Reverse metaphor: Dropbox



I saw this in a building the other day and thought to myself: Dropbox?! Oh, I know what this is, it works just like the online service Dropbox.

Then, of course, I realized that it’s the other way round.


But there are so many metaphors we use on the screen that have become outdated, because we do not use their physical analogues anymore – floppy disks? paper calendars? tabbed folders?

The metaphors are becoming divorced from the very objects that used to help us understand how they were supposed to help us understand how the computer features work.

They are becoming stand-alone signifiers. We know what “tabs” are even if we’ve never worked with tabbed folders before (imagine explaining to your children where this comes from!).

So, what are we to do? I see 2 options:

  1. Keep the metaphors and use them with their newly acquired meaning. They are not metaphors anymore, they don’t stand for something else. They stand for themselves.
  2. Move away from the metaphors that make reference to physical objects and embrace the digital world for what it is, and create its own language and signifiers. I think this is one of the main pushes behind flat design – it’s a move against one of the most fundamental metaphor, the button.

I agree with this philosophy. I do not like things that pretend to be something they’re not.  They remind me of the cheap plastic bowls that are made to look like grandmother’s expensive china. In the physical world, we call them kitsch.

This doesn’t mean, however, that flat design is without pitfalls. By doing away with metaphor, which has an important role in learnability and communicating affordances, flat design invites usability problems. I guess the devil is in the implementation details – but look at Pinterest. It uses flat design and seems to get EVERYTHING right. So it can be done. 😉

  1. Once I saw someone says that his dream is “run a marathon”, I thought that he wants to run a business of marathon gas station. Because there is a marathon gas station in my neighborhood, I am more familiar to the “marathon” as that. I think it is a metaphor ( not in the virtual world)too, right?

    • Xin_Cindy_Chen
    • October 30th, 2013

    I definitely agree that things should not pretend to be something they are not. Especially when digital products are more and more into people’s life. The digital world has its own language and ability to achieve goals beyond the physical world. This somehow reminds me that you said if we only have one light source, then the objects on screen should only have one side of shadow. Having equal shadows on every side of every object is unnatural and impossible in real world, but it is possible on the screen. If handled properly, equal shadow may make the objects on screen more balanced and pretty. I know in drawing, we are trying to depict as much as possible 3D objects on 2D canvas, however, is that what flat design tries not to do? I’m confused on this matter, would like to hear your thought.

  1. October 23rd, 2013
  2. November 7th, 2013

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