Your metaphors suck

A few months ago, I told a group of marketers that the reason some people have difficulty understanding social media is the baggage some bring from other media when trying to understand how “digital natives” experience the web. “Your metaphors suck,” is perhaps the only thing I said that day they all can remember. Specifically, I noted that the metaphor of “a page” that we’ve brought from print to the web is a tremendous burden in trying to comprehend the “live” nature of the web — that the web is a place, not a thing.

In his typically insightful and eloquent way, design director Khoi Vinh today explains how the term page “burdens the digital page with the false expectation that it will share many similarities with a printed page, where a more accurate term might clean the slate.” This, he says, can be a challenge for the designer, as well as the reader or user.


“A Web page and a printed page are so materially different from one another that it’s almost ridiculous to use the same terminology to describe them. It’s nearly as counter-intuitive as using the terms ‘episode’ (for a television show) and ‘issue’ (for a magazine) interchangeably. When Web designers think of a page, we tend to understand that it’s a page in name only, and that in fact its true nature is as a container for content, features and behaviors. But the idea of a page has such a deeply rooted connotation in centuries of printed matter that Web novices tend to think of Web pages as simply finite blocks of text and images, with functionality and interactions as only superficial garnishes.

Khoi (nor I, for that matter) is not suggesting the word “web page” be replaced — obviously, it is here to stay. However, there is no reason designers (or the rest of us) need to apply the metaphors of the physical page to the digital one.

(Sidenote: I won’t point to it, but I long-ago grappled with the “episode” metaphor as it relates to magazines. In some ways, thinking of a magazine as “episodic journalism” can be a helpful metaphor for editors and designers trying to understand both the constraints and opportunities of regularly publishing something that reassures the reader with its consistency while surprising the reader with its freshness. Another metaphor for another day.)