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Pictorial metaphors for information

Jenna Hartel ( University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada)
Reijo Savolainen (School of Information Sciences, University of Tampere, Tampere, Finland)

Journal of Documentation

ISSN: 0022-0418

Article publication date: 12 September 2016




Arts-informed, visual research was conducted to document the pictorial metaphors that appear among original drawings of information. The purpose of this paper is to report the diversity of these pictorial metaphors, delineate their formal qualities as drawings, and provide a fresh perspective on the concept of information.


The project utilized pre-existing iSquare drawings of information that were produced by iSchool graduate students during a draw-and-write activity. From a data set of 417 images, 125 of the strongest pictorial metaphors were identified and subjected to cognitive metaphor theory.


Overwhelmingly, the favored source domain for envisioning information was nature. The most common pictorial metaphors were: Earth, web, tree, light bulb, box, cloud, and fishing/mining, and each brings different qualities of information into focus. The drawings were often canonical versions of objects in the world, leading to arrays of pictorial metaphors marked by their similarity.

Research limitations/implications

Less than 30 percent of the data set qualified as pictorial metaphors, making them a minority strategy for representing information as an image. The process to identify and interpret pictorial metaphors was highly subjective. The arts-informed methodology generated tensions between artistic and social scientific paradigms.

Practical implications

The pictorial metaphors for information can enhance information science education and fortify professional identity among information professionals.


This is the first arts-informed, visual study of information that utilizes cognitive metaphor theory to explore the nature of information. It strengthens a sense of history, humanity, nature, and beauty in our understanding of information today, and contributes to metaphor research at large.



The authors appreciate the efforts of the anonymous reviewers, whose feedback helped to significantly improve this paper. Thanks also to the Toronto-based iSquare research team: Rebecca Noone, Karen Pollack, Christie Oh, Stephanie Power, Pavel Danzanov, and Bridgette Kelly. The authors also acknowledge the collaborators who gathered drawings of information at their iSchools: Sanjica Faletar Tanackovic (Croatia), Andrew Cox and Melanie Benson (England), and Isto Huvila (Finland).


Hartel, J. and Savolainen, R. (2016), "Pictorial metaphors for information", Journal of Documentation, Vol. 72 No. 5, pp. 794-812.



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Copyright © 2016, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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