Tag Archives: Alan Lui

Week 8: Web Design and Visual Metaphors

Alan Lui discusses the use of visual metaphors from older media in web design and argues that such metaphors “naturalize the limitations of the new medium by disguising them within those of older media” (Reader, page 228). Discuss while giving an example of a website.

The Internet is unpredictable. Its spatial form is dynamic, variable, and spontaneous. Though this flexibility implies greater diversity and a certain openness that allows for a multitude of design options, it is, as many amateur and professional web designers have discovered, limiting; or, rather, very hard to harness. Such is the nature of the Internet that every person, via his or her individual laptop, desktop, connection, or browser, has a unique experience of the same webpage.

Alan Lui explains that the frequent designs we see on the web that adopt the aesthetics of older media are created to compensate for, or hide, these limitations (2004: 228). He argues that these designs “recognize the spatiotemporal disturbances of the medium … [and] accommodate those disturbances through clever metaphors” (2004: 227). By recognizing the limitations of the Internet, and associating them with the limitations of older media, web designers allow users to understand the environment of the webpage more. This is not to say that when we visit The Age website we believe we are reading a newspaper, but that we understand and are more familiar with the limitations of a newspaper than the varying limitations of the Internet.

Generally, not only are the visual metaphors implemented in order to naturalize the “limitations of the new medium”, but also the content and nature of the site. The more obvious examples of this are newspaper websites; The Age, The Guardian, and the New York Times all utilize basic web designs that imitate the layout of the newspaper; an old medium.  They do so in order to familiarize their visitors with both the website as a whole and their content, which is news. The New York Times page contains the same newspaper header and tabled format that every user could associate with their printed format.


Another example is Sitotis.hr (above), a Croatian company offering printing services. The content is displayed on an image of a personal organizer wallet. In doing so, the site organizes its information in a familiar way, and hides the limitations of the website within that of the organizer. Though we cannot, on the Internet, see two different web pages on the same site at the same time within the same window, Sitotis.hr hides this limitation by showing that, in an organizer like this, you also cannot see two pages at the one time; in order to see a different page, you need to click on the tab of the wallet (or flip to a certain page, if we are considering it physically).

In constructing web designs in this way and disguising new media limitations within that of old media, websites are able to familiarize their visitors with content and present it in a way that naturalizes the inefficiencies of the web and its spatiotemporal characteristics.


Lui, A. (2004) ‘Information is Style’ pp.195-230 in Laws of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information, Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized