Metaphors & Schemas in Design


At its most basic level, a metaphor describes the use of a body of knowledge about one concept to understand or comment on a second concept. Metaphors are especially powerful when used to help understand a concept that is unfamiliar or unapproachable. The classic example of this use of metaphor is the attempt to understand death and dying: religious dogma aside, no definitive explanation of what happens to a person's consciousness (soul, karma, whatever) after death has been established. Certainly on an immediate level, most people aren't clear on this milestone, but most people do have a personal concept of what generally happens at death, and this concept is usually based on metaphor.

At its most complex level, metaphor is considered a type of figurative language, specifically a trope or "figure of thought". Can't keep those distinctions clear? The following paragraph is a condensation and excerpt from Abrams' "A Glossary of Literary Terms", 5th Ed.":

Figurative language is a departure from what speakers of a particular language apprehend to be the standard meaning of words, or the standard order of words, in order to achieve some special meaning or effect. Figurative language is typically divided into two classes, tropes, in which words and phrases are used in a way that effects a conspicuous change in what we take to be their standard meaning, and schemes [as distinct from schemas, see below], in which the departure from standard usage is not, primarily, in the meaning but in the order of the words. In a simile, a comparison between two distinctly different things is indicated by the word "like" or "as". In a metaphor, a word or expression which in literal usage denotes one kind of thing or action is applied to a distinctly different kind of thing or action, without asserting a comparison. In metonymy, the literal term for one thing is applied to another with which it has become closely associated. In synecdoche, a part of something is used to signify the whole, or more rarely the whole is used to signify the part.

While these definitions and distinctions are technical and academic, they don't apply only to formal examples of literary metaphor; metaphors exist outside of poetry and drama. We encounter metaphors every day of our lives, and we rely on metaphors for more than pretty turns of phrase.

When we use or encounter a metaphor, we take what we know about something that is familiar and apply that body of knowledge to something else. For example, think of the sentence "I'd rather have my teeth pulled than listen to Bruce try to get to the point." To properly understand this sentence, you must recall your understanding of the phrase have my teeth pulled, and then apply this understanding to listen to Bruce try to get to the point. You don't know Bruce, so you don't know what to think about him or his verbal skill, and instead rely on your understanding of my reference to teeth pulling, which probably evokes an image of a visiting the dentist. You then apply that concept to Bruce and watching Bruce speak, finally deriving the meaning that it is less than a fully positive experience.## Understanding Schemas

Metaphor is a powerful tool for understanding our world. A metaphor can evoke a broad array of elements that comprise our knowledge of something -- for example, a visit to the dentist -- and can accomplish this evocation with the smallest of cues. With a small element, we have a cue to a larger concept, and we expand that cue into a structure of elements and relationships.

In the case of this dentist example, you don't know Bruce, but you do know about dentists and the kinds of things and events that are associated with visiting the dentist. You take the reference to pulling teeth and expand it to encompass everything you know or believe about dentists; if you have never had your own teeth pulled, then your whole dentist concept will have a different appreciation of dentists than if you have gone through that experience. The kinds of things you associate with a visit to the dentist may look like the following list.

   Visit to the Dentist

   make an appointment

   spend lots of time worrying

   brush & floss assiduously before the visit

   show up for the appointment

   sit in the waiting room and wait

   go to an exam room and wait

   the hygienist cleans your teeth

   meet the dentist

   the dentist pokes and prods your teeth

   can't answer the dentist's questions with a

       hand in your mouth

   your adrenaline rises as you wait for the bad news


This is not a complete listing of the elements familiar to visiting the dentist, but this excerpt shows how we understand a structure and contents of a particular concept; this framework for describing the concept is a schema. The individual elements of this schema can be called slots. We use our understanding of schemas and the relationships between the elements of the schema, or "slots", to make sense of new concepts. You hopefully get my meaning that watching Bruce speak is excruciating; at worst, you understand that I'm describing this event as negative.

The power of schemas is more obvious if I map one schema to a new concept in order to build an understanding of the concept. Say that my baby brother is about to go on his first job interview: I could use his understanding of a visit to the dentist -- and all that entails -- to show him what to expect from a job interview. I can use the slots of the dentist schema to build a meaningful schema for job interview that baby brother can grasp. The table below shows domain mapping between the source domain of "dentist visit" to the target domain of "job interview".

   Dentist Visit        Job Interview

   (source domain)      (target domain)*
   make appointment    -->  schedule interview
   worry           -->  worry
   brush & floss for the   -->  practice in front of

   visit            the mirror
   show up         -->  show up
   sit in the waiting      -->  sit in lobby and wait

   room and wait
   go to an exam room      -->  sit in interview

   and wait         office and wait
   hygienist cleans your    --> secretary brings you

   teeth            coffee
   meet the dentist    -->  meet the interviewer
   dentist pokes and prods -->  interview grills you

   your teeth           on your resume
   can't answer the        -->  try not to stick your

   dentist's questions      foot in your mouth

   with a hand in your

   your adrenaline rises    --> your adrenaline rises

   as you wait for the      as you wait for the

   bad news         bad news
   etc...          -->  etc...

If I tell baby brother that he can expect to poked and prodded during his interview, chances are he will understand what he can expect.

The Power of Metaphors and Schemas

Schemas are powerful because they are ways of organizing characteristics, information, relationships, and things into recognizable and manipulatable structures. Schemas help us apply meaning to concepts. Metaphors are powerful because they provide shortcuts to concepts -- sometimes a single word can call to mind a broad and complicated topic -- and provide ways to hash out meanings for less understood concepts. Some concepts, ideas, and phenomena are unanalyzable or unqualifiable in our experience -- what is the meaning of life? -- and can only be approached through metaphor.

But perhaps the best evidence of the power of metaphor and schema is the simple fact that we use them unconsciously, for the most part. We don't stop and think, "what item fits in slot X of this schema for a slumber party?" We constantly use metaphors and schemas to generate meanings, and we are often at the particular mercy of those people who are skilled at packing subtle hints into language: advertisers.

George Lakoff and Mark Turner, in their book More Than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor, have a particularly relevant comment:

For the same reasons that schemas and metaphors give us power to conceptualize and reason, so they have power over us. Anything that we rely on constantly, unconsciously, and automatically is so much part of us that it cannot be easily resisted, in large measure because it is barely even noticed. To the extent that we use a conceptual schema or a conceptual metaphor, we accept its validity. Consequently, when someone else uses it, we are predisposed to accept its validity. For this reason, conventionalized schemas and metaphors have persuasive power over us. (Lakoff and Turner, 1989)

[broken link Interview with George Lakoff]
Edge's John Brockman interviews Philosophy In The Flesh author George Lakoff.
[link changed Conceptual Metaphor Home Page]
George Lakoff's metaphor site at the University of California, Berkeley: This server is a research tool for cognitive scientists and others interested in the study of conceptual metaphor systems. Ongoing work in the metaphor system of English and other languages is made available here using a hypertext format which allows the reader to trace links between metaphors and thus get a better idea of the structure of the system.
Metaphors We Compute By
A Lecture delivered to staff of the Informational Technology Division of the University of Michigan, by John M. Lawler
Do Metaphors Make Web Browsers Easier to Use?
From this article's abstract: "This research explores the use of metaphors in interface design. Are user interface (UI) metaphors effective in facilitating performance, and if so, how can they be designed to be most effective?"
[broken link Center for the Cognitive Science of Metaphor Online]
An impressive listing of links to sites and articles about metaphor.