Comments on Design by Metaphor

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  1. I am not a designer, so correct me if i’m wrong, but I would have thought that referring to other sites would kill a designer’s creativity.

    Although I would rate myself a lot more web-savy than what most designers make their clients out to be, maybe a better approach would be to ask the client what he wants to achieve and then give a reference as an example. If he can’t explain what he’s trying to achieve, then don’t accept his example.

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  2. It’s part of my day to day business to try to figure out what a client want’s if he says “it has to be like XYZ, but ...”. I think it’s still better if the client makes these comparisons than if he defines technical or design aspects by himself if he has no clue what he’s doing.

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  3. It’s not necessarily the clients fault when he/she can’t articulate his needs, it’s simply a lack of understanding on their part of this relatively new thing call the ‘web’ that everyone’s going on about. Often, when a client uses another website as a comparison, it is not that they want their site to look like the example, but rather that they want their site to provide a similar user experience and it is then the designers job to fathom which elements of the site are indeed required for that experience and use his design skills to provide that in an attractive/stylish/innovative way that fits r even stretches the design brief.
    Sometimes a client’s wishes can stifle the creative juices of the designer - some jobs can be simply dull, but for a small agency or freelance web designer these jobs must be suffered in order to put food on the table.

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  4. Shouldn’t the article be called “Design by Simile” - don’t worry just me being pedantic :)

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  5. Steven I think Your right about the title of article im not pedantic but it’s something that can be changed. What do You think?

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  6. I agree with most of the commenters and article’s author have said. Clients always get excited after they see something new on web: new development, new fancy stuff or whatever eye-catching thing they found.

    Since the beginning of my work life (after be conscious that kick clients wasn’t good idea -when they came up with this stuff ¬¬), I listen+take note of features clients asked (among useful/useless), then review the list, make a quick classification and finally a initial budget based on this high level requirement: simple.

    Keep the EXAMPLES (google, amazon, ebay, flickr, etc ) as references but BUILD UP your OWN IMAGINARY EXAMPLE with all you now have and also try to identify/recommend some unique feature that will turn UNIQUE to your client on the web. Remember highlight this to your clients: you might look great like eBay, but being unique, you will look BETTER.

    If your client really insists, you could use the budget as a leverage to make the client understands what some features are nice but expensive, and certainly won’t become in profit.

    Finally ... about the articles’ title, I think the author wanted to be SOPHISTICATED!

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  7. Pretty good article, but I also agree, the title was a little bit misleading.

    A real article on designing with metaphors is more like:
    “Visual Metaphors: 7 Rockstar Examples on the Web”:

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  8. I tend to get frustrated especially when client tries to use technical terms, not really realizing what they mean. It would actually be better if they first would use a general concept, like “website like flickr”, because it gives you the chance to find out what it is about flickr they like.

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  9. One of the most difficult aspects of effective communication is trying to speak the same language. Some people believe they will be perceived as an expert by using lots of technical terms. Personally I find it better to try and build trust with clients by showing them that you understand their needs. And this is best achieved by being able to put into words and then action what it is that they want.

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  10. I once read (though I don’t recall where), that simile, especially when used in titles, is often misread.

    Anyway, there are certainly pros and cons when it comes to the “something like that” approach. On the positive side, (and this applies to the use of metaphor/simile in language), a commonly understood visual metaphor ensures that you and the client are (heads down, cliché coming:) “on the same page”.

    It’s also a great time-saver. If my client provides with with nothing more than “well, I want the site to look fun, but not flippant, corporate, but not too formal”, then I could “waste” my time coming up with several mock-ups (throwing stones at a tin can); or, I can suggest existing designs.

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  11. bq. I am not a designer, so correct me if i’m wrong, but I would have thought that referring to other sites would kill a designer’s creativity.

    It depends on why you are referring to other sites.

    This kind of comparison and ‘copying’ works well when you’re looking at functionality. There are a limited number of ways you can build a shopping cart process, or a photo-sharing website - taking the basic model from another website is a good point for starting the discussion about what is needed, and would would be nice to have. Likewise, in terms of the site architecture and content, there are only so many ways a site can be built, and similar sites tend to have similar sections and contents, so taking an existing site apart can provide a useful foundation that gets to the bones of what the client needs quickly, without needing the designer to be psychic or the client knowing more technical details than a client should be expected to know.

    But when it comes to graphic design, I would have serious qualms about using another site as ‘inspiration’, especially if it is a related or competing site. Yes, it undermines the professionalism of the designer to be told “Make it look like _such-and-such website_”. Yes, it reduces the likelihood of a great design, suited to the tastes of the client and the needs and demographics of the target audience. Yes, it often leads to disappointment and/or bitterness from the client and the developer when the final design is not a carbon copy of the specified site.

    That’s where it becomes really important for the designer to unpick what the client likes about the sites they are keen on. Is it the colour scheme? Is it the position of images on the page? Is it the way the menu works? Is it the list of section headings on the site? Is it something else altogether? But make sure the client understands that this is the basis for inspiration, to help you gauge his requirements, rather than simple plagiarism!

    That way, you get to take the best bits of several sites, and synthesise them into a design of your own creation, that should serve everyone well. That’s the theory, anyway!

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  12. What’s Next after Web 2.0?

    I do not like those buzz words like Web 2.0, Business 2.0 etc., however in order to communication, you have to conform to their protocols, otherwise they might think you are speaking in a foreign language. So far Web 2.0/Internet 1.0 lead by Youtube, FaceBook, same Amazon, New Yahoo! and New Google is successful, though at not successful as Web 1.0/Internet 0.0 led by Old Yahoo!, Ebay, Amazon and Old Google. Why? Not a big surprise anymore when from Web 1.0/Internet 0.0 to Web 2.0/Internet 1.0 as opposed from nothing to Web 1.0/Internet 0.0.

    I believe the next after Web 2.0/Internet 1.0 is Web 3.0/Internet 2.0, however we’d better to call it Internet 2.0, since at that time, Web is not that important any more. Why?

    Web 1.0/Internet 0.0 - Informed, you as a reader

    Web 2.0/Internet 1.0 - Inform, you as a writer

    Internet 2.0 (as opposed as Web 3.0/Internet 2.0) - formation of Information, you as a reader, writer, and much more

    - BTW I am writing this post while I am watching a lecture C++0x (yes, C++0x) on at Univ. of Waterloo made by Prof. Bjarne Stroustrup - Prof. Stroustrup, think about C++ 3.0, borrow somthing nice from Ruby, the world is way too different now as opposed to 1980s

    Frontier Space -
    Frontier Blog -

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  13. Good concept and article - thanks. I find metaphors and similes to be vital tools for communication in long-term planning and process design work, whether working with one person, or a group. I would think they’d be valuable to web designers, too. As for web design, I was telling a designer the other day what I want when my web site is redesigned soon. I described a site I found recently that I really like. I was restlessly searching until I saw this one, and recognized it for what it was, design-wise - an overall target, not a template to copy. The designer immediately told me how helpful specific reference sites are for her, because it directs her creativity and energy, and cuts out potential frustration for both of us, along with wasted time for her, and wasted money for me.

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  14. Whether or not you think design-by-(metaphor|simile) is a good idea, it’s necessary, and something we all deal with.

    Of course, I still wish clients would be more articulate about what they like about their simile or example. Two of the most frustrating requests I’ve gotten were to make something look “more ready” or just “better.” Even when I showed examples of other sites they weren’t able to describe what it was that they wanted.

    Good article. As designers I think we should be able to hold our clients’ hands through this process, if they need it.

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  15. One tool that we developed was what I called, “The Haircut Book.”  Salons frequently have books and magazines for clients to reference. “I want my hair like Jennifer Aniston, except blonder,” would be a common request. The stylist then tries to identify how to best make that so (with the chubby woman with curly red hair in his chair).

    Our “Haircut Book” included designs used for other projects, all within the corporate branding guidelines, as well as external examples that we could work with.

    This provided two pluses. First, clients were able to talk about what they did and didn’t like using their own language. Second, we had a basis for discussion. People didn’t know what they wanted, didn’t know their limitations (if any), and felt intimidated by the process. The examples allowed us to probe preferences with the client and at least provide a good start at the design.

    Good article, thanks for articulating.

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  16. I found using others sites as examples provides the client with very useful visual information.

    They really have some fun when they can give thumbs up and thumbs down, make comparisons and express their likes and dislikes.

    Thanks for the info.

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  17. I deal with a lot of SMB clients and am responsible for specifying and implementing the functionality of a site. After a decade of trying different approaches, I’ve found that one approach is more effective (at least for me) than any other. I don’t let the client talk. :->

    They want to tell me about how the notification should support SMS because that is really cool, or how it is important that their client “embrace” the “usable” interface. In my experience, most clients are unequipped to drive the conversation about what they really want to achieve and focus on elements of implementation that may not be optimal.

    I have a simple process:
    Business Intent - Why bother building the website? Why not spend the time with your family instead? We try to keep the list of business intents under three and definitely under five specific, clear objectives.

    Essential Tasks - What must your site users be able to do with the site Why do you want them to do that and why would THEY bother doing that? This elicits both the essential use cases and the functional roles the site needs to support (often you need to help/suggest/direct here).

    Then for each essential task, we either recommend a pre-built configurable module (if you just need a simple catalog, we can make recommendations, and there are only so many ways to handle authentication and shipping). If a completely custom business process, what is the first screen they will see? What are the actions they can trigger (buttons/links)? What are the steps each will take and the possible next screens they will see. Repeat, including exception and conditional paths until complete.

    Of course, there are many opportunities for research and consulting through this process, but for many SMB sites, you can walk a client through the core of a decent app in 3-4 hours.

    Anyone honestly found a quicker process of specifying what a client actually wants well enough to get it built?

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  18. I’m usually relieved when clients use other websites as examples because at least it shows they’re thinking about what they want. I’ve had other clients who never use the Internet and haven’t got a clue what’s out there and they’re really difficult to work with.

    Recently a client wanted a new website that would act as an entry site to four different but linked charities, each with their own logo, font, colour scheme, images and identity. I was unsure how the client expected me to do this, until they showed me an example of how another organisation had tackled a similar problem. Instant clarity and I was able to design a site that looked nothing like the one they used as an example but worked exactly like it.

    Good piece. Keep up the good work!

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  19. I agree with practically everyone here on how it’s relieving to hear a client researching sites and figuring out for themselves what they like and don’t like about them. I think having to start from scratch to create a web site design would be great for the creativity but very wasteful if the client has no idea on what they want. You would probably be creating so many rejected design comps. Having an example site/sites gives the designer something to look at and study, but also put their creative spin to it and turn it into something really unique for the client.

    Thanks for such a great article!

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  20. I just design website… only design; don’t have much idea about html or css or other technicals. So if i asked to design like ebay i’ll understand my design will look simple like ebay… just playing with the contents (normally a designer want to do some magic in his/her work to make a feel that its a rich design).

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  21. I think having the client give existing web site examples as design direction is great. However, the designer shouldn’t leave it at that and start designing. What the client likes about the site may very well differ from the designer’s view.

    Ask “Why?” to clarify.

    Using the eBay example, if you ask the client why he chose the site, he might confess it’s really the position of the logo, menu, sub navigation, etc. that grabs him. You might have been thinking primarily of the colors, fonts, and image treatments…and you would have wasted time trying to emulate aspects the client never felt passionate about in the first place, and at the same time, downplay elements the client really wanted.

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  22. Enjoyed this article (just having a little trawl through the back issues here)

    I have to agree with Peter here. Client similes are useful for explaining design decisions and helping the client visualize graphical elements and process but it’s really your job as the designer to ensure that the final product fulfills their key business objectives. When they say “like ebay” they also mean “successful like ebay.”

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  23. Sorry, commenting is closed on this article.