Nine Metaphors for a Futurist

Initially this post was to be called ‘Dress Code for Futurists’. After spending five years with futurists from over the world, I wanted to find out whether there was a particular way to dress for futurists. Doctors, plumbers, history teachers, clowns and other professions have their own dress code, whether it’s prescribed or not. But I haven’t been able to decode the futurist dress code yet.

We futurists are privileged (or at least some are) to work with diverse groups of people. We work with corporate clients, startups, religious groups, community groups, governments and more. Some futurists seem to dress the same no matter who they work with. To them it doesn’t matter how they dress. Some wear a suit, some wear a t-shirt, and some a gimmick like a huge beard, a hat or colorful, big glasses.

In my foresight master’s program, we were often advised to “meet the system where it’s at”, i.e. to adapt ourselves to the context, organisation and people for which we do foresight work. And naturally, the language you use, the clothes you wear, and your general appearance will have impact on your foresight intervention.

Instead of exploring outer appearance such as clothes, I realised that I’ve actually been exploring this idea of general appearance in metaphors over the past year in my APF blog posts…

So, in which forms and shapes can we futurists appear? Here’s a summary of some old and new metaphors, so they can all be found in one place. Hence the title of this post; 9 metaphors for futurists:

1. The Trickster


My interest in metaphors for futurists started with the Trickster  – a character found in many myths. Tricksters are often found on the road or at the edge of town, sometimes helping, sometimes hindering people. They have prophetic qualities, but in contrast to other prophets, tricksters steal, cheat and lie to deliver their message.

Futurist as Trickster, is consequently a figure who works between organisations, cultures and paradigms. Larry Ellis writes that the trickster “dabbles in the creation of the world that will be, and provides tools, food, and clothing to the people who will inhabit that world. He may assume an array of contradictory personae in the course of a single narrative, moving from one to the other with the skill of a practiced shape-shifter while tripping on his tail at every turn.”


2. The Clown


The Clown is related to the Trickster. According to Wikipedia, in Native American mythology, the “Trickster channels the spirit of the Coyote and becomes a sacred Clown character”.

Today we often think of a clown as a clumsy, colorful character performing slap-stick with a red nose and big shoes. Traditionally, he played a quite different role though – the one of a sociological and psychological healer, similar to a priest. In Redeeming Laughter: The Comic Dimension of Human Experience, Peter Berger writes that “It seems plausible that folly and fools, like religion and magic, meet some deeply rooted needs in human society”.

The Clown Futurist can make use of traditional clown techniques to meet clients’ needs. Beyond a funny red nose and a wig there are potentially other things the futurist can learn by studying the history of the clown. Communication skills, engaging clients, and holding up a mirror to society are some of these.


3. The Artist


In a post from last year on business models for futurists, I looked briefly at how futurists could model their foresight practice and consulting on the artist/patron model. The Artist Futurist paints, crafts or dreams up beautiful or provocative scenarios; images of the future. The patron-client rewards the artist with money or other support. The artwork will hopefully help the client towards their preferred futures. Sometimes the artwork is too challenging for the client. The colours are too bright or the motif too disturbing. At other times, the artwork is too commercial and derivative to have transformative impact. A good Artist Futurist finds a balance.


4. The Outsider


Swedish academic Claes Janssen devised an ‘outsider scale‘ in the 1960s and 70s. Here individuals are placed on a scale from 0 to 24 after doing a psychometric test, where 24 is the highest and considered most “outsider”. Most futurists I have tested are far out towards the outsider end on this scale. According to Janssen’s psychological theories, a high outsider score can be good when it is integrated in a person, but challenging when non-integrated. Or simply said; life is easier for the outsider who accepts being an outsider than for one who doesn’t.

Most futurists are outsiders. Organisational futurists are always outsiders. Hines (2005) is more diplomatic and writes that the “inside-outsider must be mobile and not place a high value on having a long-term career in the organisation, because to be most effective you must be willing to commit career suicide on a regular basis.”

This role is at times hard to play, since an outsider never belongs on the inside. Therefore it’s key that the Outsider Futurist finds other communities to which they can belong.


5. The Svengali


The Svengali is one of the shadow sides of the futurist. From my earlier post:

“According to Wiktionary a Svengali is “one who manipulates or controls another as by some mesmeric or sinister influence; especially a coach, mentor or industry mogul”. Originally a character in George du Maurier’s 1895 novel Trilby, it is now used widely for creepy behind-the-scenes manipulators in the music industry, politics and elsewhere.

The Svengali futurist loves to float above and observe systems, analyse, interpret and anticipate for others. This part of us often gets bored with details, funding and practicalities, and rather step back to the lurking position behind the scene.”


6. The Entrepreneur


There are two aspects of entrepreneurship that especially intrigue me. One is Schumpeter’s ‘creative destruction’, and the other the notion that entrepreneurs often build structures before they have access to the resources needed to build these. This slightly delusional trait is sometimes described as entrepreneurial risk-taking.

Futurists, like psychologists, are entrepreneurs of the mind. The creative destruction occurs when the futurist works to destroy old ways of thinking in order to create new. And the structures, to which the Entrepreneur Futurist has no access at first, are formed within the clients’ individual or collective mind. A good scenario crafted by  can be a dangerously creative destroyer of old mindsets.


7. The Interpreter


I explored Futurist as Interpreter here. A quote:

“An interpreter helps people who don’t speak the same language make sense of each other. And in the same way as language is a construct to make sense of the world, a worldview is another construct for sense-making. One role of the futurist is to interpret between worldviews, to help people make sense of other people.


8. The Explorer


Last year I worked with a large coworking space in Melbourne to crowdsource the future of that community. We used Shackleton’s 1914 expedition to the South Pole as a metaphor for the journey – an exploration to a distant region, with lots of dangers. But with a great team of explorers which feared nothing, and together reached places, which we don’t often reach in our individual explorations.

The futurist always explores the future. And in this metaphor the future is the destination. But a destination that we create ourselves in the sense as John Schaar describes it: “The future is not some place we are going, but one we are creating. The paths are not to be found, but made. And the activity of making them changes both the maker and the destination.”

The Explorer Futurist explores and creates the future.

9. The Wanderer


This nomadic type of futurist wanders the world of knowledge without knowing where to go. He’s similar to the trickster and explorer archetypes, but without a destination. He is constantly led astray by new fascinating ideas, technologies or articles, and is looking for a home. But he will never find it. This archetype is forever roaming the field of the future.

Historically, this archetype was an integral part of societies, but increasingly the vagrants, flâneurs, nomads and vagabonds disappear from our physical world. Now they only thrive online in their digital wanderings.

To others, the Wanderer Futurist can seem to be lost. But they are not, since they don’t walk to reach a destination. They wander because they love to wander.


Phew… That’s it. No more metaphors for now!




All images from Wikimedia Commons

Hines, A 2005, ‘Ten Questions Every Organisational Futurist Should Be Able to Answer’, in Slaughter, RA (ed), The knowledge base of futures studies, 5 vols, CD-ROM, Professional edn, Foresight International, Brisbane.


This post was originally written for the Association of Professional Futurists.


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