The power of metaphors

noun_93083Customer Journey Mapping is, as I tell delegates on my course, just a metaphor.

Then again, the Beatles were “just a band” (at least according to Scroobius Pip).

Metaphors can be incredibly powerful, but also incredibly useful. They help us to understand each other, to reason about things, and to get things done.

To quote the classic Metaphors We Live By:

“…the way we think, what we experience, and what we do every day is very much a matter of metaphor.”

One of the lessons of the book is about the “conduit metaphor” of communication (that our language is a container into which we put meaning for others to extract). This is important because it supports uses of language which don’t make much sense from a purely logical point of view (e.g. the metaphor “more of form is more of content” leads to phrases such as “he is very very very tall”, which we all understand to imply intensification).

The metaphors we use have an impact on what we think and do. What if we choose a different metaphor? In a classic paper, Michael Reddy suggests that a “toolmaker’s paradigm” would be more helpful, underpinning the importance of mutual effort to communicate ideas effectively. As he says in the paper:

“Human communication will almost always go astray unless real energy is expended” 

These metaphors are normally applied to language, but a similar approach could be taken to visual communication. In a fascinating post, Robert Kosara critiques the “Encoding-Decoding” paradigm for data visualisation.

It’s fairly clear that just like the useful, but flawed, conduit metaphor for language, there may be more than one metaphor for how visual communication works. Kosara explains how people actually read visualisations:

“What do we decode? We like to assume that decoding just reverses the encoding: we read the values from the visualization. But not only don’t we do that, we do many other things that are surprisingly poorly understood.”

In other words, the conduit metaphor for dataviz tends to overlook the active role of the person reading it. Studying how people actually use visualisations may help us to build a better metaphor.

Storytelling and visual communication is not a one-way act – we need a metaphor to reflect the active role of our audiences. 

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