Still Waters Run Deep: Visual Metaphors & Effective Book Design

Many first-time clients tend to fall into a common trap when hiring a graphic designer: they want a “literal” solution. They don’t understand that a more effective kind of design uses visual metaphors to generate interest in the viewer.

The example below uses metaphors and suggestive typography to effectively set a mood and intrigue the potential reader/buyer. Look at the image below and identify the genre of the book. Don’t think too much before answering.

(There was text on the cover that identified the genre, but I removed it so you could test if you could sense the mood of the piece.) The ability to comprehend metaphor is akin to intuition (a right-brain activity that is always on). All humans can understand metaphor, in part because we have been trained in it through exposure to it in all the arts. The use of metaphor is very apparent in all forms of graphic design and advertising.


  1. A figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable.
  2. A thing regarded as representative or symbolic of something else, esp. something abstract.

Many people understand literary metaphors but don’t understand that metaphors are used even more effectively in visual design. Metaphors help us to understand something instantly without a great deal of words or instruction.

A classic example of visual metaphor comes from the discipline of interactive design. It is something that I bet you use every day and don’t even think about: your computer “desktop.” Way back in the dinosaur age of the first personal computers, the first user interface designers used the metaphor of the top of an actual desk to communicate the — then — new idea of a virtual desktop with familiar files and file folders upon it. This use of metaphor in the nascent disipline of user interface design helped potential users become “comfortable” with the concept of a virtual desktop conveyed by the metaphor of a familiar object. The metaphor of the virtual desktop interface relies upon the user’s familiarity with actual desktops, and actual files stored in folders.

Even though the lake looks peaceful, the design somehow gives the title an ominous feel. “Still Waters” book designer, Kim Barnes uses the art of visual metaphor to indicate the topic, genre, and probably even the setting of the book. The illustration is deceptively bland — a fly-lure— note how, in this case, it suggests deception. After all, a fly is a trap for unwary fish.

Note the way the designer has distorted the text to suggest the ripples in water; affected by the lure. Only the word “WATERS” and the author’s name is affected by the ripples generated by the lure. The word “STILL” is only slightly affected by the ripple across the page, because it expresses the state of stillness, as opposed to the motion of the lure. This is a very elegant solution. I have only one criticism: the colors are very somber and rather monochromatic, which tends to flatten the design unnecessarily, and makes it a bit less noticeable than its neighbors on the same shelf.

Copyright 2012 Aliyah Marr, All rights reserved.
Aliyah Marr taught graphic design, illustration, and interactive design at Parsons, Pratt, Chatfield College, MediaBistro online learning, and at The School of Visual Art. She is an illustrator, designer, and author of several books on creative development.


One Reply to “Still Waters Run Deep: Visual Metaphors & Effective Book Design”

  1. Excellent point. It’s been said that we humans decode the world through metaphor so metaphors speak to us on many levels. This book cover draws from many different associations and connections to suggest a feeling that doesn’t have to be made explicit. Thinking literally keeps us small!


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