Who woulda thunk there were people studying the ins and outs of finding our way? At the University of Reading in the U.K., Paul Stiff has been studying the ways in which we sift information when giving directions, identifying the most crucial landmarks and providing beacons to know if we’ve gone too far. He finds beauty in the ephemeral nature of amateur mapmaking. “While most professional maps serve ‘countless numbers of people who have countless purposes,’ Stiff says, maps like these are ‘made for an audience of one.'”
In teaching my students about metaphor–the idea of it, not just the grammar tool–I like to refer to Bill Roorbach‘s explanation of signs. When driving to an intersection, an octagon hung on a metal pole at the corner is a universal symbol to put your foot on the brake. Sure, the white letters on a red background spell “STOP.” But what if we don’t read in English? If the color of the sign weren’t red? We’d still understand the meaning of this well-designed sign.
Over the next six weeks, Slate is publishing a series by Julia Turner called “The Secret Language of Signs,” exploring the importance of the physical markers we see everyday. It’s good stuff, writing filled with sharp analysis and what I love most: storytelling.
Slate is asking its readers to scan and send them your own hand-drawn maps, whether a trip to the supermarket or a guide to your own home. The maps they’re seeking are not the most detailed or gorgeous, but your possibly taken-for-granted maps that you drew on the back of a utility envelope. Show up the professionals with your own wayfinding skills here.