Toby Israel Ph.D.

Design on My Mind

Metaphoria by Design

Do you suffer from ecstasy over metaphor?

Posted Nov 15, 2017

StyleLibrary 2017
Source: StyleLibrary 2017

I’ve finally found the world’s greatest wallpaper for my bathroom: Obsidian1. I think I should call it a work of art rather than a wallpaper. I studied its blue repeat, and thought I was climbing an azurite mountain in a Chinese landscape painting. I imagined myself walking through potent grey clouds and intermittent green clearings. I climbed calmly, intensely. You can study the wallpaper’s imagery, too. You will be moved. You will feel alive. 

I’m trying to decide: Should I put this Obsidian-scape on all my bathroom walls? There’s no pink in it to pick up the color of my tiles. The paper’s print is so intense—is it too much to face first thing each day?

After all, I’m not a morning person, since each a.m. I’m in recovery from my dreams. You would be, too, if you’d just dreamed you’d driven the wrong way down a British back alley, motorcycled on a thin, wobbly bridge across the Atlantic and arrived inside a New Jersey barn with circus horses and hay made of real gold. Hey, my dreams are pageants: Hoards of Nazis or terrorists come to kill me. Dear friends and past loves appear in attics or basements or bedrooms with words of love and closure. My father regularly returns from hospitals—no longer dead—just deathly pale since hidden away for years.

Since I love feeling alive, I accept each one of these nocturnal extravaganzas and ponder the meaning of their metaphors as I crawl out from under my warm quilt.  Would pure white bathroom walls be best to look at after such colossal nightly dreams? Not sure...After all, an azurite "zing" might work well bringing me to wakefulness.

While I try to decide, ponder this: Wouldn’t it be strange if we dreamed in words, not visuals—Helvetica typeface, for instance, typing itself endlessly across our psyches each night?

There’s a reason we dream in images, not words. Jung believed that archetypes, “primordial images” reside in our unconscious and often appear in our individual dreams. He explained:

We use...ideas in our speech, and we show a conventional reaction when others use them, but they do not make a very deep impression on us effectively enough to make us change our attitude and behavior. That is what “dream language” does; its symbolism has so much psychic energy that we are forced to pay attention to it.”2

Dreams, with their visual power, represent to us our life-stories, but with the purpose of trying to restore our psychological balance.3 Dreams grip and ground us. Maybe that’s why I love this Obsidian. I feel its bold imagery gripping yet grounding me, heightening my senses as I transcend.

Musing about how to combine symbolism and imagery to create power beyond words, brought me to “Metaphoria,” ecstasy about metaphor, which might be what I suffer from. Years ago, my line of thought brought me to two books with “Metaphoria” in their titles—one by a therapist and one by a Harvard Business School marketing professor, both of whom seem to suffer from a similar affection for metaphor.

In his book, Metaphoria: Metaphor and Guided Metaphor for Psychotherapy and Healing,4 therapist Rubin Battino describes a “brief therapy” method that guides clients through a metaphoric story as part of the therapeutic process. During this process, while the conscious mind follows the story’s plot “the unconscious responds to the experience retrieved.”5

Although the plot is told via words, those words are carefully chosen to elicit images, ideas, affects, and urges6 not otherwise accessible via the conscious mind. The metaphors Battino uses in such storytelling are mirrors reflecting our inner images of self, life, and others.7 Thus, different from traditional “talk therapy,” such a metaphor-method accesses a more primordial place—one which, like dreams, has a deeper, magical, transformative power to heal.8 I was intrigued that such flowing, metaphoric musing could wash up visual images and emotions, thereby uncorking bottled-up messages long-floating on our psychic shores.

Since design involves the visual, apropos of the Design Psychology, I wondered, “Could architecture and interior design similarly use story-telling metaphors to elicit emotions and thus be transformative in relation to our own journeys?" Maybe it wasn’t just the colors of Obsidian that mesmerized me but the subtle suggestion of ascent—the story of one’s life-journey upward—that held me rapt? Certainly design theories about the use of symbolism and semiotics are not new. Yet in traditional architecture and interior design, signs and symbols aren’t used to tell a client’s story in the deeper sense that Battino relies on.

Product designers, on the other hand, have cottoned on to ways such “deep dive” insights can help with the design and marketing of products.9 In particular, in their book, Marketing Metaphoria: What Deep Metaphors Reveal about the Minds of Consumers,10 Gerald and Lindsay Zaltman, discuss how marketers can engage emotions using metaphoric cues in product design, shopping environments, and other communications.11

Neurobiologically speaking, in fact, Gerald Zaltman points out:12

. . . brain scans and other physiological-function measures demonstrate that activations among brain cells, or neurons, precede our conscious awareness of a thought and precede activity in area of the brain involving verbal language. In fact, these latter neuronal areas become active only later, after a person unconsciously chooses to represent these thoughts to herself or to others using verbal language. 

Thus something is cooking in our brain before we consciously think or speak. Metaphors playing “powerfully, yet silently”13 in our unconscious minds may be stirring together with emotions. The Zaltmans believe that both deep metaphors and emotions are “siblings...hardwired in our brains,” although shaped by our social environments and experiences as well.14

In particular, via their consumer research, the Zaltmans identified seven “giant” metaphors including transformation and journey.15 The Zaltmans comment, for example:

Journey is one of the most widely examined and universally felt deep metaphors and appears as a major theme in literature around the world. Journey is rooted in our awareness of time, evolution, progress, and maturation.”1...Our sense of the past, present, and future often combine to create the experience of a physical, social, or psychological journey.”17

Of great interest to me is their Zaltman Metaphor Elicitation Technique (ZMETTM) that excavates and uses these “giants” to help design places.

For example, the architecture firm Astorino used the ZMET technique to explore the minds of future users of a $500 million state-of-the-art facility for the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh which Astorino was designing. The study determined that transformation was the giant metaphor intrinsic to hospital user experience. Such transformation included not only physical transformation (i.e patients changing from sick to healed), but emotional transformations (e.g. , from an anxious to a calm state after a successful surgery).18

Astorino then translated the deep metaphor of transformation into design elements. For instance, the team used butterflies, “an archetypical expression of transformation,” in hospital corridors and entrances. Likewise around the hospital they displayed both artwork expressing transformation and poems with transformational language gleaned from interviews. Such metaphoric messages were intended to positively distract yet also reach us emotionally by helping to soothe and engender optimism.19

Should I paint butterflies on my bathroom wall? Representational imagery may have a fresh appeal for children, but be banal (albeit metaphorical) if it doesn’t transport viewers emotionally “to a different time and place”20 via, for example, the magical power which great art wields. Thus, rather than being transported by representational imagery, the source of my “Obsidiphoria” comes from the wallpaper’s more amorphous, metaphoric visual cues regarding transformation, yet also journey upward.

Did a woman design this wallpaper so full of metaphoric "story" laced with emotional innuendo? I did some digging and found that the designer was a female. She deliberately created the wallpaper’s imagery to be “strata-like”—derived from geology, precious stones, rock formations—with an overall open-ended visual quality that could be read as a landscape.21

Fittingly, azurite is known as the “stone of heaven.” Is it so named because it aids in the pursuit of our “heavenly self.” Heaven? Why not put this azurite paper on my bathroom’s ceiling? That way I could look up while luxuriating in my bath’s water and...see what washes up.​             


1.  From the Style Library’s Anthology “Definition Wallpaper.”

2. Carl G. Jung, Man and His Symbols. ( NY: Dell Publishing Co., Inc. 1964), p. 33.

3. Ibid., p. 34.

4. Rubin Battino, Metaphoria: Metaphor and Guided Metaphor for Psychotherapy and Healing, Norwalk, CT: Crown Publishing Ltd., 2005.  

5. Ibid., p. xiii. Battino credits Milton H. Erickson, M.D. as an early, influential pioneer in the use of storytelling in therapy.

6. Ibid., p. 1.

7. Ibid., p. 155.

8.  Ibid., p. 1.

9.  The company IDEO often uses a “deep dive” group brainstorming technique to problem solve or come up with new ideas.  By delving into the unconscious mind, Design Psychology involves a deeper than deep dive. 

10. Gerald Zaltman and Lindsay Zaltman, Marketing Metaphoria: What Deep Metaphors Reveal about the Minds of Consumers. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2008.

11. Ibid.

12. Gerald Zaltman, How Customer’s Think: Essential Insights into the Mind of the Market. (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2003) p. 13.

13. Gerald Zaltman and Lindsay Zaltman op. cit., p. 13.

14. Ibid., p. 13.

15. Other powerful metaphors the Zaltman’s have identified include connection, balance, container, resource, and control. See Marketing Metaphoria pp. 19 - 27.

16. Gerald Zaltman and Lindsay Zaltman op. cit., p. 98.

17. Gerald Zaltman and Lindsay Zaltman op. cit., p 81.

18. Gerald Zaltman and Lindsay Zaltman op. cit., pp. 63-64.

19. Gerald Zaltman and Lindsay Zaltman op. cit., See Chapter 4: Transformation pp. 63-80.

20. The Zaltmans write further:  “Transformative experiences that bring us to another time or place are also provided by the arts, say, attending a ballet or playing the guitar . . . . The arts help us move from everyday worries and stress to a state of lessened anxieties and relief from work or home life pressures.  The arts enable us to reengage past hopes and feelings, transport us into the future by allowing us to imagine our personal growth or development, and offer us different viewpoints and understanding." See Gerald Zaltman and Lindsay Zaltman op. cit., p. 75.

21. Interview Louise Draper Oct 5, 2017.