A visual metaphor is an image used in the place of or in conjunction with another to suggest an analogy between the images or make a statement with them. In Western culture, metaphors are generally thought of as being verbal. In other cultures where the tradition is oral rather than written, metaphors may be primarily visual and are interpreted in a different way. Even in Western culture, it is beginning to be understood that metaphors can be extended from the verbal into the visual realm. Both verbal and visual metaphors are a way of organizing knowledge and understanding and can be used to express ideas.
A metaphor is usually defined as a figure of speech in which a word or phrase expressing one kind of idea is used in place of another to express an idea or analogy. For example, “Love is an ocean.” By definition, metaphor excludes visual content by referring only to words and phrases. The concept of metaphor can, however, can be used with visual terms. For example, a visual metaphor composed of a clock enclosed within the dollar sign can express visually the verbal metaphor “time is money.”
Non-Western oral cultures like those of Native Americans used non-verbal metaphors all the time, both for communication and for instruction of the young. Occasionally, Western cultures use metaphors that are visual in conjunction with verbal metaphors to understand complex ideas. Most people are familiar with the scientific metaphor learned in school that “the atom is a tiny solar system” expressed visually by a picture of its nucleus being orbited by electrons and protons.
A visual metaphor can be thought of as being structured within a visual space. It generally needs to be constructed of familiar symbols and items. To be effective it cannot be overly complex. Like a verbal metaphor, it will break down if there are too many analogies to process at once. Still, there needs to be enough detail that the metaphor is recognizable and easily understood.
Some learning theories propose that the brain converts verbal information into visual images, which are then used to encode the information and store it. The visual image acts in a sense as a retrieval system for the saved verbal information. The use of text to support a visual metaphor is being increasingly used as a teaching resource. This combination of visual and verbal information has been found to increase the value of the metaphor while also addressing different learning styles, such as that of visual thinkers.