PageFlakes: Good metaphors don’t have to be perfect

Originally published Jan 31, 2007

PageFlakes shows how a quirky but vivid metaphor can make for a good name. In this case the name is for a customizable Ajax personal home page similar to Netvibes.

The quirky, one is almost tempted to say flaky, thing about this name is of course the word flakes. Flakes are insubstantial little things and not necessarily so desirable. Think of dandruff, or paint coming off your wall.

But these possible negative associations don’t matter so much, because it’s apparent that the flake metaphor is evoked in this context not for its emotional appeal, but for its cognitive utility. It gives people a tangible way to understand what the service is and does. Each little draggable box on your Ajax start page is like a miniature page–a flake of a page–that can be moved around.

There’s something interesting to notice here. PageFlakes is a vivid name, and that’s good, but it’s vivid in a particular way. There are different ways for a name to be vivid. Sometimes a name introduces sensory associations in all their minute detail to bathe something in a warm emotional glow, the way Apple does. Other times a name provides a sort of cognitive scaffolding to help people understand what something is all about. In that case the most important sensory associations are schematic ones relating to general size, shape, motion, and other properties that allow us to make inferences about how we might physically interact with something.

So it is with PageFlakes. Flakes are tiny, flat, highly mobile, and cling to things. These associations give us a strong sense of what we’ll be doing when we use PageFlakes, and make the name much more interesting than the name of the competing home page service Netvibes, which doesn’t really give us any inferential meat to sink our teeth into.

All this is not to say that PageFlakes is devoid of emotional appeal. It has a fun association with breakfast cereals like Corn Flakes and Frosted Flakes. Think of something convenient and delicious that you sit down in front of first thing in the morning, and you’ll get the picture.

Phonetically, PageFlakes gets a bit of poetry from the assonance (repeated vowel sounds) and the similarity of the [p] and [f] sounds. The transition between consonants in the middle of the name is a little inelegant, but nothing to lose sleep over.

PageFlakes isn’t a perfect name, but it really gets its apt little metaphor stuck in your mind, and it works.

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