How to Excel at Visual Metaphors

4 min read • Martín Etchegoyen

This guide's principal goal is for you to understand the keys of visual metaphors and how to think about them to create some great ones. In writing, metaphors are convenient for helping to draw comparisons between two unrelated items that share some common traits. For instance, you might have heard the expression that someone is “the black sheep of the family.” This, of course, does not mean that your cousin is a black, woolly sheep. Instead, the explanation of this is that your cousin shares a few notable characteristics associated with black sheep, mainly that he looks or acts differently than the rest of the herd.

Metaphors can be helpful when understanding complex situations. They can also be fun to use in everyday language. Plus, they can help you add depth to your writing. Whether you want to improve your writing to write effectively or improve your English in general, you will need to be comfortable with using metaphors, and to design visual metaphors, you are going to need to get what actual metaphors are all about.

Understanding Visual Metaphors

The majority of us would probably put the word “metaphor” in a bookish context, but metaphors are much more abundant in visual form. Nowadays, visual metaphors are everywhere, used by many different types of designers to help bridge the gap between our understanding of how things work in the real world and how they work in the virtual world.

First, suppose that you need to get up to the tenth floor of your office building for an appointment. You look around for some way to summon an elevator and what do you see? A polished, beveled button with an up-facing arrow right next to it that is inviting interaction in the form of a push. And once you have done it, a helpful acknowledgment in the form of a little glow that visually dings.

Visual Metaphors

However, a button in a course or on a website is not the same as that elevator button. A real-life button has tactile qualities that cannot be duplicated in a virtual setting. In a course or on a website, the buttons are just pixels artfully arranged to look like actual buttons. The picture is a metaphor for a real-world button, designed with some of the same visual characteristics like a distinctive edge or a drop shadow to give it dimension, a hover state that lights up when the learner’s mouse rolls over it, or a selected state that glows when the button’s been bonded. All of these attributes are reminiscent of real buttons and help our brains recognize them as objects to click or tap.

4 Types of Visual Metaphors

In this section, we will present the four principal types of visual metaphors for you to analyze each one of them.

1. Standard Metaphors

A standard metaphor is a phrase or expression that utilizes a word or phrase from one context to describe something in another. For instance, in the sentence, “The stock market is a roller coaster ride,” the phrase “roller coaster” is used to describe the ups and downs of the environment. This is an example of a standard metaphor because it uses a word or phrase from one context to describe something in another context.

Standard metaphors are common and can be found in everyday conversation, literature, and other art forms. They are often used to make something more familiar or interesting to the reader or viewer. Standard metaphors are also generally used in rhetoric and advertising. They can be used to make a point or to persuade people to take some kind of action. For instance, an advertisement for an insurance company might use the following metaphor: “Life is full of unexpected twists and turns. You never know when something bad might happen. That is why it is important to be prepared.” This metaphor is used to persuade people to purchase insurance from the company.

2. Extended Metaphors

An extended metaphor is a literary instrument in which a comparison is made between two or more things wherein the comparison is drawn out over a longer period. Extended metaphors often take the form of a story and are often used in literature and poetry. They can also be found in speeches, sermons, and other forms of rhetoric.

An extended metaphor is different from a simple one, which is a direct comparison between two things made without elaboration. Extended metaphors are often used to help the reader or listener better understand a difficult idea or to create a sense of drama or suspense in a story. They can also be used to develop a sense of irony or humor. Examples of extended metaphors can be found in the works of Shakespeare, who frequently used this device. One example is in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, in which the character of Mercutio uses an extended metaphor to compare the heat of the summer to the heat of passion. He uses this opportunity to create a humorous contrast between the two and a sense of dramatic irony since Mercutio dies shortly after making his speech despite appearing immune to summer heat.

Visual Metaphors

3. Implied Metaphors

An implied metaphor is a metaphor that is implied through some aspects of a novel. For instance, if you were writing a story about a man who was afraid of spiders and you included the line “He shrank back as the furry creature rushed towards him,” you would be implying a metaphor about a man who is afraid of evolution. The furry creature would represent change, and the man would shrink away from it. Implied metaphors are often more subtle than other forms, but they still serve the same purpose of connecting two seemingly unrelated things.

4. Visual Metaphors

Visual metaphors are a comparison between two visually similar things. For instance, in the famous movie "The Matrix,” the concept of "red pill, blue pill", which means reality vs. illusion, is a visual metaphor. Another favorite visual metaphor is "a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” There are many more examples of visual metaphors, such as "apple of my eye,” "elephant in the room,” etc. Visual metaphors are an effective way of expressing ideas and feelings creatively and memorably.

Bottom Line

If you understand the basics of metaphors, then you will understand the importance of visual metaphors and the ways to make them engaging to your target audience.

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