Metaphors: understanding and designing

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Metaphors help people "understand the unfamiliar" and "make someone realise they've only been looking at one side of a thing." Metaphors assist in closing "the gap in people's ability to grasp something, or speed up what they're already on track to see."

Designing metaphors involves generating multiple possible comparisons to find those that work well. Strategies include:

  • deliberately miscategorising the thing you are trying to explain (to generate thought-provoking ideas)
  • breaking "the thing you want to explain into its components, then connect them to some other idea or domain of life"
  • repurposing existing metaphors
  • looking for "common conceptual domains in which analogical mappings are easy to find", such as sport or a car.

Erard suggests: "To design metaphors, it helps to have a metaphor for metaphor. I think of it as a room: the windows and doors frame a view toward the reality outside. Put the windows high, people see only the trees. Put them low, they see the grass. Put the window on the south side [in the northern hemisphere], they’ll see the sun." He continues: "Sometimes the room can be empty. Sometimes the views from the room are a bit forced. Or perhaps they’re new and therefore uncomfortable. In those situations, you have to direct people’s attention. You have to give them furniture to sit on that makes your architectural choices unavoidable."

To judge a successful metaphor, look for cognitive rather than emotional responses. A successful metaphor will be rich in imagery and potential associations and is likely to generate surprise.

Reference: Erard, M. (2015). See Through Words. Aeon magazine. Online article:

Posted: August 2015
Last modified: February 2016