The Road to Know Where: Design for Navigation
By Phil Patton November 17, 2010
The Road to Know Where: Design for Navigation
By Phil Patton November 17, 2010
The Road to Know Where: Design for Navigation
By Phil Patton November 17, 2010

The Road to Know Where: Design for Navigation

Dragons have begun to appear on our dashboards and sea serpents on our mobile devices. The screens of our navigation units have very quietly, almost without our noticing, begun to acquire decorations like those of ancient maps: fictional elements, like the monsters than once warned sailors against traveling too far, the full-cheeked mythological figures of winds, the elaborate florid geometry of the compass rose.

John Ogilby's 1675 map of the Road from London to Land's End

Most GPS (global positioning system) manufacturers such as Garmin, TomTom and their digital media ilk have made maps abstract again. The perfectly highlighted green and red pushpins that mark the beginning and end of my usual journey suggest huge water tanks along the New Jersey turnpike. Even the most barebones functional maps are decorated with notional, stylized green hills and puffy clouds that garnish the roads on our navigation screens.

Choices among parallel lanes and schematics of freeway exits ahead are often represented by bold rods or ribbons. The design is in the tradition of John Ogilby's coaching maps of Britain, circa 1675, in which each road is depicted independently, like a literal scroll that is being unfurled. These are charming effects. But a new generation of units have brought glitzier effects and something like luxury to the dashboard.

“Luxury vehicles promise to deliver 'the best,' whatever that may mean,” says Virginia Postrel, author of The Substance of Style, who is working on a book about glamour. “That means giving drivers not just the most up-to-date technology—something that they can also get in much cheaper cars—but the most beautiful. Elegant displays, which extend sensory perception, contribute to the feeling of mastery.”

Dashboard and navigation screen in a BMW

I have played with some of the latest of them and agree. I can report that the Rolls Royce navigation screen looks the way I imagine the world would look to someone who could afford a Rolls Royce: it is softly tinted, fine grained and looks good from above. Rolls is the only maker I know to have established a consistent typeface throughout: everything from safety labels and the owner's manual to gauges and onscreen maps are rendered in an elegant, and aptly British, Gill Sans typeface.

BMW has outdone itself in providing attractive colors—including a powdery chocolate brown and faded indigo blue—for its screen. The landscapes on its navigation screens can make my state look like Tuscany. The way to Cheesquake and Bogota, New Jersey, appears edged with blue hills out of a Leonardo and wispy clouds from Piero della Francesca.

The push buttons rendered with almost trompe l'oeil literalism on the touch screen are even more painterly. Look closely and you can see the subtle reflection of an artist's face and a room behind him, like an effect in a Flemish master oil painting—Vermeer on the dashboard.

Buick's optional display offers carefully crafted miniatures of notable buildings and sites such as Comerica Park in Detroit; way out-of-scale but as neatly rendered as if it were inked on a papyrus map.

We also now have more choices in the voices that guide us. TomTom got attention when it offered Burt Reynolds and Homer Simpson. You can now get Darth Vader or Bob Dylan or 50 more voices.

Maps now render traffic information with red or orange warnings. Soon it will pulse, with jammed freeways glowing like suffering nerves. In the near future, parking zones will glow yellow for metered limits, blink green for open spots.

But the advances are not just technical, they are aesthetic. There is a whole field of interface design here and a lot of art to these technical displays.

I love the pixel-perfect gleaming blue bubble on Google maps, with its radiating rings like radio waves, but I also enjoy seeing my spot on the planet marked, as it was in one luxury auto's system, with a lovely translucent disc, almost like a halo.

Such choices are highly subjective. I am a particular fan of the bird's-eye view over the flat map. I'm not sure why. Does it make me feel as though I can fly above traffic? Does it imply the view of God?

Bird's-eye-view illustrations were popular in the United States in the 1880s and 1890s, thanks to that novelty, the balloon. Images from on high were often used as promotional images for new towns in the west that were sure to be the next Chicago or next Kansas City. Some of the best examples are included in a classic book by historian John Reps called Bird's Eye Views: Historic Lithographs of North American Cities.

Example of a GPS screen with a halo-like "you are here" spot and painterly clouds in a blue sky.

Example of a GPS screen with a halo-like “you are here” spot and painterly clouds in a blue sky.

No map is “realistic.” Maps reflect the way we see the world and the parts we consider most important. Take Saul Steinberg's View of the World from 9th Avenue, his famous perspective of the way New Yorkers see the rest of the world.

According to Colin Ellard, a behavioral neuroscientist and author of the book You Are Here: Why We Can Find Our Way to the Moon, but Get Lost in the Mall, good navigation is all about storytelling—and in some cases fiction-making.

(Appropriately, for a study of our sense of place, the title of Ellard's book varies with geography: it is called Where Am I? in Canada and You Are Here in the United States. Perhaps the tentative, questioning tone of the former and the assertive one of the latter are implicit comments on national cultures.)

While humans don't have the innate navigation ability of, say, a sea turtle, Ellard reasons, what we do have is the ability to imagine places where we are not—even places that never were. But when we try to decide where we really are right now, that strength can be a weakness.

Navigating New York City in an Audi (left) and a Ford (right).

Ellard's emphasis on imagination reminds us that all maps are, in some sense, useful fictions, and some of the best ones are wholly fictional, such as Faulkner's map of Yoknapatawpha County, drawn at the request of one of his editors, Malcolm Cowley, or Robert Louis Stevenson's map of Treasure Island.

Peter Turchi in his book Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer explains that Stevenson's map preceded his novel. Stevenson was drawing rather aimlessly one rainy afternoon when he came up with the idea of the map. Stevenson wrote: “I made the map of an island that was elaborately and (I thought) beautifully colored… the shape of it took my fancy beyond expression; it contained harbors that pleased me like sonnets; and with the unconsciousness of the predestined I ticketed it 'Treasure Island'… the future characters began to appear there visibly among the imaginary woods….”

Maps can exist beyond paper or stone. Directions can be stories, even epics, as in the famous case of the song lines of Australia, Ellard writes. They work by virtue of a spiritual attachment to the landscape. Our spiritual attachment may be to technology instead. The cultures that are good at wayfinding are ones that have an eye for detail, Usually, this grows out of life on the land. But today even a basic sense of the cardinal directions is increasingly rare in a world that is more cut off from the farm and field. “We have lost a lot of the skills our forebears had,” says Ellard.

Navigation, according to Ellard, is ultimately about trust. Do you believe the story? Trust has always been critical: how much stock can we put in the directions given by the old farmer leaning on a fence with a blade of straw in his mouth?

Photo of a GPS screen in a Cadillac

It took many years to get drivers to trust electronic equipment to give them directions. Today we can have too much trust. Tales of drivers who blindly follow electronic instructions into disaster pop up in news reports with increasing frequency—the extreme being the case of the driver who continues on the road even though the bridge has been washed out. People drive onto train tracks or up one-way streets. In suburban New York, several trucks struck bridges too low for them to pass while following navigation units. The roads in question forbade trucks, but the nav units didn't know what type of vehicle they were installed in.

There are dangers inherent in simple software bugs, obsolete maps and systems that update too slowly for the conditions. Sometimes repair work or changes in the highway make the instructions obsolete. I saw this on the very first nav unit I tested, perhaps a dozen years ago. I recall the phrase the screen displayed when we arrived at a dead end not shown on the map: “infrastructure interference.” Which I would translate as, the real world got in the way of the map world.

Unnamed road on a GPS nav screen.

That danger created by the conflicting worlds of map and reality has increased, thanks to the very attractiveness and style of the improved screens. The problem lies in the possibility that, as Tom Vanderbilt put it in a recent piece in Slate, “drivers, lulled by the richness of the visuals, might begin to focus excessively on this detailed, unscrolling world to the exclusion of other events.”

The world seen on the screen risks becoming more attractive than the one seen out the windshield, but then that is the threat posed by all media if abused. “You can make the same argument about any technology,” says Ellard. “Television can be educational but it's not good to watch it 16 hours a day.” TV brings us more sports to watch than ever—and reduces the time we put into real sports. Audio guides in museums can distract from seeing the art before us. Our lives are full of technology like this. Navigational guides may be the same way. We build clever model worlds to help us figure our way in the real world, then we forget the difference between the two.

Not long ago I was playing with the navigation software on my iPhone. I wanted to show my wife how familiar neighborhoods looked in satellite view. I kept my head down, looking at the device. She kept moving.

“Don't you want to see where we are?” I asked.

“I know where we are,” she said.

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