Visual metaphors

Updated: Jan 14, 2019


Illustration by Angeline Veeneman, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Visuals are super-powerful when it comes to explaining complex ideas, and the rise of infographics, data visualisation and visual thinking techniques is a logical response to our need to communicate our ideas in a sea of others.


Metaphors are figures of speech that we can use to explain a difficult or abstract topic by comparing it to a common situation or object (Vincent Van Gogh’s “Conscience is a man’s compass“). These analogies help us understand an idea more easily by making it tangible and familiar. Information Technology uses metaphors all the time: think of reporting dashboards, cloud computing or the web. These are compelling because they make a direct link between the virtual and the physical, and help us grasp the concepts they illustrate. By adding an actual image to the analogy used, visual metaphors go one step further in helping us connecting our audience to the subject we are talking about.


Take an example: big data. Wikipedia’s definition starts with: “Big data is the term for a collection of data sets so large and complex that it becomes difficult to process using on-hand database management tools or traditional data processing applications.” (I don’t know about you, but my mind’s drifted already). Now take the visual metaphor used in this TED-ed lesson and the power of clarity that the image of a growing tree brings to the concept of big data (if you don’t have 5 minutes to watch the whole thing, start the clock at 1:00 and watch for 1 minute):




Project Managers can really benefit from using visual metaphors in their communications. After all, projects are about new ideas, and connecting the new to the familiar by using simple images has truly the potential to get stakeholders engaged (and keep them that way).

© 2018 by Maysix Consulting.