Design Metaphors


Conceptual metaphors represent a powerful tool for understanding and framing tough design problems. However, generating these metaphors is difficult for novice designers to do without extensive practice. This project aims to ameliorate this difficulty by answering two driving questions:

  1. How are metaphors used in design practice, and what is the best way to leverage metaphors effectively throughout the design process?
  2. What defines a “good” design metaphor, and what role should computers play in aiding designers with generating effective metaphors?

To answer these questions, our team has:

  • Studied metaphor use in actual design teams and analyzed the way in which those metaphors were reflected in their design concepts (Hey 2008).
  • Analyzed the appearance of metaphors in a range of industrial products to determine how specific kinds of metaphors are related to appearance of design features, such as sustainability (paper in preparation).
  • Studied how specific characteristics of metaphors, such as domain distance, affect the eventual outcomes of idea generation processes (paper in preparation).
  • Designed algorithms for recommending better metaphors to designers, given the needs of target users (Kolb 2008, paper in preparation).
  • Deployed interactive, web-based software applications that make our research more widely available to students and designers hoping to use metaphors in their education or practice (see below).

Software Prototypes Deployed (2012) (2011) (2008)Related Publications


  1. Kolb, E. M. W., J. Hey, H. J. Sebastian, and A. M. Agogino (2008). Meta4acle: Generating
    compelling metaphors for design
    . ASME Conference Proceedings 2008 (43284), 33-44.
  2. Hey, J., J. Linsey, A. M. Agogino, and K. L. Wood (2008, March). Analogies and metaphors in
    creative design
    . International Journal of Engineering Education , 283-294.

Related Workshops

“Analogies and Metaphors in Design Cognition: Theory and Tools for Design Practice” at the 5th International Conference on Design Computing and Cognition, June 5th, 2012, College Station, Texas


National Science Foundation