Geography 970

February 1, 2010

Giving Directions by Using Landmarks

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , — Fei Du @ 12:41 am

If you want to visit an unfamiliar place, what kind of way finding information do you find useful?

After I came to the United States from China, I’m very impressed by the clear and complete street labels. It is very convenient to give directions by using street names. Another natural method to show the way is to give some reference points or landmarks. For example, “when you see a gas station, turn right”. In fact, I’m more accustomed to this kind of way finding information.

I don’t know if it is right, but I think this is related to our spatial cognition or mental map. Using street names are more suitable for people whose mental maps mainly consist of lines while using landmarks are more suitable for those who use “key points” to construct their mental maps.

Also, for people who don’t want to remember a lot of street names, like me, using landmarks to give direction is also a good option.    

Google improved Google Maps India to describe routes in terms of easy-to-follow landmarks that are visible along the way. Google did this because the streets in India are poorly labeled, but I believe this can be another standard way in giving directions.  

The article:



  1. It must have been an interesting challenge for Google to redesign their turn-by-turn engine to include landmarks while selectively using street names. I’ve tried to navigate in India myself, and it closely resembled a tragic comedy. I literally had two men point in opposite directions when I asked about the location of street. However, they both knew where to send me when I mentioned that it was by a coconut stand.

    Comment by Jeremy White — February 1, 2010 @ 1:00 pm

    • In Egypt, I was warned about the tendency of locals to make up directions on the fly, to avoid the embarrassment of saying that they didn’t know how to get somewhere. I think Google should follow this policy — every once in awhile, throw something random and untrue in =).

      Comment by Daniel Huffman — February 1, 2010 @ 2:02 pm

  2. One of my favorite urban designers, Kevin Lynch, published a wonderful, and wonderfully short, book called “The Image of the City”. Basically, he argued that designers should try to increase the ‘imageability’ of a city. Make tall buildings. Have majore roadways end at landmarks like train depots, statues, or parks. Keep a clear hierarchy of connected pathways. Accentuate the differences between neighborhoods with architecture and signage.

    Lynch thinks that everyone operates through relative/landmark based mental maps. Although there is some evidence to the contrary, he shows that some cities have a much more imageable layout and are therefore easier for wayfinding.

    Does it still hold in the era of car-based GPS units and maps on handheld devices? I haven’t seen any research to confirm or refute the stuff from Lynch from the 50s and 60s.

    Comment by mattmoehr — February 3, 2010 @ 10:42 pm

  3. Lynch’s work from the 50s/60s has found new life in the realm of virtual and augmented reality and there has been lots of good science to discover how people learn and navigate both real and virtual spaces. From what I remember of that material, there are three basic navigation strategies that suggest different kinds of mental maps…in increasing order of sophistication:

    1. Proceedural: simple, linear directions (e.g., left, right, right, go 3km). Great until you get off-track and have no idea how to get back into the simple sequence (e.g., a wrong turn is a disaster).

    2. Landmark: what Fei mentions, using visual cues to orient yourself (landmarks are “cognitive anchors” against which new information can be compared)…e.g., “keep the river on your left until you come to the big red bridge.” Many folks start here in a new city (e.g., I use the lake and Sears Tower is Chicago all the time for this)…and, with time, we advance to;

    3. Configural: Being able to “see” in you mind all of the components of the system (as if seen overhead from a map) and only then can you confidently get from anywhere to anywhere else. A wrong turn here is not a problem (just re-route).

    There have also been lots of studies on how to best train people to learn a new location: Sadly, some studies show that studying/previewing with maps is helpful but not as deeply remembered as learning-by-doing (e.g., wandering around and learning first-person). Lots of interesting questions about whether immersive learning (3d maps) are better than traditional 2D maps, about learning with a map in-hand while walking, etc….but not my field of expertise.

    Comment by markharrower — February 5, 2010 @ 11:32 am

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