Urban Affairs: Sketch me a map, anytime.

Last month I was invited over to a friend’s house for dinner. He and his wife had just moved into their three-bedroom property and it had been a while since we had caught up. I was eager to see their new pad. My friend had phoned me earlier that day to give me his address and directions. I scribbled down the information on the back of a receipt and continued to listen. Going to a suburb I’ve never  been to before, I try to take in the good advice from my friend. “Take this road, turn at that corner, it’s quicker if you head in this direction,” he said. But, it’s all German to me. The directions did not sink in. He was telling me what he visualized, but I had no visuals. I had never been there before. But I nod politely at the other end of the phone  and gave him the satisfaction of letting him direct me. I knew the moment I got off the phone I would Google his address and create my own path there.

It just seemed easier that way.

I got off the phone and Googled his house.  When the page loaded, a wealth of information was in full view. It’s not the first time I had used Google, I was just astounded at the amount of information you can get from looking at just one address. One of  its features lets you pick the most direct path in which Google will draw you a line from your location to the destination. It also gives you a time estimate as well – handy when you are heading to a new place. But all in all, Google maps is  a remarkably well engineered program that does wonders for road trips.

So when it came time for me to print off the directions from Google, what did I do? I drew a map on the back of a used bit of paper, then hit the road.

A recent post on Slate.com talks about the benefits of sketched directions and delves into the psyche of why people draw maps. The writer, Julia Turner, asked her readers to send in their hand-drawn maps. It was part of her series on signs and how professionals use them to orient the public and direct us from point A to B. She said official signs aren’t the only things that help get us around. This dates back to early man. Think about the caveman and his etchings on walls that were arguably maps of local rivers and settlements. So it’s in our genes.  We’ve been crafting hand-made maps forever.

Some of the responses from readers were quite interesting and varied.

For example. A firefighter from Washington, D.C. draws  a map on the stationhouse blackboard from memory everyday. To get his job as a wagon-driver, for a year, he studied: a hundred blocks, alleys, addresses and hydrants in his surrounding area. His maps show more details than a standard road map which is extremely beneficial for first response units.

Here’s another one.  An Australian architect drew a map to direct his daughter from Brisbane to his farm in Murwillumbah.  Paul Stiff, a professor of information design has made it his hobby to collect hand-drawn maps. After reviewing all the submitted maps for Slate,  he was intrigued by the architects design. “If you compare this with a topographical map, you’ll see that he’s compressed the scale astonishingly,” he said. “There’s less detail closer to home, where roads are familiar, but the scale expands the nearer we get to the destination because we need more information in places that are new to us.”

Maps don’t necessarily equate to cartography either.

What about simple tasks? One major advantage for a hand-drawn map is that you can tailor your design for a particular task. Take this for an example: A granddaughter made a map that highlighted the key point on the back of her computer. It was color coded and show her exactly which cords and plugs to put in the many different shaped holes. The grandmother said that each time she moves, she refers back to the color-coded map to set her computer back up. This saved her hours of flipping through Korean manuals and computer speak.

Maps have uses for many things: a research trip, a boat ride, a romance, building a shed, sports drills, historical events.

For me hand-drawn maps equal simplicity.

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