Meaningful Metaphors

Metaphors pull concepts closer to our senses, in order to help transfer experience of sounds, sights, tastes, touches, and smells. In general, a metaphor is useful for describing phenomena that occurs both in a physical context—something that can be perceived–and in a mental context—something that is conceived. Three useful metaphors I’ve noticed recurring in my own thinking and reading are that of cooking, architecture and music. In particular, cooking is strong at dealing with matter, architecture is adept at describing space, and music deals well with time.


When we are dealing with some form of materials (matter), cooking is an especially useful metaphor. Its basis in chemistry makes it a natural fit for matters (pun intended) of measuring, compounds and processes.

When we prepare a cake, we split it into three processes: baking the cake, making the frosting, frosting the cake. The first two processes involve measuring and mixing, and all three involve the separating out and combining together of elements.

All cooking processes involve some separation and preparation of ingredients, some form of combination, and potentially the application of heat or cold. Within the ways we break things down (chop, peel, cut, slice), the ways we combine things together (mix, stir, whip, blend) and the ways we apply temperature (sear, boil, simmer, cool, chill, freeze) lies much material for metaphor.

Cooking helps us explore questions like, what are the qualities and quantities of the “atoms”? How are they combined, and what are the compound forms? What are the quantities and qualities involved in processing?


Space seems to be dealt with by architecture, or the composition of “rooms” into a “structure”. Let’s make up a simple definition of architecture: "the formation and arrangement of containers". The process of architecting is to take a space, divide it into functional containers (rooms) and arrange these into an overall form (building).

In the same way, information architecture creates spaces and structures of information. The most ready example is the library and Dewey Decimal system. Categories (containers) are assigned a number, and books (content) is assigned to a container. In doing so, we "architect" an information space, mapping content to categories.

Each time we create a division in space, we create a new container. Nesting divisions allows us to create more specific containers. In Dewey Decimal, 641 is assigned to the category "Food and Drink", while 641.5 is assigned to "Cooking".

Much like we might divide buildings and rooms into sub-activities (sitting, working, sleeping, washing...), we divide our information into sub-categories based on their type, purpose or relationships to other content. In doing so, we can create new rooms for content, and expand our building, or create sub-divisions in existing rooms, and expand the purpose of a room.

Architecture helps us understand questions of appearance, arrangement and flow. How are spaces arranged? How does our motion proceed through them? How does the space look/feel from the outside, and how does it look/feel on the inside?


In music, we structure notes around time, both in their location in a song, and the length they are played. One of the central mechanisms of music is the rates and rhythms of sound. In listening to or playing music, we deal with concepts of motion, energy, speed, intensity and groove.

As well, we might describe the melodic elements of the sound using harmony, consonance or dissonance. In these, we pay attention to the way sound unfolds across time, the ways sounds are melded together from multiple sources, the interplay of different players, instruments, notes and rhythms.

Like cooking and architecture, music is also compositional, at all of its levels. We combine together instruments and notes into songs, songs into mixes, players into groups, and groups into genres.

Musical metaphors helps us understand how elements are combined. Is there harmony or dissonance? Is someone out of time? Or is everyone in the groove?

“Carry Over”

In these metaphors of cooking, architecture and music, decomposition and composition are the core mechanisms.

How do things break down? How are things built up?

The etymology for metaphor is comprise of two parts: “over, across” and “to carry, bear”. Literally, metaphors carry across concepts from one thing to another. In this, the mechanisms of composition and decomposition are essential in allowing for these mappings to occur

Imagine you need to move, you need to carry your items across some distance, and transfer them somewhere else. In this, you begin by breaking down all of your things, and making them “packable”, or ready for transport. This decomposition prepares your things to be “carried across”. Once transported, these things need to be re-constituted, combined back into a new whole in the form of a furnished house

This “moving” is the same work as is done conceptually by the metaphor, transferring concepts instead of things.

Wrap Up

We use metaphor to describe our experiences with matter in a space over time. Whether its physical perceptions or mental conceptions, metaphors provides material to communicate the experience of these phenomena.

Given metaphor’s mechanism of decomposition and composition, the metaphors of cooking, architecture and music are particularly useful, providing wide surfaces to describe broad spectrums of experience.