Empty Icons in the Metaphor Trap

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Andrew Hutchison


School of Design, Curtin University




The purpose of this paper is to discuss the practical problems in the use of metaphors in multimedia interface design, and review a major work in progress which has encountered these problems and implemented some solutions.

The presentation will use actual examples of metaphors in common use in software packages today, and describe the problems that can occur when a metaphor is clumsily applied to an interface design . The implications of this have wide application across all multimedia production, including instructional/educational material.


One of the fundamental techniques used to make it easier for  humans to interact with computers is the notion of the metaphor.  The idea stems from the field of Human Computer Interaction, (Preece, 1994) but is being widely applied by multimedia designers with other backgrounds, such as graphic design, who have no experience of HCI. 

The unconscious assumption is that the application of a metaphor to the graphical representation will automatically enhance the effectiveness of the environment. This assumption is often wrong, as others writers, such as Wendy Richmond have noted.

"The more I work with interactive projects, the more I realise that we've barely begun to explore their potential for enriched communication.  And we're all so new at this game that we are still unaware of the frustration we may cause our users. But one thing I know for sure; poor design causes confusion and annoyance ". (Richmond, 1992 p. 257)

An increasing number of interface designers are discovering what I call the "metaphor trap".  This phenomenon occurs when a strong metaphor is applied to the design, and then all the features of the package are required to be squeezed into this image, however inappropriate. (Laurel, 1993)  These features include the navigation style, the audio-visual treatment and the information organisation. 

This paper will describe some of the practical issues around interface design, and in particular, the use of metaphor in interface design as it applies to practical multimedia production .

The Assumed Metaphor

The metaphor which is being unconsciously applied to almost all multimedia work is the "buttons and menus"  metaphor.

In a productivity tool environment, there are many, many choices, commands and operations.  The problem of having to get the information, the feedback, and the interactive controls all on the same small screen has led to the pop down menu, tiny "icon" buttons in tool bars along the top, side, or bottom of the screen and appearing and disappearing windows.   So the "menus, buttons, icons" interface is appropriate because it allows very large amounts of interactive control and feedback to occur on screen. (Preece, 1994)

However, while menus, buttons and icons are proven to be a very successful way of providing human computer communication, they are not necessarily a successful metaphor. 

The Definition of a Metaphor

A metaphor works by likening something which is not understood to something which is understood.  Thus, pop down menus on a computer screen are likened to a food menu so that people understand that they can make a choice.

However, beyond these extremely simple connections, the "menus, buttons, icons" system ceases to be a metaphor.  In real life, paper does not scroll, information boxes do not suddenly appear in front of your eyes, "windows" are not opaque with text written in them, and "progress bars" do not let you know how long it will be until you can get on with your task.

At a very early stage in the development of graphical user interfaces,  the evolving "menus, buttons, icons " systems diverged from metaphor into agreed, abstract convention. (Beames, 1996) In my belief, people do not learn how to use graphical user interfaces by way of metaphor.  They learn them by simply learning the meaning and function of largely obscure symbols, and in fact, they have to develop a new understanding of the meanings of such words as "window", "menu", "dialogue", "icon", "box" and "button". 

If we accept that this is so, then we also have to accept that learning new meanings for words is a coping device for dealing with a metaphor that doesn't work.  Since the use of the metaphor is supposed to ease the cognitive load on the user, then it is clearly a reverse of the desired situation.

 I believe Donald Norman has captured the essence of this problem.

"The real problem with the interface is that it is an interface.  Interface gets in the way.  I don't want to focus my energies on an interface.  I want to focus on the job.  My tool should be just something that aids, something that does not get in the way, and above all, something that does not attract attention and energy to itself.  When I use my computer, it is in order to get a job done:  I don't want to think of myself as using a computer.  I want to think of myself as doing my job." (in Laurel, 1990, p 127)

The Broken Metaphor

Therefore, it would seem to be a simple step to then realise that many successful productivity tools are successful despite their metaphor.

A striking example of this was brought to my attention during the delivery of the multimedia course at the School of Design at Curtin University.  The authoring package Macromedia Director was chosen as the single such productivity tool that the School would teach, although many others are referred to.  It was chosen because it was very powerful, cross platform, and the School anticipated that it would emerge as the  international industry standard, as indeed it has.  It was chosen despite the fact that Director has a reputation as being very, very difficult to learn.

The teaching of Macromedia Director, as a component of the course, relied heavily on the provided tutorial manuals and examples on disk, published by Macromedia.

It was discovered during a course review that a very large number of students simply didn't understand the way the package was being presented.  It also emerged that many of the staff felt that the tutorial manuals were at odds with the way their own understanding of Director worked.

Director started life as Videoworks, and at that time, it's sole function was not as an authoring tool, but as an animation package.  It made very heavy use of the "media production" metaphor, including the use of words such as "cast" to describe the database of  pictures and sounds, "stage" to describe the screen where the animation takes place, "movie" to describe the file format, and "projector" to describe a packaged, stand alone, executable.

This metaphor made a great deal of sense when "Videoworks" was used to produce non interactive animations.

However, as the multimedia field developed, "Videoworks" evolved into "Director".  Interactivity was included with the programming language Lingo, which was specifically designed for manipulating pictures and sounds.  Director became the single most used authoring package for the development of professional multimedia in the world. And unfortunately, the "movie" metaphor is now almost completely irrelevant.

In fact, as the experience at the School of Design at Curtin University  demonstrates, the desire of Macromedia to produce training materials entirely dependant on the learner accepting this particular metaphor has backfired.

Macromedia Director has developed a reputation for being very difficult to learn, and this reputation is well deserved.  I believe this is largely due to the broken metaphor being applied.  The metaphor has been overtaken by historical circumstance and Director’s own evolution to meet market needs.

The Metaphor Trap

To take a very specific example, let us examine a particular feature of Director, the "score".  According to Macromedia, this resembles a musical score, where the user can see, and affect the position of individual elements of sound, picture, text, scripts, etc.  This is, in my opinion, a forced and inappropriate connection to try and make. 

One needs only glance at "the score" in Director to realise that it does not visual resemble a musical score at all, but looks very, very simular to a spreadsheet or cell database such as Microsoft Excel.  And in fact, this is what "the score" in Director does, it organises things in a logical fashion.

The only similarity between "the score" and a real musical score is that they are both time dependant, except that even this connection is now only optional, since Director is most often used for interactive multimedia.

For me, Director's "score" is a prime example of a feature of a software package that has been squeezed artificially into an inappropriate metaphor, with the result being confusion on the part of the user  trying to learn it.  The metaphor is broken, and the tool, the designers, and the users are all in the metaphor trap.

Success Despite Failure

How is it then that a productivity tool with such an inefficient and possibly counterproductive metaphor, can be so successful?  I believe there are several reasons for this.

Firstly, despite the difficult metaphor, a productivity tool such as Macromedia Director really does work.  It is an extremely powerful authoring tool for interactive audio visual production.

Secondly, sheer market presence.  People do not use Microsoft Windows because it is easy, or intuitive to use.  They use it because it comes bundled free with the computer they bought, and because it is a standard, existing on tens of millions of computers around the world.

Thirdly, the human ability to overcome the confusion caused by a broken metaphor. When an experienced user of Director refers to the "score", he or she does not have in their mind a visual image or functional model of a musical score, rather they see that cell database, which for reasons lost in the mists of multimedia time, happens to have the same name.  They have abandoned the metaphor, and developed an understanding beyond it.

The Moving Target

If Director represents a software productivity tool whose original metaphor has been overtaken by the tools own evolution, then perhaps we need to look at other aspects of this equation which are also rapidly changing. 

It seems probable that the average user of computers is changing.  For many of us who were adults in a culture before computers were a common place aspect of daily life, computers can still be emotionally and intellectually problematic.  We are the technophobes who had to be led to computer use with friendly metaphors and cartoon characters.  However, the generation of young adults about to leave high school already have no memory of a time before sophisticated computer games and mobile phones. Metaphor may be as irrelevant to interfaces of the future as instructions on how to use a domestic telephone are to us now. (Hutchison, 1996)

Metaphorless Interface

If metaphors that don't work now can be overcome by hard work on the part of the user, and in the future metaphor may be irrelevant, then the question arrises as to whether or not metaphor is needed even now.

All metaphor requires the user to first understand the metaphor.  This produces a cognitive load on them.  Then they have to deal with inconsistencies in the metaphor, adding to the cognitive load.  Perhaps it is already possible to to implement an interface which reflects a mental model without use of metaphor.  It would seem that this could also be a great advantage in other regards, freeing design styles from the existing default use of menus, buttons and icons.  This could allow greater opportunity to engage the user intellectually and emotionally.

A Case Study

The writer was responsible for leading a team to develop a promotional CD-Rom for the School of Design at Curtin University. The original motivation for the project was to use it as a teaching vehicle for the undergraduate and postgraduate multimedia course at the School of Design.  However, for the project to maintain it's usefulness, it needed to aspire to real world objectives, and it was hoped that the School would also get the benefit of a real product. 

The Brief

The CD-Rom, which has the working title "D'98", is a casual browser, to inform the international design/media community about the School of Design. The target audience includes prospective students, and prospective employers of students graduating from the School.  The user profile thus included non native speaker of English, of any possible cultural and ethnic background, any age and any gender.  The only assumptions about the user were that they were already interested in the School, and that they had some level of conversational English.

Another very important part of the brief was that the presentation would need to be quite outstanding in it's design.  It is part of the School's mission to be innovative and groundbreaking, and the CD would need to have a useful life of about a year, as part of the School's promotional campaign.  It was therefore required to have an unusual audio visual style, departing quite radically from the sophisticated "magazine layout" style which is curently prevalent in CD magazine style browsers.

The design team, which included postgraduate students from a very wide variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds, adopted a methodology which resulted in a design solution which did not use any metaphor.  The methodology adopted is not the subject of this paper, and it will not be described, but the results, and the rational behind the interpretation of these results, are presented here.

The Interface

The user is presented with an almost blank, white  screen, which has on it bright, colourful object, animating and making occasional sounds.  These  cartoon style "artefacts" are combinations of randomly chosen objects, most of which are unrecognisable. There is quite deliberately no meaning at all generated from the combination of objects, their context, the sound they make, or their movement.

There are no instructions on the screen.  The user is left with nothing to do except experiment.  As the user moves the cursor over each object, a word appears, each one describing a sub section of the presentation.  If the user clicks, then the presentation goes to that section, where they find a simular, but different collection of objects.

The significance of this design solution is not in that it uses any new or revolutionary idea.  It's operation is dependant upon several already successful implemented ideas and conventions.

Firstly, the assumption that the user understands that in order to execute a command to a computer, it is necessary to operate the mouse button.

Secondly, the technique of giving the user so little option, that there can be no confusion about what to do. The interface is so simple and clear that it is "intuitive".  No help is needed to discover how to navigate.

Thirdly, the interface reveals the literal destination by "popping up" text descriptions.

However, this interface's intended particular benefits are:

The users expectations about menus, buttons in a grid, icons, etc are not fulfilled.  This hopefully raises the level of interest.

The level of audio visual engagement is raised by the bizarre and inexplicable "artefacts" which are on the screen, and the absence of any voice or text prompts.

The user is encouraged to investigate the objects, and is immediately rewarded with a text description of the destination. 

Throughout "D'98", a clear visual distinction is made between the objects which are for navigation, the backgrounds, and the actual information the user is seeking.  Anything that animates is a navigation object.  The backgrounds are all blank, or in monotone.

Thus, the user is challenged by the unusual mode of navigation, but not put under any great  cognitive load.

Empty Icons

The animating "artefacts" are not icons, since the definition of an icon is that it has meaning attached to it, or that meaning becomes attached to it. (Fiske, 1982)

These "artefacts" therefore became know to the design team as "empty icons", since they have no meaning, and the user is not required to learn any meaning.

There is no metaphor being applied in this interface.  The pre-existing knowledge that the user brings with, the need to click on things, is a convention, not a metaphor.  The animating "artefacts" which look like toys are a visual gag, a theme, and a style, but they are not a metaphor.


Not by any means is this case study presented to criticise the use of "menus, buttons and icons".  Clearly they work for a wide variety of applications, and the design solution presented in this case study was a customised solution for a particular problem, as all good design should be.

Hopefully, the value of this case study is that it raises questions about the definitions of the terms we use to describe human computer interfaces, and leads us to reflect on just how and why we apply certain solutions to this problem.

This is turn will hopefully lead us to consider the difference between "productivity tools", and interactive audio visual "experiences".  It is clear that "menus, buttons and icons" are a very efficient way of presenting control for a user, and also a very important convention. 

However, there seems little reason to suppose that  non productivity based audio visual experiences, such as browsers, games, educational entertainment, etc, need to have this same kind of metaphor/convention applied to them. 

There may be great benefits waiting for us in this area if we can begin to leave behind multimedia's increasingly irrelevant ancestery in the computer sciences.


My thanks to the members of the "D'98" design team, Jodie Callum, Alex Chin, Mohamed Azlee, and George Borzyskowski, for their very valuable contributions.


Beames, N. (1996) "Are we doomed to Live under the curse of the cursor." in Proceeedings of AIMIA '96- Creative Exports, Australian Interactive Multimedia Industry Association, Surrey Hills.

Hutchison, A. (1996) "Problems for a Craft Culture" in Proceeedings of AIMIA '96- Creative Exports, Australian Interactive Multimedia Industry Association, Surrey Hills.

Fiske, J. (1982) Introduction to Communications Studies.  Methuen, London.

Laurel, B. (1993) Computers as Theatre, Addison-Wesley, Reading, Massachusetts.

Laurel, B. (ed) (1990)  The Art of Human Computer Interface Design, Addison-Wesley, USA,

Preece, J. (1994) Human-Computer Interaction, Addison-Wesley, Wokingham, England.

Richmond, W. (1992).  It needs design, in Communications Arts, Vol 34, No 4, 194.