The Design of Metaphors

I love a good metaphor I’m a big believer in the use of them, simply because they’re an excellent way to help people understand; through psycholinguistics, we can categorise, mentally map and invent mere comparisons for reference to grasp and understand something (Erard 2015.) It’s the crazy ‘dual reference’ (Glucksberg 2003) that is created that is so magical and so beautiful. Because, the author of a metaphor just wants to change your view on something and does it through the provocation of mere categories, simply by suggesting that one thing belongs with another (Erard 2015.)

The metaphor a true example of the identity of two things at once

And fuck isn’t it funny we’ve been doing it since forever too, it’s not like its a new thing, think about it, how many stories or explanations use a metaphor to symbolise something? Apparently according to James Geary we ‘utter six metaphors a minute’! Nonetheless, it’s the ‘mapping between two concepts’ (Gentner 2005), the connecting the dots between two different things and conceptually comparing them that is so powerful that you realise how much they are weaved into the very fabric of our oral and visual language to create an effect.

The Lego Brick. A well known cultural object used to extraordinarily create, build and assemble ideas.

As a designer, I use metaphors all the time as a tool to help grasp complex information, but I don’t see it as a specifically unique skill I have (or anyone for that matter), but rather it’s just part-in-parcel of how we relate to things and share a story. The ‘metaphor’ and the ‘story’ will always have a place and a ‘dominant presence throughout human history’ (Bedard 2014) that will continue to be forever present in our lives, because, the journey of a narrative and the surrogacy of meaning that is transported through the use of metaphors are entwined and grafted into the cultural domains that exist, and they aren’t going anywhere. It’s not like we can misplace telling a story, or hide making tangible distinctions.

“Yeah, it’s like that.” Or “Think of it as being like this.” Or “no-no, it’s exactly like that.”

Why because the ‘explicit matching’ that comes about from a metaphor is the result of our brains constantly ‘memorising data concerning the people you meet, the places you go and the things you hear, feel, see, touch and experience’ (Sommers 2012.) So it appears that our brain is just reacting to stimulus, which operates on information as it is present in the brain not as it is revealed in the world itself. That’s why the ‘brain is like a computer’ whether that is entirely true or not you understand it because it doesn’t need any further implications to be spelt out. You can relate to it. According to two neuroscientists; Karl Szpunar and Kathleen McDermott, who used (fMRI) imaging by taking pictures of the brain, it’s the same neural mechanisms we use to remember the past as we do when we imagine the future. So that means we instantaneously scan our brains for references in our past experiences which enable us to get metaphors. That’s why they either resonate with us or in some cases do not. (Szpunar & McDermott 2009.)

A good example of visual metaphors in popular culture by Absolut Vodka. Their advertising consistently uses analogies to create a link between any subject/ topic and the brand by using the shape of their iconic bottle.

So for the life of me, I don’t understand why so many organisations and people feel the need in professional settings to refer to themselves as a ‘storytellers’ when their sole occupation is clearly not. I mean they might use storytelling or a metaphor in some cases to get a point across, but it’s not their job — unless their job is a film director or as a writer of some sort, then I guess you might call yourself a storyteller! But even then you’re not going to see ‘Chief Storyteller’ as a title on a business card now are you? Who does that?

It’s one of the things I can’t stand at the moment. The trend to use the skill of storytelling as some shiny new corporate skill to embellish the resume with and raise a profile. To be honest, I’ve seen and heard some horrible “stories” presented in boardrooms and it baffles me when storytelling and metaphors are used crudely because its something we all know and are all capable of using well. I mean why didn’t they just take a leaf out of Kurt Vonnegut’s book so-to-speak and use one of the ‘simple shapes’ of any universal story we’ve been told (see below.) Because as he points out ‘people love them…they never get sick of them.’ And as he presents his theory notice how his delivery matters as much as his ideas (Ovans 2014) see how aptly the ‘elements seem to fit with each other’ (Erard 2015.) Which is precisely why metaphors and stories have a symbiotic relationship to one another and why they are the tried and true way that connects us to a deep symbolic meaning and allows us to grasp something.

Nowadays though ‘its like’ everyone has been given a loudspeaker and a soapbox to be heard from, so the prowess of keeping someone’s attention has been relegated to conjoining 10-second Snapchat video’s and quickly from that you realise that ‘our language and our culture’s resources aren’t infinite. Nor are they as versatile as you might hope. (Erard 2015.) So to be a good designer of metaphors we must have a strong idea of what makes a good one and where we might encounter friction, bias, and blockages in the process. So next time you want to use a metaphor and you don’t think you can design your own try following these steps:

  1. Look for common conceptual domains in which you can make analogical mappings easy.
  2. Be explicit with your matching and comparisons. Be as direct and linear as you can.
  3. Develop lists to help make ‘system-ness’ more apparent, so you don’t get in a rut.
  4. Have a metaphor for metaphor. It helps to direct people’s attention.
  5. Be mindful of the emotional responses/ biases of people but aim for cognitive responses.
  6. Lastly think is the metaphor a good surprise?

And good way to do this is to try use language ‘like this’ and ‘like that’ to build a metaphor:

“It’s like a ____.”

“Think of it as being like _______.”

“If it were a ____, it would be a _____.”

And before you know it you’ll realise that it’s not that hard to think of metaphors or come up with a story that symbolises an aspect of the world. We use them all the time, and we’re going to continue doing it — it’s just that a superb story or a wild metaphor is a unique thing to find. Like a ‘needle in a haystack.’ Which means not every metaphor or story needs to be told, but if you do, then it’s got to be important. So be a little more prolific sort of like when Silent Bob suddenly decides to speak and if not as Samuel L Jackson would say…


Bedard, JP 2014, The Power of Story and Metaphor, Huffington Post, Viewed 10 August, 2014,

Bowdle, B F. & Gentner D 2005, The Career of Metaphor, Psychological Review, Vol 112, Jan: 193–216.

Erard, M 2015, How to build a metaphor and change people’s minds, Aeon, Viewed 09 June, 2015,

Glucksberg, S 2003, The psycholinguistics of metaphor, Trends in Cognitive Sciences 7 (2):92–96.

Ovans, A 2014, To tell your story, take a page from Kurt Vonnegut, Harvard Business Review, Viewed 15 April, 2014,

Sommers, C 2012, Think Like a Futurist: Know What Changes, What Doesn’t, and What’s Next. First edition. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Szpunar, K K. & McDermott, K B, 2009, Episodic Future Thought: Remembering the Past to Imagine the Future, Handbook of Imagination and Mental Simulation, Psychology Press NY.