July 18, 2022

There and back

When I was young (and this was all fields, etc.), when I’d ask someone where they’d been, the reply was often ‘there and back to see how far it is’. Which usually meant, none of your business, nosey.

It never really occurred to me what a strange turn of phrase it was – a kind of pointless journey, that on reflection these threads often drag me along. Often with no idea where I’m headed, but amusing (to me at least) to see where I end up. There’s not a map for this stuff, nor any reason for one – exploring is the fun and function of it – but maps are great things, and we hardly ever use them now as everyone has apps instead, which tell us where to go.

So rather than using maps to ‘discover’ things, we simply listen to the instructions to get someplace. It’s all very efficient, but sadly, helping us lose the ability to enjoy the ‘getting there’ bit.

Unsurprisingly then, that an article caught my eye with the arresting headline – “Three-quarters of UK adults can’t read a map” and to quote:

“Of the 2,000 adults surveyed, more than half (56%) admitted they’d got lost because they couldn’t use a map or follow a phone app correctly, with 39% resorting to calling friends and family”

No clearer example of the Dunning-Kruger effect in, er, full effect.

There are some skills that seem so instinctive to me (like reading a map) that it’s easy to forget how rooted (routed?) our knowledge is in comprehending graphical representations of things.

In the article, one of the points was that a significant number didn’t know that the  symbol refers to a pub. Now while that icon speaks volumes to me, clearly there are all kinds of frames of reference that help fit it. And using symbols assumes a working knowledge of them, which clearly demonstrates how careful we need to be with ’symbolising’ things by replacement or as stand-ins.

Assumptions about cultural norms and references are things that we need to carefully guard against jumping toward. In Jerry Brotton’s (excellent imo) book ‘A History of the World in Twelve Maps’, what maps represent – far, far beyond a means to an end, as it were – are the ideas of their age.

So maybe it’s time the Ordinance Survey had a think about what map-readers might need today? I’d like to propose a guide to free mobile charging points and wifi signal coverage for starters. And maybe pubs with both. There’s a graphic challenge for someone.

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About Richard Hill

Creative director, writer, designer, illustrator based in the UK with global project experience and consulting skills across sectors.

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