Analogies & Metaphor
Analogies & Metaphor

Analogies & Metaphors are strategies for interviewing, observation, and evaluation that invite new questions and observations by comparison. In early stages of the design process, drawing analogies and metaphors to wildly different systems can illuminate unexpected similarities or remind researchers of previously forgotten or assumed parts of a process. This tactic may continue during evaluation phases of design, but at this point Analogies & Metaphors can also become a form of research representation. Drawing connections between an observed system and a metaphor becomes a more meaningful way to explain purpose, to suggest the rules people follow, or the elements that are central and peripheral.

Advantages: Playful, symbolic; People can talk about themselves through a symbol; Systems-focused. Invites people to make connections; Can be applied to many situations.

Disadvantages: Requires a lot of work to think of appropriate metaphors; May lose some meaning in cultural/individual translation; Can be complicated to introduce to people because it requires entering imaginative space.

Case Studies from the Semester

Animals in the City. Early in the semester, I was observing the ways people moved through different parks in the city. People appeared to have very different motives for coming to the park, and different ways of passing through. To investigate this further, I developed five different animal metaphors, then asked passersby to identify which of them best described their relationship to the park.

Unwritten Rules. During our project research focused on informality, we wanted to ask people about the unwritten rules they followed in their daily lives. The simple question wasn’t enough. We developed the analogy of a legal system to help shape new questions: now we weren’t only thinking of rules, but we were thinking of “enforcers,” “judges,” “penalties,” “beneficiaries,” and systems of power, authority, and control. With this language, we were able to approach people about rules, then deepen an interview through metaphors that made sense to participants.

Case Studies from Other Practitioners

Gobos and Inkblot Tests Gobolinks and Inkblot Tests. This exploratory tool was popularized through their problematic application in psychiatry (Rorschach Tests), however before being packaged and standardized in this profession, inkblots were first publicized in Gobolinks, a that explained how to make “inkblot monsters” and use them as inspiration for creative writing.

Fritz Kahn and the Body Machine Fritz Kahn and the Body Machine. Fritz Kahn used illustrated factory metaphors to explain how he understood the processes at work in human physiology. While many modern biologists might take issue with the accuracy of Kahn’s metaphors, the illustrations describe systems in familiar terms that allow viewers to see and conceptualize how different elements operate and how they’re connected to each other.


Martin, Bella, and Bruce M. Hanington. Universal Methods of Design 100 Ways to Research Complex Problems, Develop Innovative Ideas, and Design Effective Solutions. Beverly, MA: Rockport Publishers, 2012.

Martin and Hanington offer an excellent, concise explanation of Artifact Analysis. Kumar, Vijay. 101 Design Methods: A Structured Approach for Driving Innovation in Your Organization. Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley, 2013.