How to design a metaphor

Michael Erard in Aeon:

GS1215429-960x601If you could ask Dante where he got the idea of life as a road, or Rilke where he found the notion that time is a destroyer, they might have said the metaphors were hewn from their minds, or drawn from a stock of poetic imagery. Their readers might have said the imagery had origins more divine, perhaps even diabolical. But neither poets nor readers would have said the metaphors were designed. That is, the metaphors didn’t target people’s cognitive processes. They weren’t engineered to affect us in a specific way.

Can metaphors be designed? I’m here to tell you that they can, and are. For five years I worked full-time as a metaphor designer at the FrameWorks Institute, a think tank in Washington, DC, whose clients are typically large US foundations (never political campaigns or governments). I continue to shape and test metaphors for private-sector clients and others. In both cases, these metaphors are meant to help people to understand the unfamiliar. They aren’t supposed to make someone remark: ‘That’s beautiful.’ They’re meant to make someone realise that they’ve only been looking at one side of a thing…

Metaphor designers create these pseudo-mistakes deliberately. Sometimes the metaphors end up in op-eds or public-service announcements. Sometimes they’re useful for helping people conceive of solutions to problems, or for internal communications in organisations. The challenge for the designer is to generate lots of pseudo-mistakes, some of which can be used for thinking and that have the power to stick around. For someone like me who is reflexively metaphorical (my wedding invite was built around the idea of a labyrinth), these are satisfying tasks, and, as a writer, I have no problem leaving material on the cutting room floor. But it’s when we start testing our metaphors for their social and cognitive usability that design can become really powerful.

Read the rest here.