Language & Metaphors

by Dan Donald threading through ,
Published on  — #btp_13

The words we use can have baggage and bring with them constraints we might not be aware of.

I never felt I was that great at English at school but there’s something about language and the use of it that I’ve always found captivating; The way we use words in such diverse and powerful ways, often even without consciously meaning to. We use analogies, similes and metaphors as part of natural conversation all the time and this became really clear to me watching how we adapted to the web.

Remember (or imagine if you were too young) the time before the web. Not everyone had a computer at home. Mobiles were just phones: for calls and text messages. The idea about what the web represented was, and is, immense. So is the ability to create for it and what that represents. As part of adapting to change, we use language from other familiar concepts to help build a vocabulary to articulate something new, which is what happened with the web. We create web ‘sites’, ‘home’ and ‘pages’ (has anyone used the term ‘surfing the web’ this side of the Millennium?). It’s the term ‘page’ in particular that I’ve had an issue with.


Illustration by Sam Hardacre (@nocturnalmonkey)

As a device to help us all to adapt to the web, this term worked well. The first websites were basic and were most often HTML pages ‘hyper-linked’ together. Can we say that’s what we’re creating now? You could argue that the results or our work may not deviate massively despite the increased complexity and capability of the sites we create. I’d argue that the word ‘page’ still serves the visitors to websites well but for us as creators, should we still be using it?

With every linguistic construct comes along with it the baggage of its origin. We see this with skeuomorphic designs such as the calendar or address book in Apple’s products. The reproduction of a physical entity limits the scope of what the interface can do. Often these derived terms are not very elastic. If you break too far away from the original perception of the word or imagery, the use of it becomes meaningless. Modelling a calendar application after an old fashioned desk-top paper calendar, complete with paper that tears from it when changing months, immediately constrains its potential.

The concepts used carry connotations, which if ignored or ventured away from negate the benefit. As a part of this baggage, the notion of a page brings with it the traditional idea of paper. It suggests a physical entity we’re producing in an electronic form. Something that has fixed dimensions and two dimensional properties. You could say that many sites we create are very much that. Increasingly through the years, we’re producing all kinds of varied web experiences. By freeing ourselves of what a page signifies and the constraints that come with it, we’re opening ourselves up conceptually.

What do we do when we design a website? I’d guess more often than not, whether in Photoshop or a sketch, we’d start with a rectangle. A representation of the screen or viewport; not too different in shape from a piece of paper. To me this is immediately an awkward constraint and the compulsion is to design within it. The viewport is not your canvas, though we can choose for it to be so – it’s a window onto your design.

I have to admit, I don’t have a better term for it. Anything else seems contrived. Are these parts of a website ‘experiences’, ‘views’, ‘spaces’, ‘frames’ or ‘screens’? I’ve most often fallen into using ‘views’ but as this term is used for a coding design pattern, it’s still not quite what we mean. Calling them ‘screens’ would be clumsy and inaccurate. Ultimately, a ‘web page’ is an addressable resource. This fluid idea could be represented as something analogous of a printed page or as an entire app, full of behaviours and actions.

This contrasts to how terms like ‘site’ or ‘domain’ resonate with me. These seem broad enough to both represent what they are on the web but without attaching baggage from their other uses. A site for a building is little more that a plot to be built upon; that kind of works for what we do. A ‘web site’ is a place within which we construct our part of the web. A ‘domain’ could be said to be a territory, which again kind of works in the web without implying much from any related usage. Considering these terms serves to make  the ‘page’ stand out all the more to me.

It may of course be that I’m hung up on something that’s quite inconsequential! This notion of a page is causing no harm to anyone and has been in use for 20 years. To me it illustrates something else; that we’re grasping at what the web is and attempting to find ways to communicate through some shared vocabulary. Some terms fall away: we no longer talk of ‘hypertext’ and have lost the ‘hyper’ part of ‘links’. We’re unlikely to come across the phrasing ‘surfing the web’ anymore.

Ultimately though, this thought of the power of the word ‘page’ and all it implies informed the title of this site. The idea seemed so powerful to me. Something as simple as how we use language can have a fantastic effect. If we break the ‘page’, even between us as creators, hopefully we can allow ourselves to keep pushing the web forward in ways we hadn’t previously imagined and the tools we use may follow.

When we create something new, we have choices of language and mental model for what we’re creating. This frames our creation and along with expectations based on conventions we see on similar types of sites. By having awareness of this, maybe we can be more open to exploring ideas before they’re constrained?