Metaphors cleverly allow us to express ideas through other ideas as a way to communicate a deeper understanding of them. They’re beautifully handy because they also shed light on how we think about ideas and concepts yet too often the same metaphors are used over and over again, which diminishes their impact until their meaning is eventually lost.
For example, how many times have you heard the term “silver bullet”? It’s used to explain a seemingly magical solution to a difficult problem. What about the expression “to make money hand over fist” — to make a lot of money quickly and in great quantity?
Today, neither metaphor conjures images that bring us any where close to their original meaning. We may visualize hands moving over fists but we don’t understand how it has anything to do with making money, let alone any connection to its nautical origins. As for a silver bullet — nobody ponders the scarcity of silver these days, especially in bullets. That detail of limited availability has vanished with the years. Both metaphors have stopped transforming the way we understand the ideas they’re intended to illuminate. They’re dead metaphors — or at the very least, they’re on life support. : ).
In order to see and understand the world more vividly, we need metaphors that are alive. At the same time, it’s really important to be open to new metaphors.
That’s part of what Dan Lockton does, as Chair of Design Studies at Carnegie Mellon University School of Design as well as Director of the Imaginaries Lab. His research investigates how people understand ideas and concepts, i.e. the understanding of understanding, and through his work, Dan explores how new metaphors in design lead to new ways of thinking and problem-solving in design practices.
As Dan says, new metaphors challenge all of us to “take a deeper look at things we think we know” until the familiar is new and different. They can be used as a way of framing a problem, for example, and in so doing, one not only begins to understand the world differently but one may also discover new solutions as well as new outcomes to problems, which may not have otherwise come to the surface. That’s what makes Dan’s research so intriguing.
Here below is a short film featuring Dan, which I directed and illustrated, that brings this very point to life by playing with new metaphors for how we think about financial systems and economies.
As one economist noted, the commonly used metaphor of the pie to describe the economy is “misleading and damaging. A pie has a predefined size… some argue we can and should simply re-slice the new, bigger pie to produce more equitable pieces…” but that’s not helpful to how economies actually work.
In the film, you will see proposals that are more compelling and relevant. I hope you enjoy it and do let me know if it inspires you to think of other new metaphors!
— Christian Svanes Kolding
 ‘silver bullet’ taken from Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Silver_bullet)
 ‘hand over fist’ (n.d.) McGraw-Hill's Dictionary of American Slang and Colloquial Expressions. (2006)
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