A guide to using photography as metaphor in graphic design

Alex Bigman

The image of a bride and groom staring off into the distance together means a whole lot more than “there were once two people who looked out a window.” It conveys a sense of shared goals, resolve, the promise of opportunity — and plenty more, considering on the photo’s specific attributes.

How does it do that? And how can you capitalize on this phenomenon when selecting hero images — a hot trend in web and app design?

The answer is simple: metaphor.

one direction 2

Photo by Luke Chan

This word might call to mind Shakespeare and bring back memories of high school literature class, but in fact metaphors can be visual too, as the example above illustrates.

Let’s look at some effective image metaphors that crop up in advertising and design work all the time, often pulling a lion’s share of psychological impact.

Life is a journey

Road 1

Photo by John Flinchbaugh

And journeys tend to happen on roads. Now let the logic of the metaphor take hold. If the road is straight and clear, that means life is going to be simple and easy. If the road is winding and full of obstacles – or worse, clogged with traffic, well …

Road 2
Road 3

Photo above by Edoardo Bortoccetti, below by Michael Loke

… let’s just say these images might not succeed in attracting customers to your career-starting academy.

Climbing is progress

Larry DeWitt - Ascent Cycling MTB Series - Palmer Park

Photo by Rob Lucas

Usually it takes great effort.

Canon AE-1 Kodak Portra 400

Photo by Brandon Doran

Other times the world lifts you up without requiring much strain at all.

ascent 4

Photo by IamNotUnique

Reaching the summit is success.

ascent 3

Photo by Tom Maglieri

Whereas descent… well, as anyone who has played Chutes and Ladders knows, it is typically something to be avoided. You might think twice about using an image like this one if your context is supposed to be positive.

Driving is control

driving 1

Photo by Kyle May

Just like the expression, “in the driver’s seat.” It’s a good place to be.

driving 2

Photo by ViktorDobai

People riding the subway will get to their destination too, but they are at the mercy of someone else … or at least the metaphor says they are.

Being on the same vessel is sharing the same fate

vessel 1

Photo by Wellington College

And people who share the same fate probably want to make sure it’s a good one, so they’ll work together to make it so. This is why when you join a company, your new colleagues might welcome you by saying “welcome aboard.” If the ship goes down, you’re all going down with it, so you had better work hard to help it reach its destination.

vessel 2

Photo by Dan Nguyen

These folks floating on individual inner tubes don’t have quite the same ties, and the image wouldn’t work in the same way.

Transparency is honesty

transparency 1

Photo by David Wall

Most people have no idea how high finance works, so when they hire a financial advisor to handle their money, for example, they need to feel they can completely trust the firm. That’s why when you see ads for financial services sector, or any other complicated service (like design, which seems to be what is happening above), they tend to take place in open modern offices with glass-box conference rooms and floor-to-ceiling windows: transparency means honesty.

transparency 2

Photo by Justin Kern

This dim, wood-paneled office, by contrast, does not inspire the same confidence. Who knows what shady deals go on behind these closed doors.

Balance is fairness

balance 2

Photo by Blogtrepreneur

This hardly needs elaboration; no doubt you are familiar with the “scales of justice.”

balance 1

Photo by Eszter Hargittai

It also explains why the Oval Office (where the president of the United States works) is so perfectly symmetrical.

balance 3

Photo by Kenneth Moyle

And why an off-balance photo like this would not be a good choice for a lawmaker trying to present herself as just — even if it does make her seem well-read.

Nature is freedom

nature 2

Photo by anton petukhov

Making it a good place to set images for any product promising to “free” you from anything, whether credit card debt or allergies.

nature 1

Photo by Witold Riedel

By the logic of the metaphor, if nature is freedom, then the city is confinement.

The horizon is the future

horizon 1

Photo by Dave Dugdale)

“What’s on the horizon for you?” means “what events are coming up in your life?” If the horizon is beautiful and wide open, then your future is likewise full of promise and opportunity. If it’s obstructed or stormy, then you might have troubled or frustrating times ahead.

horizon 2

Photo by Chris Goldberg

This works both in nature and the city, though these locations may produce different moods.

Looking in the same direction is having shared goals

Refer to the image given as an example in the introduction. If the horizon is what’s next, then two people looking in the same direction will share the same future, and by implication, the same goals and resolve.

One direction 1

Photo by Louisa Billeter

This photo would not be as good of a choice for indicating shared resolve. Even though the subjects probably do share goals (since they are both at the same rally), they look in different directions, suggesting that their minds are in different places.

This list could go on and on and on. Are there any other ways to use photography as metaphors?

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