Metaphor and analogy in visualization

Curtis Wong of Microsoft’s Next Media Research group describes the architecture of information in three layers of what he calls a contextual pyramid: Engagement, context, and reference. Engagement draws the recipient in, context offers an explanation of the information source, and reference gives the ability to draw conclusions and connects to related resources. Metaphors and analogies are rhetorical devices which are used most often at the level of engagement, and can apply to concepts expressed through any form or medium.

Metaphor can be used to explain one subject through another by comparing the two. Unlike similes, open comparisons asserting likeness, metaphors assert identity. Perhaps the most well-known example of metaphor in painting is Magritte’s The Treachery of Images. In software, the most common use of metaphor is the desktop, which uses a familiar concept (documents and folders) to explain a more abstract concept, that of storing and retrieving files. Metaphor may work at various levels of abstraction. While it is used often to communicate a concept in more familiar terms, in some cases concepts become metaphors for understanding other concepts. These so-called conceptual metaphors are associations in both language and thought, and are often used in visualization. An example from the discipline of interaction design is the zoom metaphor (also referred to as a fish-eye view), in which one metaphorically ‘zooms out’ from an object to explore its context—the realm of related objects—and ‘zooms in’ again to examine an individual object closer.

Analogy is used to transfer information or meaning from a particular concept to another. Unlike metaphor, it is asserting a parallel relationship which is logically true. Metaphor, on the other hand, asserts a comparison which is logically false (eg. a painting of a pipe is not literally a pipe). Looking up analogy on Wikipedia yields an example of a well-known visualization, the model of the atom by Niels Bohr, which proposes that electrons orbit the atom the way the planets of our solar system orbit the sun. It asserts a parallel relationship, stating that electrons are to an atom as the planets are to the sun. While not explicitly stated, the analogy is implicit simply from looking at the visualization. Analogies differ from similes in that they are logical arguments—they express a parallel relationship, not a figurative similarity.

The use of either metaphor or analogy gives the recipient an immediate, intuitive understanding of the meaning of a visualization, even before he or she has had a chance to examine its content. It is essentially a way of expressing identity or likeness through comparison. If used appropriately, metaphor can offer the recipient easier access to the content of a visualization.

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