How designers use visual metaphors to change the way we act and feel

You have almost definitely in your creative career been told to ‘think outside the box’.

If you’re anything like me, when you head someone spout this phrase, you rolled your eyes and started to imagine what the espouser’s box would look like in a box, à la Se7en.

But, annoyingly, these management-speak types might be on to something. Thinking outside the box might actually make us more creative, according to the latest research into visual metaphors and their influence on how we think and feel.

01. If you want to think creative, feel creative


Elissa Hudson

Many of us are familiar with the ‘Aha!’ moment, when we suddenly get a spark of insight and can solve a problem that has been bugging us for ages. We imagine a lightbulb popping on in our heads as this new thought comes to us, illuminating our understanding.

Well, what is this wasn’t a one-way process? What if a lightbulb coming on led to the insight in the first place? This is what a group led by Michael Slepian of Tufts University set out to test in 2010. They looked at the effect of an illuminating bulb on problem solving. They found that “exposure to an illuminating light bulb activates concepts associated with achieving insight and facilitates performance on spatial, verbal and mathematical insight problems.” That is, people were far more insightful just after seeing a lightbulb light up. The same effect was not seen on problems where insight was not needed, such as straightforward mathematical questions.

They call this a ‘cultural artefact’.

We are so used to the idea that a bright lightbulb springing on is linked to clever thinking that we cannot help but think smarter when we see one.

In this study, the illuminated lightbulb primed the participants to think creatively and come up with the insights needed for the tests.

This insight into insight, and the effects of visual metaphors on the way we think creatively was expanded on two years later by a group led by Angela Leung from Singapore Management University. She looked at a more comprehensive list of visual metaphors to see how they effect the people using them. In particular, she was interested in ‘embodied metaphors’. These are metaphors which relate in some way to our bodies, and that we can either act out easily, or imagine ourselves in such a situation.

For instance, we can easily act out the phrase ‘on the one hand’. Most people, when hearing this, would imagine themselves weighing up two situations, on in each hand, and leaning to and fro as we thought about each. Leung tested what happens to creativity in people when you allow them to use both hands to gesticulate like this, or restrict them to just one hand. The two-handers were more likely to come up with novel ideas in the test (in this case, how a building might be used), then the ones that had to keep one hand behind their backs.

Next, her group tested the visual metaphor ‘putting two and two together’. For this the participants had to put two cut pieces of coasters back together and then undergo some creativity tests. Whereas before, Leung was interested in all types of creativity, in this test her group was interested whether the act of ‘recombination’ as they called it, helped the participants with a particular type of thinking – convergent thinking.

Convergent thinking is what we might more commonly call knowledge. It is when we can successfully think of the right answer to a question. This differs from divergent thinking, where we have to be creative and, dare I say it… think outside the box. The visual metaphor ‘put two and two together’ is related to convergent thinking as we imagine ourselves adding up the information in our head to get to the correct answer. As she hypothesized, after doing this jigsaw puzzle test, the participants were better in a convergent thinking test than a divergent thinking test. It may be that the structure of putting pieces of a puzzle together inhibits more divergent, creative thinking. So, don’t do a jigsaw just before you can to design something completely new.


Thomas Braestrup

Next, the group tested the dreading ‘think outside the box’ and divergent thinking. How do you think they did this? Yep, they literally built a box for their participants to sit either inside or outside of. In the creativity test afterwards, the people who were lucky enough not to get put in the box, but were allowed to sit outside it were more creative in these divergent creativity tasks.

They also tried two variants of this box task. For one, instead of an actually box, participants were told they had to walk within an assigned rectangular area. Either they were told they had to walk along the lines of the rectangle, or were free to go wherever. The people who had the strict path to follow were less creative afterwards than the ones that were allowed to roam free.

Finally, they wanted to see whether they could take the ‘body’ out of the equation all together. In this case, the had the subjects watch an avatar on Second Life, the early-2000s virtual world that we were all supposed to be living in by now. Again, the avatar either walked around randomly, or had to walk in a square. The people who watched the random walker were again more creative than the square walker watchers. Leung used the term ’psychological embodiment’ to describe this phenomenon. We incorporate the avatar into our own body schema and then imagine what it would be like to be that avatar (or person).

This last test is important, as it shows that it isn’t necessarily the body position, location, or posture that is important, but rather what it makes us think of. Just watching someone, or something, in a non-creative environment or position is enough to suffocate our own creativity.


Image via Chic Type

The most recent finding in this area of research has been from Alex Marin at the University of Arizona. In 2013, he also started to look at how visual metaphors impact our creative thinking. Marin was less interested in embodied metaphors, but how simple visualizations of such metaphors could increase, and more importantly decrease, creativity.

Participants in the study had to take a creativity test online. While taking the test a banner ad was shown across the top of the screen. For some people this was a neutral image – a fish, for example – but for others it was a visual metaphor, such as a brain hovering over a box, again symbolizing the ever annoying ‘thinking outside the box’. The people with the floating brain got higher scores on the tests then the fish people.

But Marin took the testing a step further.

His thinking was, if visual metaphors can increase creativity, can they also decrease creativity? The answer was yes.

For some people undergoing the online creativity test, instead of the positive visual metaphor, such as the brain over the box, or the neutral image, they saw an inverse of a visual metaphor, such as a burnt out bulb instead of a bright one. These participants ended up worse on the creativity tests than even the neutral group. Their insight was blown, just like the bulbs.

For designers and creatives, these findings have multiple impacts. For one, this shows the impact that good design can have. It means that what they are designing, and how they are using visual metaphors, can have dramatic effects on the people viewing. As creatives, you have the ability to make people more creative, or less creative, with just a few images.

But perhaps more importantly,

this should show you how susceptible you, and your creativity, might be to visual metaphors.

02. How we make sense of the world around us from an early age


Emiliano Aranguren

Why are metaphors so compelling? Well, the research into metaphor is still in its infancy, but it is probably infancy where we start to get the most out of metaphors. When we are young we have literally no idea what is going on around us. It is all a mystery. But our great capacity for learning means that we soon start to pick up on small ideas around us to try and make sense of the world.

Metaphor may be one way we do this. The world is ultimately abstract to us when young and we have to try and convert strange ideas into something more tangible. This is something that humans excel at. We are great at ‘putting two and two together’ and getting… well, not always four. But, it is the act of trying new things and learning what fits and bootstrapping off those ideas that makes us such good learners. Metaphors are ways of taking weird things in the world and relating them back to ideas we already understand.

When we hear ‘putting two and two together’, it makes sense to us from an early age because we can imagine doing it, slotting pieces together, and building up a picture.

When we hear that phrase, we are taken back to how such a puzzle works, and from there we can expand out to the meaning of the talker.

03. How designers can change the way we act and feel


Ink Surge

Like I said, the use of metaphor can have drastic impact of both designers themselves and the people they design for. In fact, small changes in design and environment can have big effects on how people behave.

In 2013, a group led by Andy Yap from M.I.T. wanted to see how the ergonomics of different situations affected people’s subsequent behaviour. In the first test, participants had to sit at a desk and perform a simple anagram task and then rearrange their desks. For some people, the desks were small and contractive, for others it was large and expansive. Afterwards, the participants were allowed to grade their own anagram tests. Yap found that those in the expansive situation were more likely to cheat and correct their own answers than the people in the smaller environments. Yap thinks that this is due to the people in the bigger environment feeling more powerful than those at the smaller desk. They were happier to believe that they could cheat afterwards.

Yap and his colleagues also looked at this difference in a driving environment. Participants underwent a driving test in a simulator, and were either in a contracted seating position close up against the steering wheel, or an expanded one sitting back. The expanded group were more likely to drive recklessly and rack up more traffic tickets in the test.

These aren’t metaphors per se, but they show how important ‘embodiment’ of emotions and thinking is, just as in Leung’s earlier studies. In these cases the expansive body position led the people to take more risks and be more outgoing and dangerous. This mind-body connection is exactly why visual metaphors can work so well, and exactly why designers have to be careful when they are designing. It is important that they think about how they might want the user or viewer to think and match their visual metaphors, or their embodied metaphors, to the ultimate outcome.

04. How to boost your creativity using visual and embodied metaphors


Jay Roeder


all this should show that your mind and your body are linked, and it is a two-way street.

This means that you can ‘trick’ you mind into thinking certain thoughts, just through bodily actions.

Most of us have come across this before – the act of smiling usually makes us feel happy, because either our brain thinks that there must be something to smile about so starts to feel happy, or remembers other smiling times, making us think about those. Leung and her colleagues showed that acting out box-free thinking can free our minds to be more creative. If you are trying to boost your creativity or other emotions and thinking linked to creativity, you might want to try some of these ideas

– Jump for joy. If you are feeling down and need a little boost, then try jumping for joy. A 2013 study found that people who jumped around where more happy afterwards than people who made more neutral but just as energetic movements.

– If you have an issue with persistence, then you might want to try crossing your arms more. This is a posture we usually associate with persistence, and the act of acting it out can help you become more persistent. In 2008, a study found that people who crossed their arms were more likely to spend longer attempting a difficult puzzle.

– I’m not sure what the metaphor is here, but if you want to increase your creativity, you can always try lying down. A 2005 study found that people where better at solving anagrams when they were lying down. This might be because a circuit in the brain linked to insight, the locus coeruleus-noradrenergic system, is impaired when we are standing up.

– If you want to understand someone better, copy them. It has been shown in both body position and accent that it is easier to understand others when we embody their postures.

– Finally, if you want to pay more attention, consider wearing a white coat. When people wear a white coat like a doctor or scientist, they make less mistakes and pay more attention. This may be due to how we associate doctors and scientists with intelligence, and embody these traits through their clothes.

05. Think outside the box

All of these studies show how much effect the outside world, and your body, has on your brain. With metaphors,

because we have grown up implicitly understanding both verbal and visual metaphors they act as a shortcut directly into our emotions and thinking.

We do not have to process them in the same way as new information, making them easier to understand and more effective at manipulating us.

This is important for creatives and designers in both realizing how they can be effected by both visual metaphors (thinking outside the box) and embodied cognition (literally sitting inside a box), and also how what they do can affect other people. By using visual metaphors in your design you can bypass the normal processing of language and get straight to the core of how people think, changing their feelings, emotions and thoughts for the better, or for the worse.

So make sure you are thinking outside the box. And remember, even if you are having difficulty doing that, you can always build yourself a box to think outside of.

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