Aris Venetikidis: Making sense of maps
September 2, 2012
Map designer Aris Venetikidis is fascinated by the maps we draw in our minds as we move around a city -- less like street maps, more like schematics or wiring diagrams, abstract images of relationships between places. How can we learn from these mental maps to make better real ones? As a test case, he remakes the notorious Dublin bus map. (Filmed at TEDxDublin)Aris Venetikidis
Aris Venetikidis imagines how maps work with our minds. Full bio
Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
What I do is I organize information. I'm a graphic designer.
Professionally, I try to make sense
often of things that don't make much sense themselves.
So my father might not understand what it is
that I do for a living.
His part of my ancestry has been farmers.
He's part of this ethnic minority called the Pontic Greeks.
They lived in Asia Minor, and fled to Greece
after a genocide about a hundred years ago,
and ever since that, migration has somewhat been
a theme in my family.
My father moved to Germany, studied there, and married,
and as a result, I now have this half-German brain
with all the analytical thinking
and that slight dorky demeanor that comes with that.
And of course it meant that I was a foreigner in both countries,
and that of course made it pretty easy for me
to migrate as well, in good family tradition, if you like.
But of course, most journeys that we undertake
from day to day are within a city, and especially
if you know the city, getting from A to B
may seem pretty obvious, right?
But the question is, why is it obvious?
How do we know where we're going?
So I washed up on a Dublin ferry port
about 12 years ago, a professional foreigner, if you like,
and I'm sure you've all had this experience before, yeah?
You arrive in a new city, and your brain is trying
to make sense of this new place.
Once you find your base, your home,
you start to built this cognitive map of your environment.
It's essentially this virtual map that only exists
in your brain. All animal species do it,
even though we all use slightly different tools.
Us humans, of course, we don't move around
marking our territory by scent, like dogs.
We don't run around emitting ultrasonic squeaks, like bats.
We just don't do that,
although a night in the Temple Bar district can get pretty wild. (Laughter)
No, we do two important things to make a place our own.
First, we move along linear routes.
Typically we find a main street, and this main street
becomes a linear strip map in our minds.
But our mind keeps it pretty simple, yeah?
Every street is generally perceived as a straight line,
and we kind of ignore the little twists and turns that the streets make.
When we do, however, make a turn into a side street,
our mind tends to adjust that turn to a 90-degree angle.
This of course makes for some funny moments
when you're in some old city layout that follows some sort of
circular city logic, yeah?
Maybe you've had that experience as well, right?
Let's say you're on some spot on a side street that projects
from a main cathedral square, and you want to get to
another point on a side street just like that.
The cognitive map in your mind may tell you, "Aris,
go back to the main cathedral square, take
a 90-degree turn, and walk down that other side street."
But somehow you feel adventurous that day,
and you suddenly discover that the two spots
were actually only a single building apart.
Now, I don't know about you, but I always feel like I find
this wormhole or this inter-dimensional portal.
So we move along linear routes
and our mind straightens streets and perceives turns
as 90-degree angles.
The second thing that we do to make a place our own
is we attach meaning and emotions to the things
that we see along those lines.
If you go to the Irish countryside, and you ask an old lady
for directions, brace yourself for some elaborate
Irish storytelling about all the landmarks. Yeah?
She'll tell you the pub where her sister used to work,
and go past the church where I got married, that kind of thing.
So we fill our cognitive maps with these markers of meaning.
What's more, we abstract,
repeat patterns, and recognize them.
We recognize them by the experiences,
and we abstract them into symbols.
And of course, we are all capable
of understanding these symbols. (Laughter)
What's more, we're all capable of understanding
the cognitive maps, and you are all capable
of creating these cognitive maps yourselves.
So next time, when you want to tell your friend how to get to your place,
you grab a beermat, grab a napkin,
and you just observe yourself create this awesome piece
of communication design. It's got straight lines.
It's got 90 degree corners.
You might add little symbols along the way.
And when you look at what you've just drawn,
you realize it does not resemble a street map.
If you were to put an actual street map
on top of what you've just drawn, you'd realize your streets
and the distances, they'd be way off.
No, what you've just drawn
is more like a diagram or a schematic.
It's a visual construct of lines, dots, letters,
designed in the language of our brains.
So it's no big surprise that the big information design icon
of the last century, the pinnacle of showing everybody
how to get from A to B, the London Underground map,
was not designed by a cartographer or a city planner.
It was designed by an engineering draftsman.
In the 1930s, Harry Beck applied the principles of
schematic diagram design, and changed
the way public transport maps are designed forever.
Now the very key to the success of this map
is in the omission of less important information
and in the extreme simplification.
So straightened streets, corners of 90 and 45 degrees,
but also the extreme geographic distortion in that map.
If you were to look at the actual locations of these stations,
you'd see they're very different. Yeah?
But this is all for the clarity of the public tube map.
Yeah? If you, say, wanted to get from Regent's Park Station
to Great Portland Street, the tube map would tell you,
take the tube, go to Baker Street, change over, take another tube.
Of course, what you don't know is that the two stations
are only about a hundred meters apart.
Now we've reached the subject of public transport,
and public transport here in Dublin
is a somewhat touchy subject. (Laughter)
For everybody who does not know the public transport here in Dublin,
essentially we have this system of local buses
that grew with the city. For every outskirt that was added,
there was another bus route added running
from the outskirt all the way to the city center,
and as these local buses approach the city center,
they all run side by side, and converge in pretty much
one main street.
So when I stepped off the boat 12 years ago,
I tried to make sense of that,
because exploring a city on foot only gets you so far.
But when you explore a foreign and new public transport system,
you will build a cognitive map in your mind
in pretty much the same way.
Typically, you choose yourself a rapid transport route,
and in your mind this route is perceived as a straight line,
and like a pearl necklace, all the stations and stops
are nicely and neatly aligned along the line,
and only then you start to discover some local bus routes
that would fill in the gaps and that allow you for those
wormhole, inter-dimensional portal shortcuts.
So I tried to make sense, and when I arrived,
I was looking for some information leaflets that would
help me crack this system and understand it,
and I found those brochures. (Laughter)
They were not geographically distorted.
They were having a lot of omission of information,
but unfortunately the wrong information, say, in the city center.
There were never actually any lines that showed the routes.
There are actually not even any stations with names.
Now the maps of Dublin transport, have gotten better,
and after I finished the project, they got a good bit better,
but still no station names, still no routes.
So, being naive, and being half-German, I decided,
"Aris, why don't you build your own map?"
So that's what I did. I researched how each
and every bus route moved through the city,
nice and logical, every bus route a separate line,
and I plotted it into my own map of Dublin,
and in the city center,
I got a nice spaghetti plate. (Laughter)
Now this is a bit of a mess, so I decided, of course,
you're going to apply the rules of schematic design,
cleaning up the corridors, widening the streets
where there were loads of buses, and making the streets
at straight, 90-degree corners, 45-degree corners, or fractions of that,
and filled it in with the bus routes. And I built this city center
bus map of the system, how it was five years ago.
I'll zoom in again so that you get the full impact of
the quays and Westmoreland Street. (Laughter)
Now I can proudly say — (Applause) —
I can proudly say, as a public transport map,
this diagram is an utter failure — (Laughter) —
except probably in one aspect:
I now had a great visual representation
of just how clogged up and overrun the city center really was.
Now call me old-fashioned, right, but I think
a public transport route map should have lines,
because that's what they are. Yeah?
They're little pieces of string that wrap their way
through the city center, or through the city.
If you will, the Greek guy inside of me feels, if I don't
get a line, it's like entering the Labyrinth of the Minotaur
without having Ariadne giving you the string to find your way.
So the outcome of my academic research,
loads of questionnaires, case studies,
and looking at a lot of maps, was that a lot of the problems
and shortcomings of the public transport system here in Dublin
was the lack of a coherent public transport map --
a simplified, coherent public transport map --
because I think this is the crucial step to understanding
a public transport network on a physical level,
but it's also the crucial step to make
a public transport network mappable on a visual level.
So I teamed up with a gentleman called James Leahy,
a civil engineer and a recent Master's graduate of
the Sustainable Development Program at DIT,
and together we drafted this simplified model network
which I could then go ahead and visualize.
So here's what we did.
We distributed these rapid transport corridors
throughout the city center, and extended them into the outskirts.
Rapid, because we wanted them to be served
by rapid transport vehicles, yeah?
They would get exclusive road use, where possible,
and it would be high-quantity, high-quality transport.
James wanted to use bus rapid transport for that,
rather than light rail. For me, it was important
that the vehicles that would run on those rapid transport corridors
would be visibly distinguishable from local buses on the street.
Now we could take out all the local buses
that ran alongside those rapid transport means.
Any gaps that appeared in the outskirts were filled again.
So, in other words, if there was a street in an outskirt
where there had been a bus, we put a bus back in,
only now these buses wouldn't run all the way to the city center
but connect to the nearest rapid transport mode,
one of these thick lines over there.
So the rest was merely a couple of months of work,
and a couple of fights with my girlfriend of our place
constantly being clogged up with maps,
and the outcome, one of the outcomes, was this map
of the Greater Dublin Area. I'll zoom in a little bit.
This map only shows the rapid transport connections,
no local bus, very much in the Metro map style
that was so successful in London, and that since
has been exported to so many other major cities,
and therefore is the language that we should use
for public transport maps.
What's also important is, with a simplified network like this,
it now would become possible for me
to tackle the ultimate challenge,
and make a public transport map for the city center,
one where it wouldn't just show rapid transport connections
but also all the local bus routes, streets and the likes,
and this is what a map like this could like.
I'll zoom in a little bit.
In this map, I'm including each transport mode,
so rapid transport, bus, DART, tram and the likes.
Each individual route is represented by a separate line.
The map shows each and every station,
each and every station name,
and I'm also displaying side streets,
in fact, most of the side streets even with their name,
and for good measure, also a couple of landmarks,
some of them signified by little symbols,
others by these isometric three-dimensional
The map is relatively small in overall size,
so something that you could still hold as a fold-out map,
or display in a reasonably-sized display box on a bus shelter.
I think it tries to be the best balance
between actual representation
and simplification, the language of way-finding in our brain.
So straightened lines, cleaned-up corners,
and, of course, that very, very important
geographic distortion that makes public transport maps possible.
If you, for example, have a look at the two main
corridors that run through the city,
the yellow and orange one over here, this is how
they look in an actual, accurate street map,
and this is how they would look in my distorted,
simplified public transport map.
So for a successful public transport map,
we should not stick to accurate representation,
but design them in the way our brains work.
The reactions I got were tremendous. It was really good to see.
And of course, for my own self, I was very happy to see
that my folks in Germany and Greece finally have an idea
what I do for a living. (Laughter) Thank you. (Applause)
Aris Venetikidis imagines how maps work with our minds.Why you should listen
Aris Venetikidis is a graphic designer with a passion for map design and public transport network visualisation. His project “Designing an integrated map for a visionary public transport network in Dublin” earned him the IDI Graduate Masters Award and IDI Graduate Grand Prix in 2010, as well as press coverage in major Irish and Greek newspapers. Aris studied at the National College of Art and Design ind Dublin and has been working as a designer in agencies or as an independent designer and photographer since.
The original video is available on TED.com