Maps: Plotting the Course, Part 2

How we get there; strategies, tools & graphic elements for effective map design

They say you have one chance to make a first impression. There is no doubt that applies to organizations, entities and physical places. Now more than ever, the world is competing for customer time and money. Therefore, that first impression better be a good one.

Whether looking for the ICU department in a hospital, visiting a university campus for the first time, or exploring a new city, the ease of navigation leaves an impression—either positive or negative—about a place or organization.

In Part 1 of this white paper series, Maps: Plotting the Course for Successful Map Design, we discuss how decisions on style and function influence the look of a map and how those same decisions affect the visitor experience. Map styles and functions may vary from place to place, but there are common strategies and design principles that, when utilized, can result in a more effective map.

Which way’s up?

Most of us have seen (or embarrassingly been) that perplexed tourist or college freshman frantically rotating a hand-held map, trying to navigate an unfamiliar environment.

Traditional mapmaking has conditioned us to think of north as pointing up. This, however, creates confusion once a person is placed in an actual environment. “Up” no longer exists and that disoriented person is left to figure out which way is north before they can even begin to navigate. To make matters worse, if the map is stationary (for example, mounted to a wall), there is no ability to turn the map and orient oneself.

A better solution is to turn the map on its head, literally, and use the “heads up” philosophy of mapping. Instead of north always being up, the direction that person is facing, while viewing the map, is up. This provides a contextual understanding of the space—what’s left on the map is now actually to that person’s left, what’s to their right is shown to the right and straight ahead is now up. The visitor can now orient themselves to their current, and relevant, surroundings.

Augmented reality navigational apps use this approach to walk a person through a space, as though someone is there to guide them personally. But apps are not practical for many places and we need consider how we translate this into a two-dimensional representation of space and place. While the “heads up” style will require the design of multiple rotations of the map for use in an environment, understanding north, south, east, and west are no longer crucial—straight, left, right, and behind become much more effective.

Look the part

Like any other aspect of design, a map should align with your organization’s brand message. Is it a whimsical, illustrative depiction of an amusement park or zoo meant to communicate fun, adventure and discovery? Or does it serve a more utilitarian role for a place such as an office park or hospital?

The map is not only a visual representation of your place, but it can also inform public perception about your place. Getting lost in an unfamiliar environment induces stress and increases frustration, leaving a lasting impression that influences whether or not that person will return to your city, shop in your store, or book their next trade show at your convention center.

If an organization provides their map in multiple mediums (on a website, printed to be hand-held, or wall mounted as part of a signage program), careful planning and coordination is key. The maps should appear as one cohesive system and influence the same navigation patterns.

Speak the same language

Nomenclature is a system of names or terms. In wayfinding, it is critical that destination names and navigational terminology are used consistently. With the internet and smart phones, wayfinding now begins before one leaves their home. Therefore, names and terminology must be the same on your website, literature, signage, and maps. For example, if a hospital uses the name “Radiology” on their website and signage, their map should not say “Imaging” or “X-Ray.” It is also important that the staff consistently refer to destinations in the same manner. Lack of consistent nomenclature leads to confusion, which negatively impacts the perception of a place or organization.

A picture’s worth a thousand words

From Egyptian hieroglyphics to the modern alphabet, symbols are the cornerstone of communication. Cave paintings and rock carvings discovered in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia depict dots and simple images to map out stars, villages and more.

A pictogram (or pictograph) is a kind of symbol that is a simple picture or image which represents an object, place or concept. Pictograms are typically associated with signage and maps, while the term “icon” typically refers to a symbol used in digital formats. If used properly, pictograms and icons are great tools for providing quick and clear information—critical for successful map design. They can also simplify the map by reducing the amount of text needed to provide information.

Symbols, pictograms and icons can be so recognizable that, in some cases, people universally understand their meaning without accompanying text. In fact, visuals are processed 60,000 times faster than text, which makes symbols that much more practical for quick and easy navigation.

Take, for instance, the International Symbol of Accessibility (ISA). This symbol is used to indicate accessible entrances, ramps, restrooms, elevators, parking, and other conveniences for people with limited mobility. As the name would suggest, this symbol is understood around the world, having been adopted by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) after testing its comprehensibility in various countries and cultures. Other universal or commonly known symbols (pictograms) are the symbols for the men’s and women’s restrooms, stairs, elevators, transportation and many more.


Figure 1—The International Symbol of Accessibility pictogram (far left) is just one of many universally recognized symbols that can be used effectively on signage and maps. Notice each symbol appears in the same style, creating a cohesive family.

A designer may choose to create his or her own set of symbols, however, certain principles should be followed, as summarized from the book by Craig Berger, Wayfinding: Designing and Implementing Graphic Navigational Systems1:

  • The number of custom symbols should be taken into account. Universal symbols are a product of a long process that included testing, educating the public and years of use. Limiting the amount of “new” symbols reduces the need for the public to learn and comprehend their meaning.
  • They must be simple and clear. The point of using symbols is to be easily understood. Unrecognizable and confusing symbols will greatly reduce the efficacy of a map.
  • Similar to nomenclature, it is important that symbols are used consistently across all communication channels.
  • Symbols should be designed to look like they are part of a family and match the style of the map, but must be different enough to be clear.
  • Consider the type of environment into which these symbols will be placed and how much time the user will have to study the map. For example, whether they will be used by pedestrians or drivers may dictate the simplicity, or conversely, the level of detail or customization of the symbols.
  • As with the map design in general, audience is key. Familiarity with the symbols, and their meanings, may depend on culture, age, and more.

While symbols and icons can represent services and destinations, and convey the personality of a place, it is important to remember their primary purpose is to communicate the information clearly. So symbols should only support communication, never detract.

Attention to details

Renowned designer Charles Eames once said, “The details are not the details. They make the design.” If we consider a map in general as an outfit, then color and font choices are the jewelry and accessories.

Since maps are an extension of your brand, fonts should be consistent and complement those found on signage and other brand materials. They should utilize easy to read, legible typefaces.

Depending on the purpose of the map, color may be chosen based on the brand palette or other factors. Colors can also play a functional role on a map to differentiate zones, types of destinations, traffic paths and more.

While color-coding a map can be extremely helpful, if done poorly, it can cause an equal amount of confusion. Careful consideration is required when developing the color palette. For example, colors should appear as part of a family, but differ enough to clearly convey the proper information. If utilizing colors as an identifying device, they should be consistent with those found in the signage program and other wayfinding materials. Age, eyesight, color blindness, lighting and more can affect a person’s ability to comprehend color. Therefore, while colors can be highly effective, they should be used to supplement other forms of wayfinding communication, such as text and symbols.

Miles or Minutes

People not only want to know the physical layout of a place, they want to know how long it will take to go from point A to point B. In fact, in today’s world of instant information, it is expected. How that is communicated should be based on how and why the map is being used.

When we designed pedestrian wayfinding programs for University Circle and Ohio City, we included 5, 10 or 15-minute increments to encourage people to walk and take in more of the sites and sounds of the neighborhoods.

Ohio City Pedestrian Map

Figure 2—The Ohio City pedestrian map incorporates most of the principles discussed, including heads up orientation, a family of recognizable symbols, as well as a unique West Side Market pictogram in the same style, brand colors and fonts, and walking time to locations outside the visible map area. Designed by Guide Studio. All rights reserved.

Based on feedback obtained during our discovery phase, when walking, people tend to translate time more easily than distances. Unlike driving, where we are conditioned to be able to calculate miles per hour rather easily, many of us do not have that same capacity when walking. A person may simply not know how long it takes them to walk a half of a mile, however, understanding that going from point A to point B will be a 10-minute walk may seem more enjoyable and less daunting.

The future is now

What does the future hold for map design? Technology has already taken conventional mapmaking to a new level and seems to evolve every day. With devices and apps such as GPS, Google Maps and LiveMap—a motorcycle helmet that will display maps on the helmet’s visor—the user is provided relevant real-time wayfinding information. Smartphone apps are also becoming more and more sophisticated. Navigate Central Park with confidence using MyNav: Central Park or Mapbox, to find your friends at local restaurants or search for hotels.  You can even prepare for the inevitable Zombie Apocalypse with Map of the Dead, an app that uses your real-life local surroundings to create an immersive gameplay experience.

While the sky may be the limit for map design and technology, to achieve maximum results, the fundamental strategies and principles discussed here and in Part 1 of the series still apply. Whether printed or programmed, brand consistency, nomenclature, symbol usage, color and font choice all remain crucial aspects to consider in order to design a truly effective map.

The sum is greater than the parts

Maps alone do not solve all wayfinding challenges; it is a piece of a bigger puzzle. When used comprehensively with well-planned signage and other visual cues from the environment – a website, smartphone app and supplemental printed piece – maps provide comfort, reassurance and confidence for both first-time visitors and local patrons. This increases the likelihood that people will return and spread a positive word to friends and family.

A well-planned and well-executed map is both functional and visually pleasing—an asset that can increase the economic vitality of your organization, place and surrounding businesses. A map not only makes a first impression, it makes a lasting one.

Design Consultant


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