Metaphors and Systems

Dan Lockton

Eindhoven University of Technology |

A variety of metaphors are commonly used in systemic design to make abstract concepts more concrete, externalised, and engageable-with, to enable constructs to be discussed and dealt with, and to generate new ideas. This practice builds on a long history of metaphor use in systems theory and cybernetics and can involve a focus on language, drawing and diagrams, or physical modelling, among other approaches. However, the implications of common metaphors used in systemic design have perhaps not been elaborated on and examined. This short paper proposes a discussion and activity in which participants contribute and reflect on metaphors in use, tacitly or otherwise, and consider the possibilities offered by alternatives.

Keywords: metaphors, systems, design, cybernetics

New Metaphors RSD8 exhibit

New Metaphors (Lockton et al, 2019b), exhibited at RSD8, includes a range of metaphors that can be used to illuminate abstract properties of systems, from ‘things growing on things’ to ‘finding a niche’.

New Metaphors Group RSD8

A ‘tangible thinking’ model of (inter)disciplinary challenges, constructed by participants at RSD8 (Lockton, Brawley, Aguirre Ulloa, Prindible, Forlano, Rygh, Fass, Herzog, and Nissen, 2019a).

Image References

RSD8 Workshop Tangible Thinking: Materializing How We Imagine and Understand Systems, Experiences, and Relationships

Lockton, D., Brawley, L. Aguirre Ulloa, M., Prindible, M., Forlano, L., Rygh, K., Fass, J., Herzog, K., Nissen, B. (2019a). ‘Tangible Thinking: Materializing how we imagine and understand interdisciplinary systems, experiences, and relationships’. Workshop at RSD8: Relating Systems Thinking and Design Symposium 2019, 17–19 October 2019, Chicago. Available at

Lockton, D., Singh, D., Sabnis, S., Chou, M., Foley, S., Pantoja, A. (2019b). ‘New Metaphors: A Workshop Method for Generating Ideas and Reframing Problems in Design and Beyond’. C&C 2019: ACM Conference on Creativity & Cognition. June 2019, San Diego. doi:10.1145/3325480.3326570

Sketchnote by Patricia Kambitch | Playthink

Posted September 2021

©­ Author, published by the Systemic Design Association

Open Access article published under the CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License. This permits anyone to copy and redistribute the material in any medium or form according to the licence terms.

Suggested Citation Format (APA)

Author(s) (20##). Article title. Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design (RSD#) Symposium.