When bad things happen to good maps

It's a set tradition that maps face north. On portable maps the rule is an advantage, as you avoid having to both finding out which way the map AND which way the world turn. However when a map is static – as it is is on a sign – the map, often more times than not in my experience, do not face the same direction as the sign.

If there is one wayfinding... (Oh what the heck, let us call it what it is:) 'screw-up' I encounter the most, this takes the win. In many cases a map facing the wrong direction will make no sense and the viewer simply looks for alternative wayfinding-sources, condemning the sign to be an utter waste of space. In worst cases it is misleading, confusing and can cause stressful experiences for the users.

I have encountered three incidents where bad things have happened to good maps. My apologies to the designers if you happen to read this, I know that sometimes, these tings are out of your control.

1. Overview map at my old school KADK

Campus at The Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Architecture, Design and Conservation.

This sign at the Copenhagen architecture school, features the same map on each side, making one correct, and one mirrored. The canal makes it easy to comprehend that something about the sign is off – facing the map like this, you see the canal on your right and on the map it is marked with a wave pattern to the left.

The simplicity of the map-layout makes it difficult to pin point your exact location, as you both have to flip and turn the map in your head and afterwards figure out which one of the squares matches which of the buildings that are in front or behind you.

Last year I created a wayfinding system for the school's open house event, and had mistakenly replicated this wrongdoing by placing the same map on each side of a banner.

When I went there to observe how people responded to the system, I found that when people encountered the map from the wrong side, they found out within seconds that it made no sense and turned around to find people to ask for directions.

They did not explore the other side of the map for information and they did not spend time flipping and turning the map mentally. This was fortunately a detail in the overall design, that worked as planned – you can see it here: KADK event wayfinding.

I think this map would work fine if mirrored. To make the map-to-environment-translation even more tangible, you could add green spaces, trees, parking, and facades.

2. Overview map at H. C. Ørstedsparken

Park, Copenhagen Municipality

This map here, located in a park in Copenhagen, has no "you are here" marker, which tells me that the sign has been thought of as a one-fits-all for the whole park. For this geography it is particularly unfortunate as the park has water and public squares in both ends, making it impossible to figure out that the map is in fact turning upside down. On top of that. the street names marked on the map were not visible at this location, and therefor didn't work as hints to your location on the map. In this photo, the map should be turned 90*, which is not much, but would make the whole difference. On top of that and apart from the obvious (you are here marker), more street names and features surrounding the park, would be a great help.

The graphic design was originally made by 2+1 (an urban creative agency) for another park, which also featured 3D drawings of landmarks for a better map to surroundings translation. The colours are bright, easy to read and modern. I like it and think it is very unfortunate that this bad thing has happened to the map.

3. The museum quarter in Munich

The placement of this micro map is not only off, it is completely off. We found out after several minutes of looking around, comparing buildings to the black siteplans on the map, that not only was the map turned upside down, it was also placed on a completely different street than the "You are here" marker, making it the biggest winner of a bad-thing-happening.

The map has the same "clean" layout as the KADK one and would have a greater map-to-environment-translation if the houses were drawn in 3D or had featured other landmarks.

I do enjoy the design of the sign poles, which was a small art installation on its own, making it easy to spot, as you moved through the area.

If you want to know more about how to optimize map-to-environment-translation in maps, I wrote a blog post about it here:

On a final note I would like to say, that I have encountered people who question the importance of the map turning in the right direction, as they can not believe that the brain can have such a hard time turning the map around in their head. And maybe some people don not find this a problem, but you have to take into account that we do not all share this capability.

If you do not want to take my word for it; A researcher, Levine, has shown that "you are here" maps in reality are only usable when the top of the map is facing the direction of movement. Levine and more, 1984, The placement and misplacement of you are here maps, environment & behaviour 16, s. 139-157