Metaphors behind icons – which are really useful?

Metaphors determine the association between a function and its icon. But sometimes these metaphors are misleading or ambiguous. With your help, we want to improve the metaphors used in Libreoffice.

What has happened before

Metaphors are the basis of any good icon design. For instance, scissors are used to cut something and this metaphor fits perfect for the respective computer function. On the other hand, it is rather difficult to associate a filing cabinet, for example, with the function Save.

There are different ways for improving the usability of a specific function and its respective icon. Depending on the problem one might change the label, change the icon to be more obvious or change the underlying metaphor altogether.

As we compiled the results of our last study, it became apparent that some metaphors of Libreoffice’ standard toolbar do not work in their intended way. Our next step is to prepare new icons based on stronger associations between the underlying function and its graphical representation.

What we plan to do

As a starting point we selected the functions that have room for improvement and investigated alternative metaphors user could associate with these functions. We tried to be creative in our vantage points and also incorporated some of the ideas you had when you commented on our previous articles.

We selected ten functions, that need improvement and created a few alternative metaphors for each of these functions. These are partly from the original, natural pendants of these functions, partly from associations found in cultural and historical contexts and partly from connotations we had for the word, i.e. the function itself.

The function undo could for instance be represented by the metaphor ‘correction fluid’, because both the function and the metaphor erase the last written words. Of course, undo does more than that, but the core functionality might be better represented than with the depiction of a clipboard as it is today.
The metaphors we are searching for do not have to be perfect. We are rather in brainstorming mode and ask for your support, because everyone will have different things in mind when hearing about a certain function. Additionally we want to compare as many different solutions as possible. Also we need some distractors in between to evaluate the strength of the association.

The ten selected functions with their original metaphor in LibreOffice Writer and some examples of the metaphors we created are listed below.

function original metaphor example suggestions
New document new






on/off sign

Save save

floppy Disc


piggy bank




downward arrow

Copy copy

two documents


RAM unit

key C

copy machine

x 2

arrows from a node

Paste paste




key P

pinned document

tooth paste

puzzle pieces

Undo undo

anti clockwise arrow


clock backward

correction fluid




Redo redo

clockwise arrow

reversed bin

reversed bin

sisyphos’ rock

clock forward


caged animal

Format Paintbrush format




stylised As



Page Preview preview




washing mashine

magnifier + document

Navigator navigator




road sign

navigation device

document with headings

Hyperlink link

chain links





underlined blue ‘link’

We need you!

Every function should have at least four good alternatives. This is where you come into play. Please help us to improve the study with your ideas for alternative metaphors. These can be quite diverse and from different contexts. So every input is appreciated.

Once we have found sufficient metaphors for each of these functions we need to create icons to these metaphors that fit in one icon set. And at this point we need your assistance again since we are not designers but usability experts. Icons should be redesigned to not have any biases because of the color, style, etc. It does not need to have a really fancy design with 3D effects or the like. But the layout must not influence users decision which one to choose in the upcoming test.

In this final study we will present these icons and users decide which of the icons / metaphors is fitting best to the function. This way we hope to find unambiguous metaphors that solve the mix-ups from the LibreOffice study and that most likely can also be found in other applications.


Can you think of other metaphors for these functions? Do you have any suggestions concerning our approach? If you are a designer, or know one, who would like to help us in creating these test icons, please contact us.