Bringing contemporary use of metaphor and symbol in illustration back to life.
ONCE UPON A TIME
In the 1980’s and 1990’s visual communicators popularized a method of communicating by using symbol and metaphor. This was a step forward for the industry as it allowed creatives to communicate complicated or abstract ideas. Corporations and editorial publications loved using symbol and metaphor as it helped them to communicate to a wider audience by codifying and simplifying communication into a universal language.
DONE TO DEATH
Unfortunately this was also a step backward as this method of communication became too popular and lost it’s effectiveness. It became cliched. Lightbulbs, piggy banks, globes, gears, magnifying glasses are examples of symbols that were played out through years of overexploitation and have now become pariah's of communication. Those that use them now risk communication that is, to use a metaphor, a lifeless corpse.
BACK FROM THE NETHERWORLD
But using metaphor and/or symbol could still be an effective method of communication – in theory. And could be in practice if used creatively and carefully. The problem with the traditional implementation is that it uses the same generic symbols. Even today, perhaps through habit or fear of losing an existing audience, many communicators are spoon feeding this bland old style of symbol and metaphor.
THE GOOD OLD DAYS
Here's an example. In yesteryears an illustrated metaphor for teamwork might have a bunch of businessmen playing baseball and, maybe as a bonus, even feature a dollar sign stitched on the uniform.
Problem one: Money symbols and men in suits are cliche - even if you were to add diversity to the team.
Problem two: This is so cold and impersonal. You’ve dehumanized and generalized the subject which weakens the emotional and nostalgic potential of using baseball as a metaphor.
Problem three: Boring! But baseball isn’t boring, millions of people enjoy watching and it's a relevant metaphor.
SO HOW CAN WE USE SYMBOL AND METAPHOR BETTER?
It's surprisingly simple. How about just drawing a fun, authentic scene or moment from baseball? Something with exciting action and drama … the pitcher winds up, the batter hits the ball and runs to first, then they're steeling second, the third base coach is waving them past 3rd, they’re sliding into home … homerun! Not boring at all. (Well unless you don't like baseball, which is a different discussion.)
THE MAGICAL WORLD OF CONTEXT
But you might ask, how do I relate this to my client and what they want to communicate?
Again it's surprisingly simple. By putting the baseball image in context and identifying that the illustration is about teamwork the juxtaposition of the image with a headline or some other identifier is all that is needed to give the viewer the ability to view and interpret the image contextually. This is a rudimentary principle of communication but for whatever reason is muddled up when using metaphor and symbol in illustration.
A REAL WORLD EXAMPLE
One of the best examples of contemporary use of symbol and metaphor can be found in an unexpected place. Plansponsor magazine is devoted to giving insight on plan design and investment strategy. Which is the sort of subjects that the rest of the illustration industry seems to have relegated to using business men with briefcases and other worn out metaphors! But Plansponsor's art director SooJin Buzelli has bucked that trend for many years by encouraging illustrators to be truly creative in their use of metaphor and the magazine is perennially one of the best patrons of illustration in America.
This illustration by ACAD alumni Byron Eggenschwiler is an excellent example. On the surface this is a straight forward image of wizards casting a spell together, with no other visible ulterior motives than being cool, hip, and no doubt fun to draw. But when placed in its originally commissioned pages of Plansponsor it's suddenly about a bunch of magical wizards of finances!
If you tell creative stories as metaphor or communicate authentic human experiences it will never be a cliched and never get tired.
To test this theory here are some examples you can try in your sketchbook.
Growth - Planting stuff with gears in them? Arghh! How about some creative and inventive overgrown flora and fauna? Or a simple sentimental scene of someone growing vegetables?
Innovation - Stuff with circuit board crap on it? Argghh! How about cutting edge? A cool futuristic space knight cutting his energy sword through the air!
Cue the dramatic music as the antagonist enters the scene. The final obstacle to better use of metaphor is the client. It is difficult convincing anyone of doing something in a different way. Especially when the other way is so much more safe, comfortable, reassuring, and ... predictable. In a more perfect world we would all join hands together and just say no to bad metaphor. But in the meantime we can keep hoping – and do the best damn sketches possible! Finally lest we think this is a problem for a bygone era, new media such as motion graphics have unfortunately taken up the old habits that plagued print with vim and vigor.