Sketching Metaphors: Graphic Invention And User Interface Design

Bill Verplank, IDEO

Seminar on People, Computers, and Design
Stanford University November 20, 1991


I will demonstrate the importance of connecting ideas and images in quick sketches. The domain of interest is the invention of graphical user interfaces in particular, the uses of metaphor. We can understand user's pre-conceptions by examining the language and imagery they use, invent new interfaces by playing out throw away metaphors, organize an interface with a generative metaphor like the desktop or spread sheet, and finally represent the details of functionality with a mix of metaphors like windows, scrolls, and elevators. Five metaphors, in particular, have helped me sort out competing paradigms in user-interface design. CLOTHES (fashion, human needs), VEHICLE (infrastructure, navigation), PERSON (intelligence, dialog), TOOL (control, direct manipulation), and MEDIA (bandwidth, experience). I will show how we used these five metaphors in the early stages of designing Momento's "Pen-Top" computer.


Bill Verplank is an interaction design consultant with IDEO Product Development. He has studied and taught product design at Stanford, man-machine systems at MIT and user-interface design at Xerox.


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