Exercise: Visual Metaphors


New Scientist

Some time ago I stopped subscribing to New Scientist because I didn’t have time to read it (I’m doing a degree! NO time). I buy it when I have more time in the Summer etc but I’ve noticed something… it used to be jammed packed with illustrations: they were really creative collages and photomontages – full of texture, colour and they brought a real sense of style, colour and excitement to the articles. The last issue I bought had one illustration… which is on the cover and re-use for the article (a line drawing of Einstein’s head).

Maybe that’s why I stopped reading it… maybe I did have the time but not the inclination to put myself in front of a page of stock photography.

As a result I have no illustrations to show from New Scientist (unless I can find some older issue somewhere). How disappointing.

…Oh wait! Those old illustrations are on the internet… I can Google them!

As it turns out so are a number of other illustrations done speculatively or for college work as if briefed for a New Scientist article… the well is not dry after all.

I was looking at online newspapers and there’s a generality that is interesting:

  • Sport: Photographs of sportsmen
  • World News: Photographs of locations and events
  • Politics: Photographs of politicians
  • Finance: Illustrations, charts, graphics… no photos of anyone.

It is as if Finance does not involve people… it’s all about the concepts and their disambiguation through imagery… it’s almost as if there are no people to take responsibility for the events that happen in the financial world… oh! yes! that’s exactly how it is!

Examples of Illustration Metaphor

Anyway, science normally uses stock photos because the public don’t actually understand what it really looks like, I think, but when there’s space and in New Scientist in the olden days they used metaphorical illustrations which I used to look at for longer that I spent reading the article sometimes.

0001 Meanings in ImageryTechnology putting out the fuse on the self-destruction planet-bomb. Tagged as a ‘college’ piece this illustration by Nick Hare uses the existing shape of the earth, modified slightly, to match the shape of the archetypal cartoon bomb – the shape of early grenades. Although this shape of bomb does not seems to be in use any more the symobolism lives on in practically every cartoon… only superseded by the ‘sticks of dynamite’ bomb. Technology is represented here as robotic hands. This is a more tricky feat as it would be easy to see ‘gauntlets’ instead of ‘robot’. Perhaps what makes this most hard is that robotic hands are not a well established trope – we don’t have them in our household. In this case the hand have to be ;snuffing out’ the fuse so it’s important that they can be seen to be about to do this… something that looked more mechanical would not necessarily convey that action which is associated with human fingers.

0003 Meanings in ImageryResorting to the use of words is less satisfying but quite common and probably often necessary. Political cartoons have often labelled their characters and situations in some way. Here tech giants Microsoft and Google are each given a computer mouse which has been rendered to look like a boxing glove. Both interpretations are visible – the familiar red and ‘mitten’ shape of the boxing glove combined with the slightly different outline of a generic computer mouse and it’s familiar cable and cable strain-relief.

There is a ‘shock mark’ above and around the Microsoft mouse indicating a strike perhaps… with the Google mouse poised in a ‘just lunged’ position perhaps. The green background creates a vibrant contrast with the gloves/mice that heightens the energy of the situation.

0004 Meanings in ImageryIt took me a while to see this political comment – at first it looked only like the familiar hand-grenade with the pin pulled. Looking more closely the top of the grenade is fashioned in the shape of the dome on the top of the Senate building in Washington DC, the USA’s equivalent to the Houses of Parliament. The next moments after this pin is pulled will be familiar from the movie ‘Independence Day’ perhaps.

This image again modifies a familiar shape but only slightly so that two objects can be seen in one representation.

0005 Meanings in ImageryA falling house brick with the words ‘House Prices’ carved into it adequately represent the free-fall of house prices – probably a story from the recent global recession, which was partly caused by inflated house prices. The ‘falling’ part of this illustration is important as it is half the message and is represented here by showing the sky behind the brick and the motion lines trailing upwards.

There is a visualisation to be made by the viewer of this image – what will happen when it reaches the ground?

0006 Meanings in ImageryYou are what you eat… taken to its literal conclusion. The happy coincidence of the near flesh-coloured burger bun makes this conflation compelling… it is almost natural.

0007 Meanings in Imagery Fishing for ideas. The oh-so-recognisable brain cortext which also could pass… when drawn economically as here… for the gentle ripples on a lake.

0008 Meanings in ImageryRaking in the money. In this case it’s not even a metaphor of imagery as it depicts a scene that is literally possible, if not likely. But the phrase itself is a metaphor for making money very quickly and/or in large amounts.

0009 Meanings in Imagery The information super-highway made into the more familiar kind of road with a super amount of traffic. Extending this metaphor we infer that it is a hard road to cross for a pedestrian… and further assign Print Media to be the pedestrian to the internet’s streaming media. Signposts appear quite a lot in metaphorical imagery as they complete the context well.

0010 Meanings in ImageryWork-life balance. In this case ‘life’ is depicted as family… perhaps as ‘quality time’ with the family and as ‘leisure time’. What is interesting in this metaphor is that it is perfectly readable and yet the analogy fails to go further. If you over analyse this it appears that the man works, the rest of the family has fun, and that’s the balance!

0011 Meanings in ImagerySimilar to the work-life balance this is ‘Juggling commitments’. In this case it might also be ‘Multi-tasking’ and depicting 6 arms leans towards that idea.

0012 Meanings in ImageryThis metaphor is about goals and achievments. It doesn’t look otherwise like a twilight scene but the yellow bull’s-eye does operate in the position of a sunset. Travel by swimming is hard work and the horizon always a long way off so this metaphor incorporates the sense that the ‘target’ is hard won and requires determination, stamina and facing a challenge that stacks the odds against you.

0016 Meanings in ImageryThese packs of Viagra have been arranged in square (ish) foils so that they appear in two roes og three (or three rows of two). From the context of the article where they appear this is about ‘luck’ and this arrangement is rolling a double six on dice.

0014 Meanings in Imagery 2In the face of all evidence to the contrary here we see Man blaming some scapegoat for the demise of the Doodo. Although it is a straightforward piece of illustration it was used for a metaphor for ‘blame’ and man’s general proclivity for allocating it to anything other than himself.

0013 Meanings in Imagery 1This ardent cinema-goer uses and intravenous drip to ensure a steady supply of nutrients during a film.

0015 Meanings in Imagery 3Continuing the lucky double six metaphor this illustration co-opts the dots growing in a petri dish to become the dots on the dice… revealed with two die-shaped highlights.

Creating a Visual Metaphor


I first considered types of Broken Relationship… those dealing with a relationship that doesn’t work (where both parties are present) and one where the relationship is broken by separation… death or distance.

The idea that two people could have a broken relationship and be staring at each other in the eye is first sketched… it’s like a battle of wills, something needs to be settled and the relationship is unstable util it is.

Top right is a loss – a figure sits at a table for two alone. The flowers are wilted. In my mind this is a widower and his wife is missing… the wilted flowers are an additional metaphor within the picture. There is a certain literalness about this image as it is like a snap shot of a moment after the loss… it might not be a metaphor in the fullest sense.

The blue and yellow picture on the left shows a boy being left crying by his mother who’s back we see in the distance. I set this in a supermarket… an abandoned tantrum. I have personally witnessed many broken mother/child relationships in supermarkets – where they cannot communicate for whatever reason… modern life and the teenager… very tricky.

I drew a mother and baby with a separating line – adoption at birth is a break in a relationship of great significance. This would need to be developed to find a way to pictorially represent the break.

The final image on this page explores the situation where the relationship is only broken from one point of view… one person is happy and one is not. I’ve tried to show this in the expressions and the way that the unhappy partner directs their gaze at the other.


Turning to the Political Broken relationship, which superficially bears a resemblance to the last sketch but this time the context (end expressions) reveal that there is mutual animosity. There are a range of levels on which humans interact – from the very formal through to the deeply intimate and this is one of the more formal levels – this relationship is probably not personal but political; the relationship is between states represented by these two UN delegates. To keep it topical I’ve depicted a Sikh (I’ve later discovered that the turban is badly drawn!) and a ‘Westerner’, any number of political breakdowns are possible.

A5_Page_66 A5_Page_67

Lots of a illustrations to represent Broken, Relationship or the combination. There are so many kinds of relationship yet it is a word that has only metaphorical imagery to represent it in itself.


Things that represent Finance.


Things that represent Catastrophe.


The meaning in this final drawing may not be 100% clear… it is the doubt about whether the roof of the ‘BANK’ building can be interpreted as a volcano, which is the inspiration. However, the nature of an ‘explosive outpouring’ might be enought to get across the message that there has been a disaster relating to finance… a Financial Catastrophe.

This illustration came from combining a sketch of a volcano with a sketch of a bank building.

The neo-classical architecture combined with the volcano reminds me of Mt. Vesuveus of the Roman Empire.


In tribute to the song in Starlight Express “U-N-C-O-U-P-L-E-D” which is the train-way to spell “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” – a Tammy Wynette hit which is much sadder than the train version. It occurs that an uncouple train is a broken relationship… the uncoupled carriage ceases to be part of the train.

It didn’t result in any imagery so far but I do find it interesting how wide-ranging the word ‘Relationship’ actually is. It can relate to many things that we don’t necessarily think of as being ‘In a relationship’… more that they ‘Have a relationship’. For example, a pencil and a sharpener ‘Have a relationship’ in that the one fits inside the other like a glove and can be sharpened by it… but to ‘break’ that relationship is harder to make sense of, the relationship is too insubstantial to disturb. It’s more of a conceptual relationship which is historical… pencils have been sharpened for many years. If we cease to use wood pencils then perhaps the relationship will be ‘broken’ but it doesn’t seem likely that pencil sharpeners will run off with the nail files to form a new relationship. It’s a shade of grey but it seems to me to be too far on the far side.


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