Handheld universe

Mapping and GPS technology for mobile devices are rapidly coming of age, offering the scope to provide plenty of fun and information along with directions from A to B. Anna Richardson investigates this emerging scene – and wonders a little what will happen to our traditional map-reading skills

Mapping is going through a quiet revolution at the moment. According to Harriet Miller, lead designer at City ID, a design consultancy that pioneered legibility and wayfinding projects in cities such as Bath, Bristol and Southampton, there are a few reasons for this.

One is that people are simply travelling more, and there is a desire for mapping. In addition, thanks to Google Maps and other digital offerings, users have become more map literate.

Mapping is also playing an increasingly central role in supporting regeneration and change in cities that are looking to attract visitors and improve user experience, Miller points out. Information can help reveal and communicate places, so map quality has had to improve.

Cities need to reflect a sense of place and distinguish themselves through elements like mapping – the graphic look and feel of a map, as well as its content.

Moreover, one map should not be expected to do every job – for example, a street map has a different role to play than one of a park.
Southampton Legible City mapping, developed by City ID with Russell Bell, included a printed map for the city’s common, which ’works a little bit harder in communicating the identity and activities the city has to offer, by including additional layers of information such as jogging routes’, according to Miller.

Mapping also plays a role in reflecting many cities’ wider desire to encourage sustainable forms of transport, as well as promote general wellbeing. ’You can show more routes and layer ideas and suggestions that inspire people to lead more active lives,’ explains Miller.

As part if the environmental branding, wayfinding and signage for Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi, Portland Design responded to a project vision that also aimed to get more people walking and cycling. The maps translated this into different categories, from street directories to parks and cycling routes, establishing a consistent personality through the use of iconography and pictograms.

Meanwhile, the fundamentals of cartography have evolved. Some maps still adhere closely to the traditional Ordnance Survey cartography, while others have started to move away from it. Whereas Legible London mapping is close to Ordnance Survey, the Southampton maps moved away in style. For a connector map for Richmond and Twickenham in London, City ID deleted extraneous information around a specific route and concentrated on the linear journey from A to B.

One of the biggest shifts in mapping has been caused by technology and its ability to tailor constantly updated data to location, effectively allowing users to manage their own layers of information. Coupled with the emergence of GPS on mobile devices, which can pinpoint a user’s location and orientation – albeit still somewhat inaccurately – the possibilities are promising.

Applied Information Group has been exploring digital mapping projects since 2003. ’Having maps on digital devices has one big advantage,’ says AIG chairman and creative director Tim Fendley. ’It looses texture and you can’t control its weight or feel, but you have depth.’

Many maps are aimed at drivers, but AIG is particularly interested in wayfinding for people at the point when they get out of their car. It has recently designed a number of mobile phone map apps. For London’s Regent Street, AIG designed a walking tour to offer an informative route along the shopping street. It developed the app with Electric Mapping Company using Living Map technology, which provides dynamic street-level mapping. Combined with GPS technology accessible on Apple iPhones, it provides information to pedestrians.

Maps are also becoming more personalised. ’The map is becoming a platform for more interesting wayfinding information, whether to highlight clubs, crime or travel time,’ says Cennydd Bowles, user experience designer at Clearleft. ’It’s becoming much more widely used and for a more diverse set of purposes.’

According to Bowles the fundamental rules of map design will remain, but the way maps are handled will change. Where previously it was left to humans to work out details such as location and orientation, technology can now do that for you. But does that mean that future generations will lose their map-reading skills forever? asks Bowles. ’If we forget how to read maps is that going to be a problem? It might be we don’t need those skills any more, but we don’t yet know what that will mean for us as humans.’

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