Metaphor and Design Ideation

Psychologists have been big believers in using metaphors in therapy. Beginning with Freud and Jung, they were interested in dreams because they believed dreams could serve as metaphors for issues that people were trying to work out in their waking lives. And over time psychotherapists, from the fathers of the movement to today, have often  believed that if they could introduce the right metaphor at the right time in therapy, they had a chance of helping someone see their problems more clearly, and perhaps enable them to engage in positive change.

Metaphors are powerful tools outside of therapy, of course.  From semiotics to language acquisition to design, metaphors define much of how we come to interpret the world and envision new ideas and things. Often there is nothing that can make a concept more persuasive or tangible than the use of an image that sticks in someone’s mind. An image may be memorable based on its concreteness or whimsicality or universality or perhaps its graphic nature; what makes a metaphorical image persuasive is its aptness to the situation one is attempting to understand.  It doesn’t mean anything, however, unless you can somehow analogize the illustration to some real situation. In other words, saying “it’s a metaphor” doesn’t mean anything unless you can answer the question, “what is it a metaphor for?”

I try to bring metaphors into presentations or ideation sessions whenever I can.  People may not be able to appreciate or understand how to build on an observation or insight unless they can visualize an analogous situation. Rather than focusing on solving problems or addressing “needs” right away, providing rich metaphors often assists people in viewing the insights in which their personal feelings are so entangled more objectively or more truthfully.  It allows people to step outside their daily roles and think creatively. The challenge is to design metaphors that are both memorable and apt to each party’s situation.  But that is also the opportunity for creativity on the mediator’s part, and for me, part of the fun of doing this kind of work.

Create a shared view of the present and the future. 
One element is to design a meeting tool to help quickly capture images and adjectives that people have in mind when asking what people are doing today, both inside the organization and the customers engaged with the brand, versus what they will do tomorrow. For example, you might pose questions such as: Imagine the research finding as a color, what would it be today? How does this compare to how people what it will be six months from now? It sounds silly, to be sure, but it gets people thinking about the situation in terms other than fulfilling immediate needs or focusing too quickly on details that may not be relevant to the bigger picture. It also gives people license to exercise their minds and start thinking in genuinely new and innovative ways.

Moving in the same direction. 
Pick one that’s appropriate for the design or strategy team and its journey, such as shopping for groceries for a party or preparing for a trip. Consider locations and cultures of team members as you choose the best metaphor. Find relevant photos or other images to post during the conversation to evoke the same sense of place for everyone. Get team members talking about what each must do to prepare for this adventure together, what help they need from others, the inherent risks and how to mitigate, etc. Capture responses as part of the meeting output, either online off to the side. “Translate” these responses into real- life implications for your team.

Painting pictures from the first-person perspective.
Encourage team members to use highly descriptive language. For example, you might ask: “Imagine you are a typical customer (or user) making a shopping list. How are you feeling as you walk through the steps? Why?” By painting a vivid picture, with each team member imagining s/he is the focal point, you’ll cull out more vivid and authentic responses far more quickly than if you asked: “Describe the typical customer experience.”  In other words, it forces the participants to think in the role of the person for whom they are designing, not in the professional role with all its baggage.

Choose images carefully. 
When you’re working with team members who have different  professional languages and concerns, using visual communications is more efficient and effective than using words alone. Tread carefully, however. Make sure that the use of a particular image, whether literal or proverbial, is appropriate and understandable for all team members.

Published by gavinjohnston67

Take an ex-chef who’s now a full-fledge anthropologist and set him free to conduct qualitative research, ethnography, brand positioning, strategy and sociolinguistics studies and you have Gavin. He is committed to understand design and business problems by looking at them through an anthropological lens. He believes deeply in turning research findings into actionable results that provide solid business strategies and design ideas. It's not an insight until you do something with it. With over 18 years of experience in strategy, research, and communications, he has done research worldwide for a diverse set of clients within retail, legal, banking, automotive, telecommunications, health care and consumer products industries.

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