Using Metaphors to Think Visually

This is part one of a three part series of articles that discusses visual thinking devices you can use to enhance your visual message.

Metaphors, analogies and other related devices, that I will discuss within this series of articles, are as critical to visual thinking as color is to an artist. Without the use of color, an artist finds it excruciatingly difficult to develop their full capacity for creative self-expression. Moreover, their artwork lacks character and often fails to deliver their intended message.

Color generates passion, excitement, or mayhem — moving people emotionally in whichever way the artist originally envisioned. It creates involvement — immersing people into a world of endless possibilities, that are shaped by the artist’s unique personality and perspectives.

Metaphors Shape Our Understanding of Reality

Metaphors and analogies are used constantly to help us make sense of the world we live in. In fact, they shape our understanding of the world and subsequently our mental model of reality. Moreover, they assist us with making more effective decisions and choices about the events and circumstances of our lives. They also help inspire, move and motivate us forward on a daily basis.

When it comes to visual thinking, these devices provide you with a means and a way to communicate your visual message in a meaningful manner that helps build understanding, awareness and familiarity. They align with people’s mental models of the world and subsequently provide a deep sense of connection with the information you are sharing with them.

Without these devices visual thinking would be much like an artist without color — an artist nevertheless, but an artist with far less creative self-expression.

Linking the New with the Familiar

The main advantage that these devices have for visual thinking is that they allow you to link the new with the familiar. They help you to bridge the gap by piecing together a canvas of new concepts and ideas and presenting them in a way that others understand and connect with. The same of course is true when you’re using visual thinking for your own purposes. Please keep this in mind as we work through this discussion.

Every new visual concept or idea you generate must be presented in such a way that it immediately sparks familiarity and understanding. It must spark that “Aha” moment, where everything suddenly makes sense with the world and all of humanity.

All this is very important, because familiarity, a sense of connection, and comfort are the driving forces that help people overcome fear, resistance and anxiety. They put the mind at rest and therefore breed tolerance, acceptance and ultimately allow people to integrate whatever it is you’re presenting into the framework of their thinking — into the mental models of their reality.

What is a Metaphor?

A metaphor is basically an implied comparison that brings together two dissimilar objects or things. The two things that are being compared make up the metaphor, which asserts that two things that are not alike are in fact the same. A working example is how I have constantly made the link between visual thinking and magic. I treat them as being one and the same, even though they are different.

Metaphors are most effectively used when you associate an obscure or difficult subject with something else that makes the first easier to understand. However, you must keep in mind, that even though they are great to use, the metaphor you’re using must be universal, or otherwise it simply won’t fit-in with people’s mental models of reality.

Here are some examples of metaphors:

  • Ideas are mushrooms that expand and multiply quickly.
  • Ideas have wings.
  • Asking questions is priming the pump of better understanding.
  • Thoughts are the seeds of creation.
  • A positive attitude is a lighthouse for the hopeful.
  • You have the heart of a lion.
  • You’re a visual thinking butterfly, still in your cocoon. 

What is an Analogy?

Just like a metaphor, an analogy asserts that there is a connection between two dissimilar things, however, an analogy implies that there is actually a difference between these two things, while a metaphor treats them as being the same.

The main purpose of an analogy is to bring out the meaning of a concept or idea in such a way that it can be understood with ease. For this very reason analogies play a significant role in problem solving, decision making, perception, memory, creativity, emotion and communication. They are integrated into the fabric of our lives and are also critical to the process of visual thinking.

Analogies are best used when providing people with a visual understanding of the logic you are trying to get across to them, that naturally synchronizes with their mental models of the world. To do this, you must present an new idea by using concepts that people are already familiar with. This relationship helps people digest concepts and ideas far more effectively and easily.

Here are some examples of analogies:

  • Glove is to hand as paint is to wall.
  • What dog is to kennel, a rabbit is to a burrow.
  • A fish is to water as a bird is to air.
  • What child is to a mother, a song is to a singer.
  • What strings are to a guitar, love is to life.
  • What a General is to an army, a CEO is to a company.
  • Just as a sword is the weapon of a warrior, a pen is the weapon of a writer.

A Practical Example of a Visual Thinking Metaphor

Within the next post, I will provide you with an example of a visual thinking metaphor you can use to help gain clarity about the steps you need to take to achieve a goal or objective. It’s going to be one of many visual thinking metaphors that we will discuss over time. Individually, they are effective tools you can use to gain more clarity about your life, however, used together, they become powerful tools for change and transformation.

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