Metaphoric Methodology Makes Meaning
How do we interpret signals of meaning and perceived value in the designed environment? And how can language reach the hospitality in our imaginations?
This observation explores the premise of a values-based form of communication – a metaphoric methodology – and its ability to influence our interpretation of brands, products, experiences, and knowledge.
“Immediately form the habit of asking why to things that please or displease you” — Frank Lloyd Wright
“Curiosity, and the ability to notice things, is fundamental if you want to bring about change… Seeing ‘seeing’ as learning… that you do actively” — Michael Wolff
The way we perceive shapes our reality by virtue of the meanings and value(s) we accept into our conscious experience.
A fundamental feature of our existence is our ability to perceive — to “become aware or conscious of something,” to “interpret or look on something in a particular way” (New Oxford American Dictionary). Humans have particularly developed perceptions; we not only perceive our biological experiences, but symbolic experiences too. From age-old religious myths to the brand stories of modern cultural products, humanity has spent its life sending, receiving, and interpreting meaning.
While observing the way my mind interpreted meanings and value in marketed products, I began to notice something: certain ideas and objects felt clearer to understand and more irrationally seductive than others. These examples of ideas and objects more quickly caught my attention and conveyed greater meaning — their representations felt more like intimate narratives and spoke beyond practical matters.
Trained in a marketing communications background, I started curiously investigating why and how certain forms of representation could bring about this experience in the mind. What I found I believe to be the foundation for a methodology of communication.
Based on my current observations, my hypothesis is: the works produced (ideas and objects) utilizing the metaphoric methodology create more easily-digestible meanings and can suggest higher perceived value by communicating to both desire-centers our brain — rational (Objective) and imagining (Subjective).
The existence of this pattern has implications on the everyday person’s perceptions, as well as the producer’s process of creating something to be perceived. My hope was that by uncovering invisible architectures of the perception and perception-creation processes, we might gain a new level of consciousness in our daily experiences.
We evaluate experiences in reality using two modes of thought – the rational vs. non-rational, quantity vs. quality – the split of the Objective vs. the Subjective aspects of life.
Human beings subjectively understand their world and use language to objectively articulate (through the languages of words, images, and physical objects) their thoughts, feelings, and experiences. While the buckets of Objective and Subjective may seem, by definition, separate forms of sense-making, they are most powerful in helping us “know” when they are used together.
“We cover the universe with drawings we have lived.” –Gaston Bachelard
How We Come to Understand
Metaphors are a fundamental way in which human cognition puts stable frames of interpretation on the infinitely describable landscape of conscious experience.
Dr. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson uncovered and demonstrated metaphor’s impact on human understanding at a deep cognitive level in their landmark book, Metaphors We Live By. Lakoff and Johnson proposed the idea that metaphor foundationally guides the mind’s interpretation of reality by establishing representations (frames) for our subjective experiences. These frames aid in our thought and language process, giving us conceptual reference points to start forming explanations for things.
We hardly realize our daily lives’ dependence on metaphors. They are so handy because they help us interpret ideas by leveraging the previous understandings and associations we hold in our memory banks (by calling it a “bank,” this metaphor helped us understand the complex concept of “memory”). In setting mental reference points, these metaphoric frames quickly create a Subjective, values-oriented point of view.
After these metaphors appear in our thoughts, our language process begins to articulate our thoughts by generating objects (words, images, things) that express these subjective interpretations. In this sense, Lakoff and Johnson identified metaphor as a conceptual connectivity between our subjective experience of reality and the objects (words, images, things) we use to express it.
For example: the idea “time is like money” or more succinctly, “Time is Money.” This is a metaphoric framing of the concept of time, an interpretation suggesting time as a countable, tradable unit of currency. With this interpretation in mind, one might speak of “Saving time while grocery shopping,” or “Spending time with a friend this afternoon.” Notice the word choices of “saving” and “spending”? Have you ever thought about why we might use those words to describe the Subjective experience of time? They reflect a deep-seated cognitive and cultural metaphor (the Subjective interpretation of “time is like money”) even though the natural phenomenon of time is not actually the economic currency of money. What we’d be trying to express is that the idea of time has the values, or qualities, of the idea of money. If we follow the language of the “Time is Money” metaphor further, we find additional expressions relating time and money: a powerful person’s time might be spoken of as “more expensive,” inflationary. “Time is Money” is just one of the many metaphoric frames investigated in Metaphors We Live By.
This insight into internal cognitive process is important to set the stage before exploring the relationship of the mind to the external world (communications, ideas, objects). Like the frame of a camera’s lens does with a landscape, linguistic framing focuses our understanding of an idea through a certain values-oriented point-of-view. Our thoughts and feelings are concentrated by the “cameraman,” from the wide landscape of total reality to a specific angle of the scene. This is how language (an objective tool) can portray worldview, understanding, and create a specific* scene (a subjective experience) for the imagination to focus on and engage with. Like William Blake’s idea in Auguries of Innocence, metaphoric framing takes the beach of total reality and helps you see “a world in a grain of sand.”
* This specificity has an important implication on how we derive meaning: the objective frame set on subjective experience by a metaphor is not all-encompassing nor final, and there may be other viable interpretations of the same subjective experience at hand. Considering the case of “Time is Money,” the metaphor is certainly an incomplete way of understanding of everything that “Time” is; the meanings this metaphor conveys are rooted in the values of a capitalist economic environment. Imagine a different interpretation of time, in say, an ancient language that may not have words for “yesterday” or “tomorrow.” With a different vocabulary at your disposal, your subjective experience of time might feel radically different than the capitalistic interpretation of time. This suggests a curious off-shoot question: While metaphor’s presence helps structure the understanding of your subjective experience, which metaphors are you operating on, and which other possible meanings might you be lacking by lacking other metaphors?
By focusing our awareness on the countable and sellable interpretation of Time (a massive, abstract concept), what might ultimately result is the confining of perspective and meaning, and the failure to achieve a more fully opened human experience. This failure to more fully perceive is described by Robert Pirsig in his book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: “We take a handful of sand from the endless landscape of awareness around us and call that handful of sand the world.”
Finding the hospitality in your imagination
My initial research curiosity aimed to understand why certain ideas and objects transcend the rational brain and reach the non-rational imagination with seemingly greater perceived value. Metaphors appear to be a conduit of this, explaining why they appear in recurring pattern in the realms of professional communication and design.
In communication and language, metaphors activate, as the poet Jorge Borges called it, “the hospitality in our imaginations” by offering the sense (Subjective values) of the Object in reference. This technique associates Subjective attributes to concepts/objects (words, images, material objects), which can make the concepts/objects both clearer to the rational brain (setting a point of view based on memory bank) and potentially pleasurable to the non-rational brain (embodying values and qualities).
Metaphors create concise clarity.
Framing with metaphors can make the unfamiliar quickly familiar. It’s a short-hand, associative technique that tells the mind what something is like. As philosopher Gaston Bachelard put it: “A metaphor gives concrete substance to an impression that is difficult to express” (The Poetics of Space). Within incredibly concise communication real-estate, we are quickly able to relate to the bigger sense by cross-checking our reserve of subjective mental reference points, or values. This is the fascinating capability: to encapsulate ideas within ideas, creating layers for the receiving imagination to explore.
“With a single poetic detail, the imagination confronts us with a new world. From then on, the detail takes precedence over the panorama, and a simple image, if it is new, will open up an entire world.” – Gaston Bachelard
Using metaphors, American graphic designer Michael Bierut described the ability to quickly convey Subjective meanings about the color black: “Black like a death shroud, or black like a tuxedo — it’s the exactly same color. That metaphoric meaning of it… is what’s helping people get their minds around it” (Design Observer). Metaphors generate new meanings with old words.
Language activates the imagination and emotions (non-rational brain) when it utilizes Subjective experience––in Bierut’s example, “death shroud” or “tuxedo.” Metaphors like these speak more directly to our imaginations because they ask our minds to bend and empathize with abstract interpretations and relationships of ideas. When we think back to Lakoff and Johnson’s analysis of Time as “Time is Money”, the metaphor helps us imagine, feel, and interpret what the abstract aspects (Subjective value) of Time could be like.
Here is what a horse is like:
How does this power work — concisely inducing the imagination with language? The poet Jorge Luis Borges stated: “All metaphors are made by linking two different things together.” During this act of linking, our choice of links, or references, enables us to describe the “sense” of what we mean. We gain the conceptual real estate — the poetic space — to emphasize a particular point of view, as well as suggest an image in our word choice. I assert that this poetic technique and space is a key in creating an intimacy, a relationship between audience and idea.
“Actually, they have no meaning without interpretation. To understand is to interpret. And to interpret is to restate the phenomenon, in effect to find an equivalent for it.” – Susan Sontag
Metaphors use image to portray meaning.
Take a passage from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to see how author Robert Pirsig portrays the Subjective experience of feeling alone with a poetic sense in his language.
First, Pirsig without metaphor:
“When you live in the shadow of insanity, the appearance of another mind that thinks and talks as yours does is something close to a blessed event.”
Now, Pirsig with metaphor:
“When you live in the shadow of insanity, the appearance of another mind that thinks and talks as your does is something close to a blessed event. Like Robinson Crusoe’s discovery of footprints on the sand.”
By adding a metaphor, Pirsig frames the reader’s Subjective interpretation of loneliness with the feelings of being Robinson Crusoe, a sole survivor on a distant land. Pirsig’s metaphor opens the door for the imagination to explore the images and feelings––values––of his words.
In another example of communicating with subjective sense, Jorge Louis Borges recalls the Irish metaphor of a battlefield, “the web of men”:
“The web of men… The word web is really wonderful here, for in the idea of a web, we get the pattern of a medieval battle. We have, for example, the swords, the shields, the crossing of the weapons. And then also, there is the nightmare touch of a web being made of living beings, a web of men, a web of men who are dying and killing each other… there is something terrible, something awful about it.” (1967–8 Norton Lectures on Poetry)
The word “web” intentionally associates the imagination’s understanding of an entangled battlefield with the haunting, otherworldly feeling of spiderwebs.
Or, take the example of a metaphor for the ocean: “the whale road.” Recognizing our underlying feelings for the immensity of whales, “the whale road” activates the qualities of a vast, oceanic distance, and the humanistic qualities of a whale’s journey (the subtle allusion to “rail road”) within the imagination.
Quite different from a logical appeal, metaphors like these strive to communicate more suggestively to our imaginations. The softer, associative frame is more seductive, more pleasing and desirable to our ear because it launches our imaginations into subjective exploration. It makes room for curiosity, intrigue, reflection, feeling.
“Anything suggested is far more effective than anything laid down. Perhaps the human mind has a tendency to deny a statement. I remember what Emerson said: ‘Arguments convince nobody.’ They convince nobody because they are presented as arguments. And then we look at them, we weigh them, we turn them over, and we may decide against them. But when something is merely said, or better still, hinted at, then there is a kind of hospitality in the imagination. We are ready to accept it.” – Jorge Luis Borges
The Language of Multiple Meanings
Poetry is a form of communication rich in the conveyance of meaning; within few words resides significant imaginative and emotional depth. It is also the natural playground of metaphors. Great poems invite our imaginations into mazes of images, feelings, and ideas to weave through. Gaston Bachelard once said, “To mount and descend in the words themselves–this is a poet’s life.” How does poetic language create this depth?
One answer is the metaphor’s ability to include multiple layers of meaning within the same idea or phrase. This a powerful perception-crafting technique because one can combine ideas and communicate within one fell swoop, retaining the je ne sais quoi that comes with indirect suggestiveness. In a communication design sense, which we will see in concrete examples, one gains the ability to entwine a practical subject (i.e. object/product) and an ideal (i.e. value/feeling) together, at once elevating the object with a richer perception of it.
What it says is X. What it really says is Y.
To illustrate the concept of entwining of multiple meanings––practical and ideal––through language, we have an example by the American poet Robert Frost:
“The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.”
Notice the double-meaning? Frost’s poetry uses the first instance of “miles to go before I sleep” to communicate the practical subject (of having to physically walk miles into the forest before nightfall), and the duplicated “miles to go before I sleep” to suggest a different sense, a deeper idea (the trajectory of future life before the eternal sleep of death). This single phrase exemplifies metaphor’s dual-meaning capability: it can deliver an intimate package of practical/objective (a walk through the forest) and ideal/subjective (a walk through life) to the audience’s mind. The result is beautifully simple communication and a more emotionalized relationship to Frost’s idea.
An even more concise example of metaphor’s ability to multiply meanings is expressed in Lord Byron’s poetic phrase:
“She walks in beauty, like the night.”
Only with metaphor would Byron be able to communicate this degree of hidden depth in a simple expression:
(1) She walks in beauty, like the night (Her walk is beautiful like the night.)
(2) She walks in beauty, like the night (Her beauty is like that of the night’s.)
(3) She walks in beauty, like the night (The night walks in beauty, like she.)
A value of metaphor is its ability to concisely and simultaneously activate interior meanings. It allows a communicator to transcend the practical, Objective realm to evoke the depth of images and values in the Subjective realm. It enables a communicator to associate a “sense,” what the object or idea at hand is “like,” suggesting multiple associations with slight of hand.
Spotting the Methodology in Real-World Examples
In Brand Language
What does the content of brand communication contain? What does it construct and express within the environment? From the business’ perspective, brand communication strives to stimulate a perceived value and context around a buyable concept/product. From a consumer’s perspective, she seeks and interprets objects for sale that may fulfill both material and psychological needs.
Given a geniunely decent product (object of value) to communicate, I believe the methodology of metaphoric communication can be used to lift the perception of Subjective value in an attempt to satisfy higher-level needs in the human experience like personal identity and self-actualization. The metaphor, reaching beyond your reasoning and into your imagination, has the capability to shift your interpretation by presenting Objective and Subjective value (values).
“…the imagination does not want to end in a diagram that summarizes acquired learning. It seeks a pretext to multiply images, and as soon as the imagination is interested by an image, this increases its value.” — Gaston Bachelard
Well developed brands seek to inspire the large in small — a world of meanings and associations — within relatively brief creative formats. They strive to present an interpretation of what they offer from a higher altitude of perceived value. Here, the metaphoric methodology works because it enables they conveyance of what the Objective value (buyable concept or product, etc.) is like.
The Metaphoric Methodology Formula:
X (object) — is like — Y (subjective values)
The larger context of this approach toward branding.
Organizations (groups of humans working together) can be providers of both Objective and Subjective value, and it is often to their advantage to pursue the expression of both. While industry has, to this point, focused on the production of material value to match material needs, the vision for producing new sources of value within materially rich societies is increasingly the solutions for higher-level psychological needs. As brand marketing critics JP Kuelwein and Wolfgang Schaffer note, a brand “can become the ‘holy grail’ even if just momentarily, giving us harmony in a soap or reconnecting us with nature in the form of a t-shirt, letting us feel the power of the sea in a moisturizer or RIP with truck tarps, rekindling our creativity by i-phoning or opening our minds to see forever through artistic acrobatics” (Rethinking Prestige Branding).
To be clear — some of these suggested associations (i.e. harmony, nature, creativity) and Subjective values are truest in their genuinely experienced, non-consumer-product form. But this reality is beside the point that brand communications are simulating some of those bigger, far-away experiences in many consumer environments and everyday lives.
To follow are examples of aspirational communication — from entire identities to messaging campaigns to products — using metaphors to shape the presentation of their ideas.
“On the level of ideas too… there are ideas that dream.” — Gaston Bachelard
Apple, a company that builds electronic-based hardware with silicon/metal architecture and complex computational software, takes semiotics and perception-crafting seriously.
It communicates itself as the simple, familiar, glossy object commonly found on a teacher’s desk. The language frames their concept within the learning environment using a familiar and unintimidating association with healthy and delicious fruit. Mythically speaking, humans want it. Apple shapes public perception of its entire identity with metaphor at the core.
Apple has set preeminent examples of communicating the Subjective experience of its products; it’s what makes much of their brand appear to have a humanistic feeling. It famously created the metaphor: Apple is like thinking different.
When Apple wanted to bring attention even closer to its new high-resolution screen technology, wanted audiences to believe that an innovation had occurred with their new product, its communications metaphorically described the new iPad screen technology as “Resolutionary.” Within a single word (some might regard as a trite portmanteau) Apple conveyed the Subjective sense of this new object: this resolution is like a revolution.
Perhaps Apple’s most direct presentation of its poetic approach can be found in its 2014 iPad campaign, “Your Verse.” Its message asks “What will your verse be?” The question contains two meanings: Objective and Subjective. Practically speaking, “What will you do with your iPad?” and aspirationally, “Using Apple devices includes you in the poem of human existence.” This advertisement illustrates the effect previously illustrated by Borges’ lectures on poetry — binding practical and ideal through metaphoric association.
It’s an interesting coincidence that Apple, the world’s biggest business operation, has simultaneously succeeded at communicating a great deal of idealistic poetry. Or is it coincidence? I believe this poetic methodology for communication has been a key part of the company’s ability to create such a high perceived value of its Apple brand.
Another carefully designed organization uses the metaphor of the sacred — Nike, the Greek goddess of victory — to present prestigious and imaginative meanings in its brand and product communications. This strategy of association is no coincidence according to Wolfgang Schafer and JP Kuelwein: “(Brand myths) talk about that which words alone cannot express, about something bigger and more meaningful” (Rethinking Prestige Branding). The metaphors employed and the meanings presented construct higher perceived value because Nike presents Objective and Subjective value in almost every artifact it creates and communicates.
Creating a metaphoric link through the name of Nike’s foam-sole cushioning material, “Lunarlon” makes Nike’s product sound like something in space that would land on the moon and bounce. It is visually presented floating space, accordingly.
Nike’s range of soccer cleats, named “Mercurial,” metaphorically imports meaning of “high-performance speed” from the swift Greek god, Mercury. As communicated, these shoes have, in essence, the values of Mercury.
These are just a few examples of Nike creating clear interpretations, narratives, by embedding aspirational meanings and values throughout its fully-coordinated metaphoric communications umbrella. Nike’s metaphors are by-design more irrationally seductive to people interpreting the total value (Objective and Subjective), because Nike presents more than just what’s rational.
It’s no surprise, then, that Cole Haan (a Nike-owned brand) attempted the same metaphoric methodology for its Driver shoe. The primary promotional message read, “Every journey needs a driver.”
With this language, Cole Haan links the practical Object (the Driver shoe) with an aspirational, Subjective idea: the “driver” type of person, one in control of his destiny. The metaphor attempts to insert Cole Haan’s product (the Driver shoe) into the imagination with associations of self-determinism and adventure. Wearing the Driver is like having a journey — and who wouldn’t want a journey?
When you consider what the Subjective value of the Object “Barack Obama” is, the metaphor of his 2008 campaign “O” logo suggests some interpretations. Within a single piece of communication real estate, Barack Obama simultaneously links his name-recognition, the iconography and values of the American flag, the bountiful imagery of the Midwestern farming plains (or multi-lane highway for urbanites), and the warm feelings of a rising sun on a new day. Through the multiple metaphors encased in the graphic, the concept “Barack Obama” presents all of these things.
Microsoft’s Windows operating system utilizes the architectural metaphor of a window to signal its deeper, Subjective sense. The language and logo interpret Microsoft’s computing experience as a window; peering through the window (the screen), the user sees out into an into a pastoral “desktop background” landscape. The metaphor of a window frames the perception to imagine a beautiful space, beyond our office, filled with potential worlds that we can explore.
The Windows brand logo is quite illustrative of the metaphoric methodology. It was most recently updated by Pentagram’s Paula Scher in 2012 to solidify the fundamental metaphor of “seeing worlds beyond”. Scher re-illustrated the symbol to be more directly aligned with tht concepts “window” metaphor, using an image of the architectural feature. Compare to the original communication in 1985, what looked like a multi-sectioned cafeteria tray. Which one feels more inspiring and emotive in your imagination?
Why Unfamiliar Concepts Choose Metaphor
Reflecting on the larger brand communication landscape for startups and new products, I noticed this pattern of metaphoric association widely employed because of metaphor’s ability to familiarize the unfamilar. New concepts, like innovative startups, are inherently unfamiliar ideas that need to be brought to market and made to quickly feel familiar in the mainstream social environment. Tim Brown, CEO of design innovation firm IDEO, said, “With very complex artifacts, the design of their ‘intervention’ — their introduction and integration into the status quo — is even more critical to success than the design of the artifacts themselves” (HBR). This is why we find examples of new entertainment pitches utilizing metaphor too (“This new film is like ‘Pocahontas’ with blue aliens”) where with little room to explain, the right metaphoric association quickly activates images, values, and framed meanings — the Subjective interpretations of the Object presented. The more you keep your eyes open, the more you are bound to recognize the metaphoric patterns that surround your everyday experience, shaping the way you interpret ideas and objects.
Adjusting Perceived Value
IDEO’s branding work on a complex “activity monitor for your brain that teaches you about cognitive performance” raised the perceived value of a new tech product by following the metaphoric methodology. “The old identity, Axio, had a typically techy, comic book villain sound to it. The new name, Melon, reflects the friendly, scalable character of the company” (IDEO). Their communication methodology portrays their central metaphor of “the head is like a melon” throughout the experience. Melon’s visual expressions use “fruit colors — cantaloupe, honeydew, watermelon — to evoke the sweet, refreshing experience” that this computer software provides. IDEO used metaphor to make a complex concept both simpler and more inspiring. Because audiences’ imaginations now had something to relate to, Axio could be repositioned with fun interpretations (“A melon for your melon” – Forbes Magazine headline). “Melon” offers the mind Subjective values. “Axio” does not.
Many innovative companies/objects/experiences utilize the metaphoric methodology. Here are just a few examples:
Lyft, an on-demand community taxi network, is like your friend with a car.
Tinder, a digital dating app, is like starting a new romantic flame.
Amazon is like the famous jungle with “a-z / everything” in it.
Headspace, a meditation app, is like a gym membership for the mind.
Favor, an on-demand delivery service, outfits its carriers in t-shirts with what looks like Alfred’s tuxedo to communicate the metaphor of being like a personal butler service.
In a battle of the metaphors, two separate video-streaming startups, Meerkat and Periscope, went head to head using brand names of things famous for looking. Which sense of the same concept of “pop-up looking” feels clearer and more desirable in your imagination?
Metaphor Affects an Organizational Vision: Airbnb
How might metaphor impact both the external (consumer perceptions of the product) and the internal (the organization’s own perceptions of itself) frames of reality?
Airbnb, a hospitality startup, initially approached society with a very unfamiliar concept: renting bedrooms in your home to complete strangers. It’s no surprise the organization turned to the metaphoric methodology to make Airbnb feel as familiar and valuable as possible as possible. Here is the approach:
“Airbnb hosts aren’t just sharing their homes [Objective Realm], they’re sharing part of themselves [Subjective Realm]. When guests open their doors [Objective Realm], they’re opening their hearts and minds [Subjective Realm] as well” (Airbnb Blog).
Its 2015 “Belong Anywhere” branding program (designed by DesignStudio) aimed to present the product’s Subjective value and lift the product’s overall perceived value, metaphorically linking the low-cost room rental network to higher human values: belonging and kindness. By using a metaphor to connect the unfamiliar Objective value to a familiar Subjective value, this language is designed to reach for the hospitality in your imagination and build the perceived value of Airbnb.
Here, the metaphor is reflected by a YouTube viewer:
“‘The breakthrough of Airbnb is that it does more than give you a place to sleep — it changes the way you experience the world,’ adds our CEO and co-founder Brian Chesky. ‘Because when we trust in the kindness of our fellow man, we discover that the world isn’t such a scary place after all’” (AirBnB Blog).
From a consumer point of view, it’s possible that this campaign’s formal acknowledgement of the Subjective value (kindness) might make consumers more subtly aware of “kindness” while on an Airbnb experience. From an organizational point of view, it potentially opens the interpretation of the company vision beyond producing its Objective value (the rental product) to seek more ways to “produce” its Subjective value (kindness) — a strategy to elevate perceived value and create deeper relationships with the people it serves.
Metaphors can help organizations re-frame their visions toward something greater than the pursuit of Objective value by revealing the deeper Subjective value of things they produce. By reflecting on the full spectrum of value (Objective and Subjective) forward-thinking organizations can hone in on a deeper Subjective purpose and re-cast what types of value they strive to create for the world.
Modern philosopher Alain de Botton has explored this concept within the context of future-thinking brands like AirBnB. De Botton advised Airbnb about its higher purpose, and his impact is evident in the company’s metaphoric “Mankind” representations (since releasing its “Airbnb is like the kindness of humanity” metaphor, an organizational press release described its new, larger “corporate mission to explore the kindness of man”). De Botton sees higher psychological needs as the next value source for industrial products and services, and a way for businesses to expand their missions in society. Leading brands seek to not only produce value, but express values. So, a service like Facebook can attempt to create solutions for loneliness. A bank can aspire beyond the limits of “a financial network of loans” and conceive of its products, programs, and organizational mission through the Subjective value of “teaching people to live well around money.” LinkedIn can reach beyond being “a platform for employers and employees to trade CVs” and become “a tool that will enable every worker to tease out of themselves their latent capacities and connect these capacities to the modern economy.” These are uses of the metaphoric methodology to capture new meanings about products and attempt to create more humanly desirable brands.
Can the formula go wrong?
A reminder of the metaphoric methodology formula:
X (object) — is like — Y (subjective values)
In 2012, Wieden + Kennedy: Portland created a metaphor for Facebook’s campaign in an attempt to increase the perceived Subjective value of their object: their digital social network website, Facebook.com. The approach was Facebook.com is a website, but it’s meaning is like that of higher human value. The metaphoric presentation was, “Chairs are like Facebook.”
W+K followed the methodology I have so far identified and illustrated: connecting Subjective experience (the use of Facebook) to Objective experience (a chair) via metaphor, reaching for the hospitality of your imagination in an attempt to create a clearer understanding and make Facebook seem more fully valuable and desirable. But the agency seemed to neglect the fact that it approached the communication structure backwards. W+K had identified a good product truth for Facebook — an everday utility that enables the basic closeness of people — but their language awkwardly reverses the formula and gets lost in an interpretive mess.
W+K’s backwards frame: Chairs (object) — are like — Facebook (subjective values)
Would have been correct: Facebook (object) — is like — chairs (subjective values)
Rather than “Chairs are like Facebook,” the communication would have been cognitively less awkward if the syntax had more clearly expressed its truer meaning, and associated a single poetic focus rather than a cacophony of “connective things” in the TV ad (e.g. chairs, airplanes, bridges, doorbells, dance floors, basketball games, nations, the universe). According to the methodology’s formula, they mis-aligned the meanings. Our brains already knew how to interpret the Objective value of a chair, and a chair is not like Facebook; chairs do not have News Feeds.
Facebook’s “Chairs” example clearly illustrates how our imaginations are able to bend for interpretations in the Subjective realm, but less so in the Objective realm. That’s why you deflect this piece of communication thinking, “Chairs are like Facebook’ doesn’t make sense.” Your Objective cognition (rational brain) knows that chairs are not like a website nor a doorbell. Your mind didn’t offer its mental hospitality to the communication.
Very soon after its release, Facebook retracted this messaging campaign from the public.
In Industrial Design Language
Product designs employ metaphor with such subtlety that we’re barely conscious of their presence. By linking the Objective and Subjective forms of sense-making, design metaphors facilitate clearer interpretations of the objects themselves and heighten their Subjective value.
At IDEO, a leading design firm, thinkers like Michael Hendrix are exploring embodied cognition (the ability to communicate non-verbally through physical designs) using the underlying methodology of metaphor. From his experience, Hendrix has suggested, “Metaphor is evidence of a link between our 5 senses and our emotions” (HarvardxDesign).
In his highly perceptive exploratory research, Designing With Metaphor, Hendrix, has started to sketch some patterns for underlying, physical metaphors, explaining how the use of metaphor allows designers to deliver certain Subjective value and meanings to end-users through physical languages in design.
For example, “Heaviness is Valuable,” explains why industrial designers at BMW utilize greater door-hinge tension to emphasize the perception of a heavier-than-normal car door — crafting your our Subjective interpretation of “importance,” “value,” and “safety” within BMW’s product. Compare “Heavy” and its meanings to those of “Light,” and consider a comparison to the lightweight door found on entry-level cars. This is how BMW, for example, communicates a certain Subjective value in the objects it produces.
The metaphoric method is present in a range of the product designs that surround our everyday experience.
Computers & Software
What is the “sense” of using a computer? It is basically a metallic and electronic piece of hardware equipped with incredibly complex binary software, yet we nearly intuitively understand what to expect of its user experience. How are we able to make that cognitive jump?
Today’s computer operating systems include objects like the “Folder,” “Clipboard,” and “Trash Can” to help us work on our digital “Desktop” (remember, it’s a piece of metal with millions of 0s and 1s encoded in silicon). The Internet has many examples as well. Pinterest utilizes the language of “Boards” that users can “Pin.” Twitter delivers digital information in a “Stream” that flows down screens, the way we’re already familiar with the idea of water in a river. You “Drop” your important files into a “Box” — that’s the Subjective experience of the cloud-storage app called Dropbox. These product design metaphors create a conceptual bridge between the Objective and Subjective realms, using language to associate Subjective experiences we already understand to the new objects (tech products) that embody those meanings.
Nike Shox Shoes
One of the primary considerations in my observation was understanding a mechanism of greater perceived value and irrational wonder in designed expressions. Nike offers a good example of this with it’s Shox concept.
The Nike Shox shoe design story is quite clearly a product design metaphor of mechanical shocks.
The object’s Subjective meanings, as explained via Nike:
“The Nike Shox BB4’s look was informed by its space age concept: a rocket and booster-like appearance was prepped for blastoff and served to amplify the explosive potential of the columns. With the creative team at mission control researching astronaut uniforms, the upper was designed for intergalactic exploration too. Showcased in Sydney that summer, Vince Carter’s iconic dunk of death over a seven-footer while wearing a pair secured his legendary status and drove home the power of the Nike Shox system. Off he went into the stadium atmosphere and we had liftoff. You can’t synthesize that kind of moment, but maybe, just maybe, those columns gave him the confidence to pull off the ultimate ‘posterized’ dunk.” (Nike News)
Compare Nike’s Shox metaphor to a competitor’s less publicly successful, similar yet metaphor-deprived object: the Reebok “Energy Return System.” There is no Subjective value for the poetic imagination to explore in the purely objectively-named “Energy Return System.”
The Shox metaphor was fully consummated in Vince Carter’s dunk over a 7ft defender, illustrating the Subjective Experience and value of Nike’s object:
Jeff Chapin, Head of Product for Casper, has described a similar point of view to the metaphoric methodology in approaching his product design project. Contemplating a variety of mattress cover panel shapes and color styles, he ultimately arrived at a form that used materials in a dark, sleek cup-like shape, creating contrast with a soft, white top that, to him, looked frothy and inviting like a cappuccino.
Chapin’s Casper “sleep surface” is designed with metaphoric association to suggest a greater Subjective value of comfort, visually alluding to the form of something our experience already knows feels good.
Compare Chapin’s product design metaphor to other basic mattress designs, with less attention to design metaphor, and your imagination might sense a difference in your perception of them.
Alessi Water Kettle
Alessi’s popular 9091 Water Kettle contains an auditory metaphor in its Subjective value that provokes a poetic feeling with its presence. “It is not my intention to tell through the form of my objects a story that can be recounted in words,” explains the kettle’s product designer, Richard Sapper. Communicating with a multi-sensorial effect, Sapper used small music-tuning pipes to recreate the harmonic whistle he heard from the river steamboats around his childhood home in Germany’s Black Forest. Each time you boil water with the 9091 Water Kettle (who really thought that could be an interesting task?), your imagination is invited to a world beyond the object.
These are just a few of the product design stories that illustrate how, through the integration of Subjective value into Objects via metaphor, they deliver the “sense” of the object and can lead to fuller, more perceptually attractive expressions of value.
In Truth Language
Metaphors aim to make sense of something – to tell us what it’s like.
So far, we’ve explored metaphor’s effect on our ability to interpret ideas and objects in our reality, in the marketplace — to help internalize our external world.Metaphors can also externalize our internal worlds, shaping how we communicate about, and therefore interpret, the big ideas and feelings in human experience.
Many spiritual teachers utilize the metaphoric methodology in parables to most powerfully bring higher truths down to eye level. This approach includes both objective and subjective senses for the fullest and most meaningful expression of truth. By relating something seemingly difficult to describe to another familiar context, what is meant is more easily accessed. New meanings, expressed simply through metaphors, can progress our level of understanding.
Here are a few examples:
In a reflection to Christopher Cherniak’s short story, “The Riddle of the Universe and Its Solution,” cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter finds himself exploring the philosophical question, “What is consciousness?”
Through analysis of Cherniak’s story, Hofstadter describes the workings of consciousness as a sort of self-referential loop,
“The most vivid example of such a loop is that of a television on whose screen is being projected a picture of the television itself… Let us use this as a metaphor for thinking about human souls. Could it be valid to suppose that the “magic” of human consciousness somehow arises from the closing of a loop whereby the brain’s high level — its symbol level — and its low level — its neurophysiological level — are somehow tied together in an exquisite closed loop of causality?”
We watch our reality at the same time that we project it, listen to ourselves speak while we speak, so to speak.
By using a metaphor to capture the truth of what the Subjective experience of consciousness is like, Hofstadter made a complex concept easy to understand and more imaginatively stimulating. Our ability to understand it makes the mind more aware of itself, increasing its own level of consciousness. Here, language directly progresses our understanding of reality.
Philosopher Ken Wilber used metaphor to describe another understanding of consciousness, suggesting the development of consciousness like that of a ladder with levels that build on each other:
“The ladder metaphor is useful because it indicates that the basic components of consciousness do emerge in fairly discrete stages, and if you destroy a lower rung, all the higher rungs go with it” (A Brief History of Everything).
The Zen Buddhist Alan Watts describes the experience of time and living in the present like a ship in the ocean:
In a more commercial parable, Think and Grow Rich, author Napoleon Hill details how to “multiply your power” with colleagues, like machines do with batteries:
“Man’s brain may be compared to an electric battery. It is a well-known fact that a group of electric batteries will provide more energy than a single battery. It is also a well-known fact that an individual battery will provide energy in proportion to the number and capacity of the cells it contains. The brain functions in a similar fashion...Through this metaphor it becomes immediately obvious that the Master Mind principle holds the secret of the power wielded by men who surround themselves with other men of brains.”
The battery metaphor frames the use of the brain as something predictable and controllable, reinforcing the suggestion of a controllable “power output.” Now, we know the brain is very different from a battery in many ways, so the metaphor captures only part of the whole truth — “a world in a grain of sand”. But the metaphor succeeds at communicating the meanings that appeal to an objective and rationalized worldview.
Life in the Digital Era
Asked about the experience of being “plugged” and “unplugged” to digital technologies throughout the day, architect and MIT futurist Nicholas Negroponte described the experience of life in the digital era with a breakfast food metaphor:
“I’d like to describe life 20 years ago as being a fried egg — there was a yolk and and a white. White was maybe work, and the yolk was life. Today is more of an omelette, more mixed, more interspersed, and I think that’s a more interesting state of being. Some people will say ‘I want the crisp, fried egg approach to life.’ Well, I think life’s turning into an omelette” (Big Think).
If metaphor is a more attractive way to communicate new ideas, what is its role in the future of interpreting human experience?
We need to be critical about the way we create and perceive the designed environment.
In societies over-satisfied with material objects, the next stages of value are our higher needs and aspirations. “We want less merchandise and more meaning, less quantity and more quality, fewer unmet promises and more honesty and integrity,” write Schaefer and Kuehlwein in Rethinking Prestige Branding. In contrast, Jean Baudrillard warns of modernity’s obsession with meaning production and the branding of everything: “Everywhere one seeks to produce meaning, to make the world signify, to render it visible. We are not, however, in danger of lacking meaning; quite the contrary, we are gorged with meaning and it is killing us” (Simulacra and Simulations).
- How might we choose to relate to increasingly psychologically-oriented meanings reflected by market economy products?
Making Sense of New Innovations and Experiences
“Languages… help users make sense of things,” writes Roberto Verganti in his book, Design Driven Innovation. While language helps make sense of things, metaphors help language help make sense of things. And metaphors can suggest new frames of meaning – in products, organizations, and ideas. I believe the metaphoric methodology is a powerful part of enabling innovations to be accepted by the general public’s understanding.
It is both material innovation and meaning innovation which pushes the marketplace forward. I hope that what I have started to identify sketches the present-day examples of meaning-innovators at work.
- Which objects have recently changed the meaning of something in our lives, and how were they communicated to us?
Making Sense of New Organizations
How might organizations communicate and encourage greater degrees of Subjective value? The Industrial Revolution was an evolutionary leap for material production and Objective value; consumers and employees are used to being involved in an industrial platform focused on producing material value.
What happens when there is more opportunity for both producers to create and consumers to enjoy Subjective value? When the equation of exchange is increasingly inclusive of not just value, but values? When industrial platforms can develop their degree of humanity by re-framing organizational visions toward engaging the world with values as their drive?
- How might we use the metaphoric methodology to re-think the potentials of what an organization’s mission can build for those its serves and employs?
Making Sense of New Approaches to Thought and Living
With just a few of the examples I’ve pointed out, metaphors have helped us more clearly understand dimensions of Subjective experience like collaboration, consciousness, and time. Metaphors can enable humans to transcend their psychological present by making different ways of thought simpler, more understandable, and therefore livable.
As Ken Wilber wrote, “Thoughts are not merely a reflection on reality, but are also a movement of that very reality itself” (A Brief History of Everything).
- How might we achieve greater empathy and re-frame situations using language that more clearly describes our Subjective experiences?
In circling back to my initial curiosities around why some ideas and objects feel more compellingly communicated than others, a potential answer is this: those things that attract us are those which turn us into imagining beings by virtue of poetry.
It’s as if the highest aspiration any communicator or designer might strive for is to engage people with deeply human passions, to engage the Objective and Subjective. Metaphor can assist in presenting these realms together, can nudge people toward becoming imagining beings. As Gaston Bachelard put it,
“And yet I receive the message of this extraordinary image, and for a brief instant, by detaching me from my life, it transforms me into an imagining being… Poetry, in its paradoxes, may be counter-causal, which is another way of being in the world, of being engaged in the dialectics of the passions.”
Beyond an impending hangover of today’s object-obsessed reality, humans will desire those future ideas and objects which communicate newer, deeper, and more total senses of value — the secret futures of human experience, lying dormant and waiting to be awakened by metaphors.