's probably best done on a huge sheet of paper with lots of stimuli). We have been evaluating the exercise with small design teams and in undergraduate new product development classes to, so far, positive results.

You're welcome to try it out:

Design Metaphor worksheet (pdf)
Design Metaphor worksheet (ppt)

Design metaphor process

Here's the simple sequence of steps to help find useful metaphors for design.

Project name: Example sunday lawnmower

1. Desired attributes

Choose up to five attributes you're looking for in your product

e.g. relaxed, automatic, quiet, trustworthy

2. Distant domain

Choose a domain distant from your project (nature, money, travel, sport, computing, education...)

e.g. computing

3. Find one or more design metaphors

Choose something in the chosen domain that has some of the attributes you're looking for. The closer the attributes, the more apt the metaphor.

List the metaphors and note the reasons why you think each is suitable

e.g. playing solitaire because you do it to relax, you always know where you are and that you'll get there in the end. The game's so simple it's second nature - automatic.

4. Generate Concepts

Use features of the metaphor to generate design concepts

e.g. solitaire has only a few options - keep the product down to a minimum of functions. When mowing the lawn, the lawnmower gives you a % complete and a time so you can improve. You can always start again in solitaire so make sure there's a simple 'reset' so you can always get the product back to the default.

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