Using Analogies & Metaphors

Posted on by Brandon Klein


To understand something new, it’s our nature to compare it to something familiar, particularly through the use of analogy and metaphor. As a formal method, we can nearly always learn more about something by rigorously comparing it to something else. In a sense, it can be anything else – for example, the greater the dissimilarity, the greater the mental stretch to find similiarities. Obviously, though, some associations provide more “grist for the mill” to use that well-worn metaphor.
This is a DesignTeam module, typically for Scan or Focus. Each team is given various books and reference materials on a selected topic, which they are instructed to relate to their condition/problem/organization by way of analogy. Each team is given a different analogy to explore. The subjects are often but not always living systems. These may include ants and ant society, bees, oceans and ocean behavior, gardens, the gaia hypothesis (that the earth itself shows characteristics of life, particularly in its regulation of the atmosphere), Cathedrals, and Native American traditions and contributions to U.S. society and form of government.
 To broaden thinking around a topic; to promote creativity and discovery by “making the familiar strange” (synectics); in some cases, to subtly introduce new strategies and options. Can be used to introduce systems thinking. Promotes a sense of play and discovery, while often allowing participants to address real issues without becoming bogged down in “what’s so” at present.
 Best timing is late Scan / early Focus, after the participants have warmed up; though can be used earlier with an experienced or especially receptive group. Give participants more time than for a typical design session, to allow for scanning, reading, then design. Two hours seems minimal; 3 hours about optimal.
Strengths — Encourages “global” thinking (i.e., thinking across disciplines). It gets people thinking; it provides a good stretch; the answers are always different. Introduces “systems” concepts without being technical or academic. Required scanning and reading often results in more reflection than occurs when talk predominates. The Cathedral analogy in particular often provokes deep consideration of work spirit. Weaknesses — Takes more time than other modules. Less likely to fit the pace of a shorter DesignShop. May feel like “going to school” to some audiences. Specifications for Success — • Special materials must be high quality – accessible, thought-provoking, inviting the reader to discover and make new associations.
Books and handouts sufficient for each team member to read and exchange with others; different topic for each team.
SPACE REQUIREMENTS: Standard Break-Out.  Tables helpful.


REPORTING: Team Reports (usual) 
See Also: Living Systems; Synectics