Aris Venetikidis

Making sense of maps

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Transcribed by Joseph Geni
Reviewed by Morton Bast

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 slightly dorky demeanor that come 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 build 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.




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.


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 that 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're all capable of understanding these symbols.




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. But this is all for the clarity of the public Tube map. 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.




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 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.




They were not geographically distorted. They had 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. I plotted it into my own map of Dublin, and in the city center ... I got a nice spaghetti plate.




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.




Now I can proudly say —




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, 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 the 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. 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 I 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 look 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 bird's-eye-view drawings.


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.




Thank you.



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.

About the speaker
Aris Venetikidis · Mapmaker

Aris Venetikidis imagines how maps work with our minds.

Aris Venetikidis imagines how maps work with our minds.