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What Is a Visual Metaphor?

By Pablo Garcia
Updated May 23, 2024
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A visual metaphor is an image used in the place of or in conjunction with another to suggest an analogy between the images or make a statement with them. In Western culture, metaphors are generally thought of as being verbal. In other cultures where the tradition is oral rather than written, metaphors may be primarily visual and are interpreted in a different way. Even in Western culture, it is beginning to be understood that metaphors can be extended from the verbal into the visual realm. Both verbal and visual metaphors are a way of organizing knowledge and understanding and can be used to express ideas.

A metaphor is usually defined as a figure of speech in which a word or phrase expressing one kind of idea is used in place of another to express an idea or analogy. For example, “Love is an ocean.” By definition, metaphor excludes visual content by referring only to words and phrases. The concept of metaphor can, however, can be used with visual terms. For example, a visual metaphor composed of a clock enclosed within the dollar sign can express visually the verbal metaphor “time is money.”

Non-Western oral cultures like those of Native Americans used non-verbal metaphors all the time, both for communication and for instruction of the young. Occasionally, Western cultures use metaphors that are visual in conjunction with verbal metaphors to understand complex ideas. Most people are familiar with the scientific metaphor learned in school that “the atom is a tiny solar system” expressed visually by a picture of its nucleus being orbited by electrons and protons.

A visual metaphor can be thought of as being structured within a visual space. It generally needs to be constructed of familiar symbols and items. To be effective it cannot be overly complex. Like a verbal metaphor, it will break down if there are too many analogies to process at once. Still, there needs to be enough detail that the metaphor is recognizable and easily understood.

Some learning theories propose that the brain converts verbal information into visual images, which are then used to encode the information and store it. The visual image acts in a sense as a retrieval system for the saved verbal information. The use of text to support a visual metaphor is being increasingly used as a teaching resource. This combination of visual and verbal information has been found to increase the value of the metaphor while also addressing different learning styles, such as that of visual thinkers.

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Discussion Comments
By anon998633 — On Jul 20, 2017

I would agree that many visual metaphors are culturally-based, and therefore may be culturally exclusive.

The universal relating of melons and elongated produce (or objects of that shape in general) to sexual organs is immediately understood as such cross-culturally because human sexuality is universal. I would venture that that is level zero of visual metaphor. It has little to do with culture and more to do with human biology.

Visual metaphor as a whole can run the gamut from universal human recognition to cultural exclusivity. Think of a strange face peering out of the woods into your camp, illuminated by the flickering light of your campfire. I'll bet you reacted to that at the very least on an unconscious level. The reason that is such a strong image, pervasive especially if you happen to catch a horror film, is because that is encoded in your brain as the big cat, coming to put an end to your peaceful night. Picture a spider. I'll bet that image caused a physiological reaction in one way or another. That's your monkey brain telling you that that thing may well be able to kill you. We're already hard wired to react to certain imagery. Couple either of those images to... anything, as in a film and you're practicing Eisenstein's montage theory. And, you are communicating metaphor universally.

I disagree that visual metaphors aren't common in our society. Any good ad in any visual media is acting on your subconscious mind via metaphor. Any good film you see is speaking in a cinematic visual language that we have come to understand, or at least be affected by on a non-conscious level.

By bythewell — On Jul 18, 2012

@pastanaga - I don't know, I think that people assume too much sometimes when they think that visual metaphors are universal. Traffic signs are a good example. There are plenty of them that confuse foreigners because they don't seem to make sense, while the people who are used to them think of them as perfectly obvious.

Color is another really good example. A lot of people think black is a universal metaphor for death, but in a lot of cultures it's another color, like white for example, that is considered the right one for funeral garb and so forth. Visual metaphors are not something to be taken for granted as obvious.

By pastanaga — On Jul 18, 2012

@indigomoth - It is pretty universal. I remember when I was buying food at a market in West Africa I went to get the vegetables first and then decided to get some roast meat on the way home. I stopped at the butchers, which had a bunch of guys sitting around and I didn't even think about the fact that I had a bunch of carrots in my hand.

They all thought it was hilarious, asking me if I was taking those carrots home, joking about the size of the carrots and so forth (not in a bad way, they were just being friendly). I told them I was taking the carrots home for my husband although he preferred the cabbages and they all thought that was hysterical. I mean, it was dumb and we all knew it was dumb, but it suited my terrible language skills and it was a universal joke. Visual metaphors are like that, the really good ones are going to be understood by most people. Think about the skull on the poison bottle for example.

The best thing about that encounter was that I always got a larger portion of roast meat from those guys whenever I went there after that.

By indigomoth — On Jul 17, 2012

While visual metaphors aren't all that common in our society, they have existed through time memorial in the form of crude jokes. Think of how many times you've seen it on TV, where someone uses a banana or melons in place of sexual organs, or how often they replace sex with a train going into a tunnel or whatever.

I'll bet you that people horsing around with that kind of visual metaphor has been going on forever, perhaps because it's such a universal joke.

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