Global Positioning Stupidity
Global Positioning Stupidity
Global Positioning Stupidity
By Jason Tselentis June 9, 2011

I remember when my brain was the best global positioning system I had. Growing up in the suburbs of Omaha, Nebraska, I walked or biked every street in my neighborhood and relied on my memory to get back home from school, friends’ houses, the food mart, the baseball park, and community pool. The streets existed in a Cartesian grid system, which made learning the lay of the land even easier. We lived in a small neighborhood, and the navigational challenges I faced each time I went to the park were simple: turn right upon leaving the house, turn right again and go straight until I arrived at the park. Reverse the operation to get home.

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(Left) Reproduction of a very simple map I would have made in 1989 to bicycle to the erstwhile Southroads Mall in Bellevue, Nebraska. North is on the left axis; (right) The atlas my wife and I used to navigate from Nebraska to Washington state. The atlas sat conveniently on top of the cat crate for easy reference.

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Mapquest as displayed by The Way Back Machine from 2003.

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Mapquest’s current website, with the older interface and brand identity enabled.

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Mapquest’s new interface, with its new identity. Users can turn this on or use the older interface as shown on the previous slide.

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The ferris wheel known as Charlotte, or as I call it, Charlotte’s Web. Clearly, Charlotte’s urban planners had a sense of humor.

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 Google Map printouts such as these would help me get from place to place, and over time, littered my car.

As a teenager, riding my bike through those streets became the norm, and I voyaged beyond our suburb, into adjacent zip codes and into distant boroughs. To help me navigate to these new, never-before seen places, I relied on the phone book, a pen and paper. With the phone-book map as a guide, I’d trace or freehand the path that would take me from point A to B. Lines represented the streets I’d follow, and I wrote the street names near the respective paths. I rarely put down N for north, but would sometimes put down L for left and R for right.

And when I received my driver’s license, I mapped and traveled even greater distances. The act of drawing those maps, viewing them as needed, and redrawing every so often, imprinted an image of the city in my mind. I commuted through most of Omaha, Nebraska for a decade using my own makeshift maps, and then relied on my own memory for another decade. I can still get from the Henry Doorly Zoo to the La Buvette Wine & Grocery downtown, and then to the Westroads Mall for shopping—all without referencing a map.

Long distance travels outside of the city have always been another story, and required another medium to aid in the journey. I bought a National Geographic Atlas & Travel Planner as a graduation present to myself with the hopes that I’d take off across America like Jack Kerouac. Before walking to the cashier, I sat in Barnes & Noble and weighed my options: I can just come here and trace out the map in Barnes & Noble’s cafe when I decide to go cross country, or I can spend the money and get the whole country for an added sense of security.

I bought it after all, and it came in handy. It guided me through visits I made to Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia and Florida during the late 1990s with my fiancée. And after we got married, it helped us get from Omaha to Seattle, where we lived during my graduate studies. In August 2001, we drove a large U-Haul, with our sedated cat in a pet crate between us, atop which we placed the atlas for easy reference. When we arrived in Seattle, I studied city maps, bus routes and bike trails to help me find my way around the new locale. I still redrew maps, mostly because I was used to it, but also because I enjoyed it. But a little tool called Mapquest quickly erased my mapmaking rituals. Mapquest’s ease of use proved invaluable, especially since it saved me so much time. I no longer had to look at a printed map and reproduce it with pen and paper, but rather, the computer spit it out. I still remember the guilt that overcame me with my first Mapquest laser print in hand, I didn’t draw this, I’m cheating.

In a very Nike sort of way, “Just Mapquest It” became my call to action whenever I had to get some place. I got over the guilt quickly and amassed a collection of Mapquest prints to get wherever I needed to. By the time I completed graduate school, I found myself printing two or three pages a day to get to a client review, lunch meeting and press check all in the span of a few hours. In time I learned the Seattle streets, and I credit the visual cues I relied on (albeit Mapquest cues and not those I freehanded) found on the dozens of Seattle laser prints I studied over my four years of living there. And by the time I knew the city well enough to throw away those print outs, my wife and I packed up our belongings for another move.

When we relocated to Charlotte, North Carolina, in 2005, my admiration for all things Google pushed Mapquest out of the way. Despite the help of Google Maps, I found navigating through Charlotte’s ferris-wheel design (or spider-web design, as in Charlotte’s Web, my preferred metaphor) more difficult than getting around Seattle and Omaha. Not only do Charlotte’s streets connect in a less-than-gridded manner, but many of its streets will change names from block to block: Tyvola becomes Fairview, which turns into Sardis Road, which turns you into Rama Road if you miss the right turn you need to take to stay on Sardis Road. Better yet, if you head southwest on Sardis Road North (a different street than regular Sardis Road), and then go north on Sardis Road, you’ll come upon Sardis Lane, which takes you west.

Even when Garmin navigation tools rose to popularity, I wanted nothing to do with them. Sure, they might reduce the pain of getting around Charlotte. But why bother? For one, they required me to stamp an ugly suction-cup-footed device to my dashboard to view and interact with the navigation. And secondly, why spend the money when I had Google Maps? The printed map had worked well for years, whether drawn by my hand or spit from a computer, as I had grown accustomed to.

But in the end, my 2008 biannual cellular phone upgrade was the trump card: it had Sprint Navigation built in. Like Garmin’s spoken navigation, Sprint Navigation lets you type in your current location and destination, and its built-in vocalizer tells you where to go and how far away you are. It also recognizes traffic issues and can re-calculate your destination if you run into a heavy rush hour throng. The marketing material said it all, “Throw your maps away.” With that call to action implanted, I washed, waxed and cleaned my car the next week and threw away a binder full countless Google Map printouts. My fall from grace had begun.

Now I’m beginning to wonder: Has Sprint Navigation lessened my sense of direction? I’ve used my phone’s Sprint Navigation for exactly three years, and although there are places that I have repeatedly visited, I still rely on the phone to tell me how to get there. I’ll often have a lunch meeting in South Carolina, go back to the university where I teach, and then go to an AIGA event in North Carolina during the evening. I’m one of those people who needs a car charger for my phone, because if its battery failed while I was driving to an important meeting, I would never find it. (Don’t worry, I could still get home. My condition isn’t that bad.)

So what is this condition? Perhaps I’m more of a visual learner than verbal one. North Carolina State University professor Richard M. Felder studied and documented individual learning styles and published some of his findings online with NCSU’s coordinator of advising, Barbara A. Soloman. Their online document Learning Styles and Strategies identifies the types as: Active and Reflective, Sensing and Intuitive, Sequential and Global, and Visual and Verbal. According to their report, “Visual learners remember best what they see—pictures, diagrams, flow charts, time lines, films, and demonstrations. Verbal learners get more out of words—written and spoken explanations.” History has proven that viewing printed maps not only helped me get from place to place, but they also helped me learn my surroundings with greater assurance.

Should I go back to my printed maps, in an effort to learn my city by visual cues instead of verbal ones? One finding from Felder and Soloman’s article gave me pause: “Everyone learns more when information is presented both visually and verbally.” When using my phone’s GPS, I typically place it in my car’s cup holder to keep it from sliding around. Unfortunately, this puts the map out of view. Maybe it’s about time I spend the extra money for one of those suction-cup-footed dashboard holders so I can listen and look.

Tags Article Voice interaction design information design technology

Jason Tselentis is an educator, writer, and designer living in North Carolina. As Associate Professor at Winthrop University’s Department of Design, he teaches visual communication design, brand strategy and development, web design, and typography. Jason has volunteered as Development Director for the Charlotte AIGA and he has served on their Advisory Board since 2009 focusing on education and membership. His writings about design and visual culture have appeared in Arcade, Eye, Mental Floss, Open Manifesto, HOW, and Print magazines. He was a Print contributing editor. Jason has four books to his credit on design and typography principles, and design history. From 2003–2009 he contributed to the award-winning design forum Speak Up as an author. He has blogged for RockPaperInk and AIGA, and writes for and, and he's also contributed to Wired's Backchannel.