Map how you see it!

The details we see on maps are the result of the mapmaker’s process to keep things in or out, presented in a combination of information and design.

Mental mapping

Cognitive science and research work in other related areas has shown we develop ‘place cells’ in the brain corresponding to points in the physical or conceptual environment and gradually build them up into a mental map of points, paths and, eventually, areas. The mental map we build revolves around the relationship between memorable locations and routes insofar as they are relevant to our needs.

The way our brains mentally map areas means that when we encounter a new area, we start with specific arrival and destination points. From there, we find out paths between these points. We build up knowledge of the area surrounding the points and paths and, gradually, areas of areas (”areas all the way down”). Step by step, we build up our knowledge and increase our mental maps until we have as much information as we need.

The stronger a mental map we have, the more confident we are about planning a way to reach our destination, and the more confident we are to explore new areas. Or to give someone directions by putting the mental map on paper like:

Long Creek

Long Creek Map sketched by Jeff Woodbury to show a photographer where to easily find polluted water for a shot.

Writers also put mental maps on paper when they are building there stories, to plot storylines in an imaginary world and play with ideas and revisions, like Tolkien did with this sketch of the journey of Frodo and Sam to Mount Doom:


But these sketches are still very personal and not always easy to read. If you want to share map sketches with a broader audience, including fast revisions based on the received feedback, we need a more clear and simple mapping method…

The universal mapping language

Maps are an efficient, straightforward way of communicating a wealth of information. They provide a rich experience, quickly answering questions relevant to the map user, for example:

Just as our brain uses just three basic elements points, paths and areas to map the structure of the world, so can we use the same three elements to make maps which can be shared with others. And on these maps we can use arrows to indicate action, notes or directions. So these are all elements you’ll need to know to make simple maps:

Mapping elements

The advantages of using just those universal mapping elements is that:

Living maps

For map users it is important that the maps follow the principle of ‘progressive disclosure’ – just enough information and not too much. So it is important that maps can be sketched quickly on the fly, e.g. on paper or on a (digital) whiteboard, for a dedicated purpose. Form follows function, so the looks are less important than the content and the consistent use of the four mapping elements (points, paths, areas and arrows).

When a journey based on a sketched map has started, the map must be updated immediately if needed, e.g. when circumstances are changing. And everything is changing very fast these days:

continues changes

Especially when makers, thinkers and decision -makers must work together it is important to have a set of common maps which are made via collaboration on a (digital) whiteboard. That gives everybody the opportunity to fill the holes in their own mental maps by aligning them with the whiteboard maps. It makes it also easy to discover the unknows, the things which need more exploration.

The best thing is just to start mapping with just points, paths, areas and arrows. For inspiration you can look at some of the examples below.


All examples, with the exception of the “a Trace in the Sand” journal subway map, are made with Excalidraw. The Excalidraw sources of the examples can be found in the excalidraw folder in this repository.

Mapping principles

I’m a great fan of Harry Beck, the designer of the modern London Underground map. He used these principles:

Subway map principles

A summary

In 2016 I made a subway map of the interesting articles and storylines of the “a Trace in the Sand” journal by the award-winning Architecture Consultant Ruth Malan. When you click on this map you get a full-screen version on which you can click the station names to go to the related journal article. This shows that maps are also useful to show the way through a huge amount of information. It’s the mapmaker who decides which articles will get a station on the map so the map is subjective, like all maps. But you can use the map as a starting point to explore the journal beyond what’s on the map.

Ruth Malan's Journal

Interaction map

I used this small map to explain the responsibilities of the technical team. This was just the part of a bigger map (and project) they needed to give them enough context to start their activities:

Interaction map

Problem solving

I made a map for people from 2 different companies working on a connectivity problem. One line was not working. The “novelty” is that I used numbers inside the stations which makes it easier to discuss certain points in the connections:

Problem solving (note: the real names which I used in the map are removed)

Learning (the OODA loop)

Often it helps to sketch your own map when you are trying to understand somebody else his (OODA) diagram:

OODA sketch

The nice thing of sketching your own version is that you get a whole lot ideas which you can map also very fast. And it’s easy to get feedback on your ideas by showing them on Twitter. Like I did with the following iterations, I improved with the help from Ruth Malan, Tom Graves and Oliver Baier:

OODA sketch

OODA sketch

Which ultimately led to this subway map:

Sketched Navigation

And sometimes it is also refreshing to sketch something from another perspective or direction, e.g.:

OODA sketch

The Hippocampus subway map

Well not yet, first I just need to test this:

Image Map Test


My way of working and the text on this page are based upon ideas and texts from Legible London: The Yellow Book A prototype wayfinding system for London and Barbara Tversky’s Mind in Motion: How Action Shapes Thought book.


You can contact me on Twitter