Managing Metaphors in Advanced UIs

Aaron Marcus, Aaron Marcus Associates, San Francisco

Seminar on People, Computers, and Design
Stanford University May 13, 1994


Metaphors are a key component of user interfaces, in addition to mental models, navigation schema, presentation standards, and interaction paradigms. Advanced user interface developers are introducing new metaphorical references or adjusting existing ones, often without a clear understanding of the nature of metaphors or their history in communication. The use of metaphor is only one of several rhetorical techniques of substitution outlined in visual semiotics. This presentation will introduce the subject of metaphors, look at their use in computer systems of the past, present, and future, and suggest ways in which the mappings could be studied more systematically, varied for different cultures, and perhaps be automated in part.


Aaron Marcus received a BA in Physics from Princeton University (1965) and a BFA and MFA in Graphic Design from Yale University Art School (1968). He is an internationally recognized authority on the design of user interfaces, interactive multimedia, and printing/publishing documents, including charts, forms, icons, and screens. He co-authored Human Factors and Typography for More Readable Programs (1990) and Graphic Design for Electronic Documents and User Interfaces (1992), both published by Addison-Wesley.

Mr. Marcus was the world's first professional graphic designer to involved full-time in computer graphics (1967), the first graphic designer to program a desktop publishing system (for the AT&T Picturephone, 1969-71), the first graphic designer to design virtual realities (1971-73), the first graphic designer to establish an independent computer-based graphic design firm for the purpose of designing user interfaces, electronic documents, and multimedia (1982). As President of Aaron Marcus and Associates, he and his staff design for and consult with marketing and development groups at 3M, Apple, Applicon-Schlumberger, Beckman Instruments, Digital Equipment, Dupont, Eastman Kodak, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Linotype-Hell, MCC, McDonnell-Douglas, Motorola, NCR, Reuters, and Ricoh, among others.


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