Making maps to understand problems

Alastair Somerville
3 min readApr 1, 2018
Credit: @SensingCulture Twitter 2018

I did a workshop this week for the Sensing Culture symposium on making accessible, tactile maps of museums.

The workshop had a fairly simple theme: make maps of the entrance halls of museums or buildings that participants knew.

We made about 15 maps using Artstraws, sticky dots and swell paper (a type of paper that is used in tactile design prototyping: anything printed in black swells up) in an hour.

The maps only showed a few elements:

  • Information desk
  • Toilets
  • Galleries
  • Cafe
  • Shop
  • Exits

This is generally summarised as Pee, See, Tea, Spree and Flee when we make maps.

This all seems quite simple but there is a deeper issue.

Distance = Difficulty

The map is not a representation of the building architecture. It is a diagram of difficulty.

The position of symbols is not a representation of absolute position in the physical space but relative position to the information desk in terms of difficulty (physical and/or cognitive) of the visitor journey.

The map is a way of enabling a discussion at the beginning of the visitor’s trip of the effort required to access essential services. Clarifying the effort at the start is a way of enabling agency and independence. The visitor can plan and choose what they want to do and what they need to do.

In some ways, this is related to ideas of Forced Perspective in film and theatre set making. The physical reality is compressed so as to enable understanding.

Mapping work to be done

The other side to making a map is it enables a meaningful discussion of what an organisation needs to do better.

Maps make errors apparent.

The accessible map makes clear that there is hierarchy of work to be done. Distance = difficulty and thus plan work to reduce distances.

It’s worth reading Planning For Everything by Peter Morville and looking at Wardley’s extensive map work to understand how making maps enable better experience planning for both user and provider.

Making maps like this in a workshop is fun but it has a serious purpose for both visitors and for managers.



Alastair Somerville

Sensory Design Consultant, usability researcher and workshop facilitator. Twitter @acuity_design & @visceralUX