The Remarkable Power Of Visual Metaphors To Make Us More Creative

Figurative images, such as an illuminated or a blown bulb, can improve our insights–but they can also dim them.

The Remarkable Power Of Visual Metaphors To Make Us More Creative
[Images: Light bulbs via Shutterstock]

We think of metaphors as the result of creativity. We assume Macbeth said, “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage,” after Shakespeare got his genius juices flowing. But metaphors can be engines of creativity, too. Show people an illuminated light bulb, as a group of scientists did a few years back, and they score higher on certain insight problems. The figurative face of bright ideas produces literal ones.


The most robust recent evidence for the power of metaphors to jump start creativity came from a widely celebrated study published in Psychological Science in 2012. Test participants enacted various metaphors for creativity, then took an association test designed to measure original thinking. (For “thinking outside the box,” they actually sat outside a box made from PVC pipe and cardboard.) The results showed that embodying metaphorical creativity did, in fact, enhance it.

New research, published this month in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, suggests that visual metaphors don’t have to be so intrusive to be effective. In one experiment, test participants completed a creativity measure online. During the task, some saw a page banner depicting a brain hovering above a box, while others saw a neutral image (a fish) or none at all. The first group of participants indeed showed better insights than the others; they thought, as it were, outside the box.

But the researchers also found that creativity can be stifled by visual metaphors as easily as it can be promoted. In a second study, they swapped some new images into the banners: bright light bulbs for some participants, burned-out bulbs for others (along with the same neutral and control images). Test participants who looked at the blown bulb before doing the creativity task performed significantly worse than those in all the other conditions. Their insight, like the bulb, had dimmed.

“It works in both directions,” marketing scholar Martin Reimann of the University of Arizona, a collaborator on the research, tells Co.Design. “You not only can enhance it but you can also decrease it.”

Precisely why metaphors have such a strong effect on creativity is a matter of ongoing speculation. One theory, says Reimann, maintains that metaphors are rooted in our subconscious during infancy and that those metaphors help us interpret our surroundings as we progress through life–it lets us convert abstract environments or situations into more relatable terms. “We, as humans, try to understand the world, in part, by metaphors,” Reimann says.

Whatever the source of the effect, the practical implications for designers are quite intriguing. During a product development process, for instance, visual metaphors might prime people to give designers more creative feedback. And say you hold a focus group in a room vivified with bright light bulbs. Theoretically, participants would come up with more, and more constructive, ideas than participants who sit in an empty room.


Product designs based on metaphors might also influence user behavior. This isn’t limited to creativity. Research has shown that subtle, everyday ergonomic decisions, many of which echo common metaphors, can shape our actions. An expansive car seat might lead to more aggressive driving; a heart-shaped gadget might prompt emotional decisions; a rough table might make meetings more difficult.

Designers in need of a little more motivation might even take a cue from Shakespeare and put a short candle on their desk–a reminder, at the risk of mixing metaphors, that the clock is always ticking.

About the author

Eric Jaffe is an editor at CityLab, where he writes about transportation, history, and behavioral science, among other topics, through the lens of urban life. He's also the author of The King's Best Highway (2010) and A Curious Madness (2014).