Maps: Plotting the Course, Part 1

For Successful Map Design

Maps dating back to 2300 B.C. were used not only to depict geographic objects and physical space, but also to tell stories and explain cultural, political and environmental issues. In today’s complex and fast-paced world, maps are primarily used to communicate information clearly and quickly

As wayfinding consultants, mapping is at the core of what we do—providing a simplified visual representation of a place. Even when we do not produce a physical map for a destination, it’s important to go through mapping exercises to understand the space and determine the most effective navigation plan for those making their way around the space.

In this paper, we explore how maps elevate visitor experience and create a sense of appreciation for a place and space.

Form Follows Function

Much like signage, a map may be beautifully designed, but it’s only successful if it’s functional. Before designing a map, consider these key objectives:

  • What is the purpose of this map?
  • What “problem” does it need to solve?
  • Where will it be viewed?
  • What will be represented?
  • How will information be conveyed?

Our process requires us to look through the eyes of the visitor to uncover the true challenges of the place. Once those challenges are identified, we can conceptualize what the map will look like and how it will convey the information needed to simplify navigation.

Who and Why

Before jumping into design solutions, it’s critical to consider your audience. Who are they and why are they here? For example, is this map going to help orient and direct pedestrians who are visiting a city for the first time? Or is this map meant for a hospital visitor who, under great stress, needs to find a loved one in the Intensive Care Unit? As you can imagine, maps vary greatly both from a visual standpoint, as well as the amount and kind of information presented.

City or neighborhood maps are first and foremost meant to direct new visitors to their destination, but they can also encourage them to explore the “in between” places along the way. This typically includes a more detailed map that shows street names, landmarks, restaurants, bus stops, parking, where information kiosks are located, and more. Visitors who navigate the area comfortably and with confidence have a better visitor experience, and those who discover new destinations en route are more likely to return or recommend it to friends and family.

In contrast, a hospital map should be simple, or abstract, depicting only what the visitor needs to find his or her destination quickly. Here, accuracy may be sacrificed because the primary goal and function of the map is to get people from Point A to Point B. (For a visual comparison, see fig. 2.)

Figure 2—The University Circle pedestrian map (left) encourages visitors to see the many sites within the district by providing a detailed plan of the area, as well as how long it will take to walk from where they are. In contrast, the Cleveland Clinic Lutheran Hospital map (right) is simplified, providing visitors only the most relevant information they need to get to their destination quickly. Both projects by Guide Studio. All rights reserved.

What, Where and How

After identifying who the visitors are and why they are here, we can determine what the map will depict and how the information will be communicated. Is this a pedestrian map that visitors can take with them? If so, the user will have time to study the map and process the information continually as they travel. This allows the map to have a higher level of detail (of course, without sacrificing clarity). Conversely, it may be a stationary map that is placed in a kiosk or mounted on the wall. In this case, the map should be simple and concise because the user must first take in the information and then remember it as they navigate.

Determining the primary users and what purpose the map serves will dictate the style and detail level of the map.

The right Information, when you need it.

Designers often manipulate the graphic representation of a space to provide only the most relevant and essential information in order to manage traffic patterns and influence human interaction with their environment.

For a recent project with a hospital, Guide Studio was asked to improve the effectiveness of the hospital’s interior wayfinding program. A key component of our solution was simple wall mounted maps (fig. 2) located at major decision points, which are accompanied by a matching take-along map. Our plan emphasizes color-coded elevators as “landmarks,” dispersing pedestrian traffic systematically on the ground floor and then up to their destinations.

Only main hospital destinations along with restrooms, the gift shop, and other public amenities are included via simple icons and text.

For added clarity, only public corridors are shown, while restricted hallways and rooms are removed. The visitor is provided a greatly simplified graphic depiction of the hospital to make it easier to see and follow, containing only the relevant information for a stress-free experience that gets them to their destinations quickly and painlessly.


Depending on the need, a map may be simple or detailed, literal or interpretive, diagrammatic or geographic. Other factors to consider when determining the look of a map may be whether or not space is shown two-dimensionally in plan view or three-dimensionally in perspective or axonometric projection.

While plan view is probably the most common and simplest form of map design, perspective and axonometric views can help convey certain information, enhancing geographic or structural details so that visitors can use them as landmarks to orient themselves.

Take Cedar Point, for instance, the “Roller Coaster Capital of the World.” The amusement park’s map (fig. 1) utilizes an illustrative style and is shown from a birds-eye perspective. The illustrative style captures the fun, family-oriented essence of the place, while the extreme perspective view allows visitors to use the park’s iconic roller coasters and rides as landmarks for orientation and travel planning.

Figure 1—Cedar Point’s map utilizes an illustrative style and perspective view to help convey the park’s personality, while providing visitors a way to orient themselves by easily locating iconic roller coasters and rides. Image obtained from, ©2013 CFEC Cedar Fair Parks/©2013 Peanuts Worldwide LLC.

Mental Mapping

The theory of “mental mapping,” also called “cognitive mapping,” suggests that people build maps in their minds that align with their own perceptions and knowledge of the area.

Research shows that people use their “mental maps” as a guide, based on familiarity with sites and locations. Visual prompts, like detailed depictions of key landmarks, provide more literal interpretations of a person’s surroundings. This can help those who struggle to read and understand maps gain confidence as they travel, while developing their own “mental map” of the area.

Map or Diagram?

The New York City Subway map is a subject of great debate and under continuous revision. How to distill the complex subway system has sparked an ongoing discussion between advocates for design liberties and those who insist on geographic accuracy. The information has been organized through different graphic methods, most famously, the 1972 diagrammatic version by Massimo Vignelli (fig. 3).

Those in favor of the diagrammatic style argue that, first and foremost, a subway map should tell the user how to get from one stop to another—geographic accuracy is not important. In this scenario, a “mental map” is not useful. A busy subway system, with its complex underground routes, will have different mapping needs than, say, a cultural district with identifiable landmarks to reference.

Cleveland’s RTA System map depicts a similar but, naturally, far less complex diagram (fig. 3), that clearly defines an order of stops along each line. While it may seem over-simplified, the diagrammatic approach serves its purpose in the correct situation.

Figure 3—Massimo Vignelli’s famous New York Subway map (left) and Cleveland’s RTA map (right) are examples of diagrammatic maps, where geographic information and accuracy is sacrificed. Left map: Vignelli’s New York Subway map, via Skylar Challand, from the blog, “Designing a better subway map”, September 2, 2010. Right map: Cleveland’s RTA Rapid Transit System map, via, December 2013. © Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority.

Finding the Right Balance

How do you decide between diagrammatic or geographic, literal or abstract, simple or detailed? Too much information can lead to “information overload,” while too little lacks sufficient direction. It’s important to refer back to the inherent need and purpose of the map to determine the appropriate approach. One must adhere to the “Form Follows Function” principle to discover the true needs and purpose of implementing the map. Only then can an effective design begin to take shape.

Continue reading part 2
Part 2 of this series explores the principles and graphic elements that are used to create a map that is both visually pleasing and easy to follow.

Design Consultant


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