Innovative Map Conveys 'Identity and Personality' of a Place

When we think of the words “art” and “design,” a map is probably not the first image that comes to mind. And yet, as odd as it may seem, a well-designed map is a kind of masterpiece unto itself. How easy it can be to take information for granted until lack of it disrupts our ability to get where we’re going. We have mobile apps and GPS tracking devices to assist us, of course, helping us figure out, down to the number of minutes, how long it will take to walk, drive or bike from one destination to another. Interfacing with technology, however, doesn’t necessarily compensate for the physical world -- that is, the actual environments we find ourselves in. Nor can it, as of this very moment, anticipate what we will think or feel when we interact with those environments.

So, though my magical iPhone 4s can be super handy in helping me make my way through downtown Chicago—there’s also a ChiTransit app for tracking buses and trains—and might even increase my confidence about heading in the right direction, it can’t make me feel safer in an unfamiliar area or help me weed out extraneous information I might encounter along my route. (Needless to say, if I lost my phone altogether I would be in a wee bit of trouble.)

Technology provides one type of support, built signs provide another. To put it another way, wayfinding systems reflect a sensitivity regarding human behavior, providing information in a way that is usable, accessible and intuitive to everyone in the physical world, mobile devices or no.

Last week I mentioned a group based in Pittsburgh engaging in community art projects to help improve the space and environment of a given community. This week, I mention a program that also contributes to “sense of place,” though in a more systematic way. Walk! Philadelphia, billed as one of the most innovative and comprehensive pedestrian sign systems in North America, was developed by Joel Katz Design Associates as part of a multimillion-dollar “Streetscape Improvement Project.”

At first glance, the signs don’t necessarily look unique. However, the design of the information on the signs speaks to the role that designers play in using creative problem-solving to improve the way we experience a given place, on a human level.

Joel Katz’s system utilizes a “heads up” approach. Meaning, that the map orientation is based on the direction pedestrians are facing as opposed to traditional maps that are usually oriented north. The result is a map that rotates—on some signs the arrow at the top points east, on others west--depending on which direction a viewer is facing. (Maps that are designed based on how we humans actually use them. Go figure!)

Part of the Walk! Philadelphia mapping system involves a hierarchy of information, prioritizing details that a pedestrian needs to know based on his or her location.

In his book "Wayfinding: Designing and Implementing Graphic Navigational Systems," Craig Berger sums up his excerpt on the Walk! Philadelphia project nicely: “The maps that Joel Katz Design Associates have developed go beyond the idea of a map as simply a way to get from point a to point b to a fundamental extension of identity and personality for a facility, campus or city.”

Yes, even a campus or facility or community can have a personality. And our job as designers is to bring those personalities into view in distinctive and creative ways that honor places, spaces and the people who inhabit them.