Material Mashups Provocation & Explorations

︎ 2024

How can material mashups be a tool for creating novel metaphors in design?

The question above is a provocation I came to after experimenting with the idea of material metaphors. I believe making material metaphors is a skill unique to designers. Design is tethered to material culture, and objects are the language in which designers ‘read’ and ‘write’. Material metaphors are tied to the semi-universal connotations attached to different materials/objects. Drawing on those inherent meanings is how designers communicate to a broader audience. But how do designers stay inventive with their use of material metaphors? How do they communicate without relying on cliches? In response to those questions, I wanted to explore the idea of material mashups, where different materials are combined to prompt novel ideas and design outcomes.

Exploration 1: Material Playground

For the first stage of my exploration, I wanted to create an artifact that allowed people to combine images as a way of making metaphors for abstract ideas. My concept was three cubes stacked around a pole. The pole acts as an axis for the cubes to spin on. The faces of each cube would have different images of materials or objects. 

To produce this artifact the cubes and stand were 3D printed, sanded, and painted white.

To produce this artifact the cubes and stand were 3D printed, sanded, and painted white. The images were printed on adhesive paper and applied to the cubes. In choosing the images for each cube’s four faces I focused on providing a range of textures, colors, and feelings. I hoped that the images could be versatile enough to elicit diverse interpretations.

I tested this object with designers and prompted them with an abstract idea. I would say “Using the images on the cubes, create a visual metaphor for...” The designers would respond by rotating each cube until they were satisfied with the combination. The images below showcase different outcomes and the corresponding prompts.

Beyond the visual outcomes, I had other takeaways from watching designers interact with this set. It was very playful, and there was a lighthearted way that they responded to each prompt even if the prompt was something less positive. One designer commented on their observation that some images seemed to have more universal connotations than others. Another spoke about how interesting it was seeing someone else’s visual interpretation of the same prompt they receieved. 

Exploration 2: Metaphor Blender

My second project was based around the concept of material mashups resulting from a blender. Where my first exploration prompted material metaphors inspired by abstract concepts, this exploration turns materials into metaphors by “blending” them together. The idea of a blender became a way for me to think about how the messages of two types of materials/object change as they interact with each other. The result is more nuanced and innovative metaphors.

It was important to me that I created a greater challenge for myself by adding a level of chance to this project. To do that I utlized a picker wheel. I added 40 objects to the wheel and spun it twice for two objects that I would then blend. 

︎︎︎ Return to Research Blog