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  • Writer's pictureAmy Burvall

Mad for Metaphor: On Being a Porous Pedestrian


taken while walking at a trolley station in San Diego

Metaphorical Meanderings

I recently returned from a speaking trip to both Austin, Texas and Worcester, UK (but then noodled around in Oxford, London, and Birmingham). When I travel, I don’t like to do the usual tourist thing…rather, I enjoy connecting with local friends (most of whom I’ve only previously known virtually), and losing myself as a flâneur of sorts – an urban stroller a la Baudelaire.

Back in the days of old-school photography – you know, the kind where you had only 24 possible shots and you had to make them good or else – my mother used to tell me:

“don’t waste time on shooting things that are already on a postcard”

It’s true….the postcards at the gift shop of the typical takeaways were so much more compelling than I could ever take. At that time, I hacked that concept by including people in the shot (as well as nascent versions of selfies). After a while I realized I wanted to shoot the unexpected little joys…the quirks about a place that typical travel photography failed to capture. I began looking at architectural elements, colours, signs and typography, and of course, candid stalker-esque portraiture.

In the past few years, equipped with a technology that is not only highly convenient but enabling (the smartphone camera), I’ve been quite drawn to

capturing metaphorical moments

My eye and mind have become trained (as in “you can do this too!”) to spot scenarios that can be used for my slide presentations and other endeavors as representational images of abstract concepts. I’m a big believer in privileging the visual over text – as images are usually more poignant (etymology – “to prick”) and thus sticky. Yes, usually I draw my own metaphorical icons (dubbed “Myconography” on my Tumblr).


Nurturing One’s Network

In fact, in my “Image is Everything” workshop I like to provide participants with a list of abstract nouns like “change”, “conflict”, “pedagogy”, and “knowledge” and ask them to sketch the first icon that comes to mind. We then debrief, noting the similarities and differences in our go-t0 visual vocabulary.


But I do think it’s a valuable pursuit to

go fishing for content in your immediate surroundings

The more “real” (as in less contrived) the image is perhaps the more relatable and prone to articulating the metaphor. The best part is that the same image can be used for a myriad of metaphors. This can develop into a wonderful exercise for learners, in particular if they are trying to be better visual thinkers as well as public speakers (i.e. improve presentation skills).

For example,

Screen Shot 2016-07-05 at 8.28.11 AM

This could represent several things. I’ve used it for illustrating the concept that we are mashups of what we let into our lives (to paraphrase Austin Kleon). But it could easily be about the power of adapting to different circumstances, something about blended learning, or even finding your own path.

Another tree / root based image I like to use is

Screen Shot 2016-07-05 at 8.25.26 AM

I’ve included this in some of my presentations about creativity, particularly in respect to “thinking outside the lines”. You can easily see how it can be about going your own way, or questioning authority or the status quo.

If you design a metaphorical image from scratch, you certainly have more freedom. This is one of my favourites, depicting the hell that is an eating disorder:

Screen Shot 2016-07-05 at 8.26.03 AM

And I always share excerpts from this brilliant minimalist series on the various aspects of depression:

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Drawing metaphors of course allows one to do fantastical things that don’t really exist in order to push the metaphor further…you can see this with the stars (alluding to wishes) I drew as the tips of the dandelion:

Screen Shot 2016-07-05 at 8.26.22 AM

This post, however, is about being a “porous pedestrian”...that is, whilst wandering you should try to

seek out metaphors in the mundane


I took this in Birmingham just the other day. The dramatic juxtaposition really spoke to me. One one hand you have the ornate (of the sconce), and on the other, the ordered (the brick). What else is happening? One element is a star, a stand out…the other is the support mechanism. Any sort of visual dichotomy  of course can be made to represent other dichotomies, perhaps in organizations or other social situations.

Aside from the outside environment, museums are ripe for the metaphorical picking. I snapped this in Oxford at the Ashmolean. I was struck by the concept of extending the painting right over the edge of the frame…in fact, swallowing the frame up with the art. I just love things that depict crossing boundaries.


Sometimes you miss the metaphor at the onset but can find it later through careful perusing of your photos. I took this shot of a very old half timber building in Oxford, just because I thought it was so deliciously antiquated. It was only later that I noticed the posh gentleman on a mobile phone and realized this was a poster pic for Old vs. New, or perhaps for change and continuity.


The “Old vs. New” theme often comes into play, in fact. Here are some other shots I’ve taken to express that:




Do you hunt for metaphors or do they find you?

Well, I think it’s a little bit of both. It’s like finding a new love…sometimes you are actively seeking and other times certain people just fall into your lap (as it were).

Like anything having to do with creativity, having an open mind and a certain childlike wonder helps.

You must keep your eyes open to see beyond what is intended.

I had the privilege of going to the new structure at the Tate Museum in London. It’s built in former diesel storage tanks. Upon entering I looked up and saw…faces!


These were actually girders but we humans tend to see patterns (particularly faces) in things, a concept which is called “pareidolia”.  These ones especially reminded me of the famous mask of Agamemnon.

Looking up (which is so very important to do!), I discovered a staircase to nowhere:


Ahhh…so many possibilities for a “staircase to nowhere”…my first thought was creative block or perhaps something to do with the rat-race of productivity that doesn’t lead to anything.

Finally, sometimes

you just need to snap and figure it out later.

I like the texture and the monochromatic nature of this, for instance, but have no clue what it could stand for just yet;


This twisty passage struck me as an anomaly so I captured it, but have yet to pin down what it means metaphorically:


And what about all the distinctive layers of this tree trunk? I sense a metaphor emerging but haven’t quite decided upon it yet.


Tips and Tricks

Think Thematically – Being touch with your recurring topics and themes really helps as you turn the wandering into a why. I know I often talk about change, media, or creative thinking and therefore am more in tune to imagery that depicts those concepts.

Slow Down – It’s a key practice to slow your pace a bit so that you can truly appreciate your surroundings and spot the things people usually overlook. Perhaps it’s because I’m habitually wearing heels I tend to walk a bit more slowly than my companions. Sometimes I ask for forgiveness if I stop every few minutes or so to snap a shot. We are so busy rushing from here to there we forget there is beauty and interestingness everywhere.

Don’t Forget to Look Up and Down – This is pretty much self explanatory, but don’t stick to your periphery…if it means pausing your pace every once and a while to take everything in then do.

If You Can’t Stop, Walk – Sitting in a cafe like Toulouse-Lautrec observing everything and everyone around you is ideal, but most of us don’t have that kind of time. Modern transportation is groovy but nothing beats your own two feet as the perfect accessory to metaphor hunting. If you can get there by strolling, do so.

File it Away- I highly recommend keeping a file for metaphorical images you draw or shoot. You never know when you will need them, and as aforementioned, they can be used to articulate different meanings. Decide first whether you want to label them with the metaphor or with the literal description.

Try This – One really fun activity I’ve done in workshops is to ask people to exchange their phones and view one another’s camera roll (some people might have questionable photos so please do not force people to do this). The serendipity and creative constraint in searching a peer’s photo cache is really fun! Participants then choose one photo and use it as a metaphor. I often give them a prompt like: “Find a photo that represents good pedagogy / what learning looks like / how you feel about such and such….” The key is, of course, to debrief and have them explain their reasoning.


This post has been primarily about the HOW of hunting for metaphorical images in our daily lives. It is assumed that the reader understands the WHY. Metaphors are powerful communication tools – and visual metaphors even more effective than mere text. Recently my friend Doug Belshaw has published two wonderful posts on metaphor and I’d like to recommend them here:

TIDE podcast Episode 56 (with Dai Barnes)

and Why ontologies are best left implicit (especially for credentials)

Good luck being a porous pedestrian – the world is your teacup!


#criticalthinking #creativity #photography #Baudelaire #dougbelshaw #metaphor #daibarnes #visualthinking

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