The Image of Insight: The Use of Visual Metaphors in the Communication of Knowledge

The Image of Insight: The Use of Visual Metaphors in the Communication of Knowledge


The Potential of Visual Metaphors

What do Popper’s Bucket, Wittgenstein’s Ladder, Hume’s Fork, Ockham’s Razor, and Plato’s Cave have in common? They are all physical metaphors that can be used to facilitate the understanding of complex ideas. Popper used the bucket theory of experience to show the fallacies inherent in a subjectivist theory of knowledge (where man is like an empty bucket, filling up with new experiences through his or her senses). Wittgenstein used the image of a ladder to distinguish the realm of meaningful propositions from the mystic domain. Hume’s fork distinguishes necessary, contingent, and non-meaningful statements. Ockham’s razor ‘cuts’ away the unnecessary or redundant elements of a theory. Plato’s cave, finally, illustrates the concept of a reality that we perceive as ‘shadows’ in a cave that are cast by external ‘essential’ things. These five examples of ‘conceptual metaphors’ show that thinking and communication can profit from powerful metaphoric images. With today’s information technology-enabled tools [see Coyne, 1995], these metaphors can not only be exploited verbally (in order to generate an instructive image in the reader’s mind), but they can be represented graphically to organize information meaningfully, so that documented ideas can again be transformed into personal knowledge because the viewer can relate what is new (the expert’s insights) to what he or she already understands (the metaphor’s main characteristic). This, at least, is the premise of this paper. It will demonstrate that visual metaphors can provide powerful templates for experts who wish to communicate their knowledge (e.g., their problem perspectives, decision rationales, experiences, procedures etc.) to non-experts. It will do so not only by relying on the traditional scientific representation of ideas through propositional (or sometimes narrative) knowledge, but with the third format of knowledge, namely visual knowledge [see Worren et al. 2002, p. 1232, for this threefold distinction]. By presenting a variety of visual metaphors that I have developed and used with corporate and academic partners, readers can judge for themselves whether or not visual metaphors can be used to convey complex insights. First, however, we must briefly examine the main properties of metaphors in this context.


The Functioning of Metaphors

In their research anthology on information visualization Card et al. (1999) state that the key research problem in the area of visualization is to discover expressive and effective visual metaphors mapping abstract data to visual forms. In this paper, I would like to address this research problem and present expressive and effective visual metaphors that can be used to convey knowledge (experiences, insights, arguments, methods). A metaphor, according to the Oxford Dictionary of Current English, is an example of the use of words to indicate something different from the literal meaning. Metaphors rely on analogies between the qualities of a sign and the comparable attributes of what is signified. The term ‘metaphor’ is derived from the Greek verb metapherein whose meaning can be translated as „carrying something somewhere else“. A metaphor thus provides the path from the understanding of something familiar to something new by carrying elements of understanding from the mastered subject to a new domain [see also Lakoff and Johnson 1981] . This is why Aristotle calls the metaphor a tool of cognition. According to Aristotle, a metaphor provides rapid information and is to the highest degree instructive; it facilitates the process of learning [see Eco 1984, p. 100 for this point]. All of these aspects can be fruitfully used in knowledge communication where visual metaphors offer effective and simple templates to convey complex insights. Sparrow [1998, p. 71] stresses this point in the following quote (my italics):

“A variety of representations can be used as visual analogies/metaphors. Here certain properties of concepts are highlighted by juxtaposing the concepts in a way that parallels a particular well-known relationship between concepts from another context. So, for example, two sets of concepts may be depicted as on either side of a ‘balance’, or set of scales.”

The employed metaphors can be natural objects or phenomena (such as mountains, icebergs, trees, or islands) or artificial, man-made artifacts (such as a house or a temple, a funnel, a chain, or a ladder). Their main feature is that they organize information meaningfully. In doing so, they fulfill a double function: First, they position information graphically to organize and structure it. Second, they convey an insight about the represented information through the key characteristic of the metaphor that is employed.

iceberg metaphor

The iceberg, for example, separates implicit project experiences that often remain undocumented from codified project experience through a water line. Furthermore, the visual metaphor conveys the notion that the biggest (and most essential) part of the examined phenomenon (in this case experiences from projects) remains unseen or under the surface. This dual function of visual metaphors – to organize information and to give it additional meaning – is not their only benefit. As Worren et al. [2002, p. 1230] have pointed out, one should not neglect their mnemonic (i.e., facilitating remembering) and cognitive coordination function (i.e., providing an area of mutual and explicit focus). These benefits can be used in a variety of contexts. In the VizHall, I provide various examples of such metaphor-based diagrams. These examples can be grouped into four generic groups. They are described in the next section.


Levels of Metaphoric Diagrams

To systemize the possible types of metaphor-based diagrams, I distinguish five levels, ranging from low to high representational complexity:

1. Conceptual diagrams (or stripped metaphors): In these ‘classic’ visualization formats, the original metaphor is no longer clearly discernable, as in pyramids, Venn diagrams, matrices, flow diagrams, system diagrams, Cartesian coordinate systems, polar graphs, concentric circles or spheres, etc. Here, the visual metaphor has given way to an abstract conceptual shape.

2. Metaphoric diagrams : This group consists of the main physical metaphors as the iceberg example above. They use a more or less true depiction of a physical entity to organize information. Other examples are roads, funnels, ladders, stairs, trees, chains, rivers etc.).

3. Metaphoric templates : This type of diagram does not only use a metaphoric shape to organize information, it also offers pre-defined categories that can be used to structure a domain. An example of such a template is the Ishikawa fishbone diagram, which utilizes the skeleton form of a fish to organize problem knowledge into four master categories (e.g., man, machine, method, milieu).

4. Metaphoric Maps : These cartographic depictions use the map metaphor and most of its conventions to organize complex issues [see Eppler 2002 for this concept].

Specific application examples of each level from the project work of the author are provided in the

VizHall: Metaphor Assignment



[Blackwell & Green 1999] Blackwell, A.F., Green, T.R.G., “Does Metaphor Increase Visual Language Usability?” Proceedings of the 1999 IEEE Symposium on Visual Languages VL’99 (1999), 246-253.

[Card et al., 1999] Card, S.K., Mackinlay, J.D., Shneidermann, B., “ Readings in Information Visualization”, Morgan Kaufmann Publishers, San Francisco (1999).

[Coyne, 1995 ] Coyne, R., “Designing Information Technology in the Postmodern Age, From Method to Metaphor“, MIT Press, Cambridge (1995).

[Eco, 1984] Eco, U., “Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language”; Macmillan, London (1984).

[Eppler, 2002] Eppler, M.J., “Making Knowledge Visible through Knowledge Maps”; Holsapple, C. (Ed.) Knowledge Management Handbook, Springer, New York (2002), 189-206.

[Lakoff and Johnson, 1981] Lakoff, G., Johnson, M., “Metaphors We Live By“, University of Chicago Press, Chicago (1981).

[Sparrow, 1998] Sparrow, J., “Knowledge in Organizations”, Sage, Thousand Oaks (1998).

[Worren et al., 2002] Worren, N., Moore, K., Elliott, R., “When theories become tools: Toward a framework for pragmatic validity”, Human Relations, Vol. 55, 10 (2002), 1227-1250.

Last modified: Friday, 2 March 2007, 2:57 PM