Inspiration from physical metaphors

Personally, my interest in interfaces stems from an interest in spaces and how we are affected by the spaces around us— as such I have always seen less of a distinction between physical spaces, and digital spaces as they are both places we inhabit and spend much of our time. This bridge often leads to ideas crossing between, taking inspiration from physical metaphors to design digital spaces— or occasionally, vice-versa.

The desktop metaphor, the idea that leads to the concepts we have of “files” and “documents”, as well as the windows we drag around on top of our “desktop”, has stuck around (for better or worse) since around the 1970s. Obviously there is something valuable in the way that it lets us create a mental model of data similar to how we understand paper and documents in our phyiscal environs. However there are also numerous problems with the desktop metaphor that has held us back from using and understanding the tools of our computing environment in new and unique ways.

Despite the shortcomings of the desktop metaphor, and the issue of literal interpretation that plagues metaphors across all fields of design— it is still incredibly valuable to draw inspiration from these physical metaphors. Why?

  1. They allow us to more intuitively understand digital space through familiar interactions and mental models