Synesthetic Metaphors

There are many ways to experience the world around us. Especially offline, we can make use of our different senses to collect information, interpret our environment and make judgments.

On the Web, however, our senses are more limited. As designers, we need to present information carefully to make sure our users think, feel and do the right thing.

A great way to help your users understand abstract content, create a sense of familiarity, trigger emotions, draw attention and motivate action are metaphors.

“The way we think, what we experience, and what we do every day is very much a matter of metaphor.”
– Lakoff and Johnson

In their frequently cited book, Metaphors We Live By, Lakoff and Johnson demonstrate the important role of metaphors in our language and in our everyday lives. Our conceptual system is largely metaphorical, which means that we use metaphors to reason and understand the world.

For example :

Metaphors can be used creatively to explain complex or uncommon concepts. For example, take a look at Huw Wilkins’s 404 error page on his blog:

Many Web users don’t know what a 404 error is, and generic 404 error pages may be intimidating to them. Instead of giving a technical explanation of why the requested page is not available, the user gets a humorous image of a running ninja who stole the page being requested.

One of the first systematic studies of synaesthetic metaphors has to do with the directionality of mapping. Ullmann (1967) claims that con- cepts of so-called lower senses (on the left of the hierarchy shown in Fig. 1) should be more likely to occur in the source domain of synaes- thetic metaphors, while concepts of higher senses (on the right side of the hierarchy) should be more likely to occur in the target domain. His thesis of directionality entails that a metaphor with a concept from a


source domain lower in the hierarchy of sense modalities than the con- cept of the target domain should tend to occur more frequently in use than a metaphor with the reverse direction of domains. For example, a metaphor like cold redness (a mapping of touch onto color) is in line with the postulated hierarchy and therefore should be preferred to red coldness (a mapping of color onto touch), which contradicts the hierar- chy. To establish his claim Ullmann analyzes examples from lyric poetry like the following one: