I made a map. What makes a map?

Merriam Webster says a map is “a representation of the celestial sphere or a part of it.” My map isn’t an original rendering of a space, but rather an existing space marked with my own landmarks and vectors.

My map locates all of the cities I traveled to during my study abroad trip last summer, but categorizes them by weekend. I wanted to make it easy for my family to follow my trip or travelers to recreate for themselves. Organizing a logical progression of landmarks and travel required more foresight than I expected. Once I began geotagging sites on the map, I realized the importance of navigation between them and creating it in a way that led users naturally through the journey.

Navigation and space matter online.

My map contains a sidebar that allows users to filter the landmarks by weekend. This served two purposes: to enable more facile navigation and also eliminate visual clutter. I had to put myself in the shoes of someone unfamiliar with the geography so that I would approach the map with no expectations. When you approach a new site, you look for clues to help you navigate through the site, like tabs, scroll bars, and descriptive headers. With a blank map and limited widgets to enable navigation, I had to improvise with the sidebar. Even still, a platform like Google Maps, that is used so widely and frequently, is much more intuitive to users than an alternative mapping software might be. So Google’s site did a lot of the navigation work for me; familiarity with a space increases our ability to traverse it efficiently.

If I design my map well, the experience should be seamless. The discipline of Wayfinding refers to the way designers create spaces and cues that help people traverse through them with little to no difficulty. If it’s done well, you won’t notice the way you go through the space. If it’s done poorly, then the journey is painstaking and frustrating. This article explores the design process in airports that can be seamless because of foresight and planning of the user experience.

Digital maps tell stories.

England is a country, part of an island, a historical landscape, the mother country to America, with culture, history, conflict, politics, and experience. The ways of describing any country are infinite. Digital maps are just one medium among many that can tell a part of the story. The features of a map-topography, national borders, etc. are helpful, but the 3D experience of Google maps, in which you may zoom into see more details about the space is an amazing source of information. To zoom in and see exact landmarks, roads, public transporation, and traffic patterns adds another layer of practical use to maps.

Spatiality is one of the four affordances of digital media, or one of the opportunities we have as designers to create something meaningful online. The medium of a map enables a different means of communicating an idea. When I want to explain the mileage I traveled or have users visualize the geography of Great Britain, a map provides a digestable representation of the space. It is difficult to form a true connection to the space without a physical one, but digital maps can describe a place for someone who will never travel there.

Maps lead us through spaces but people must inhabit the space.

While maps in themselves are a medium and message, they are limited in terms of their ability to communicate a full picture. While knowing the geographic journey of my study abroad trip can provide a sense of space, setting, and context, as well as time and travel, the map alone cannot convey what the spaces meant to me. The significance of the place must be told through other means-words, pictures, video, etc. Even tagging the locations with identifiers like “my favorite place” may not do much to convey significance.

Matthew Schanuel says, “Places are one of the vocab­u­lar­ies we can use to “speak” to our­selves. Because this phe­nom­e­non ulti­mately resides in our own selves, dig­i­tal geog­ra­phy can be just as mean­ing­ful as phys­i­cal geog­ra­phy.” Perhaps so, but the meaning must be connected to a personal experience. The reason I wanted to map my study abroad trip at all was because of the deep connection I had felt to the physical space that I wanted to preserve. I maintain that connection to Oxford, England by following several Instagram accounts that post photos of the city, places I can recognize from days spent there. Recognizing unique landmarks helps me remember the experience and solidify my affections for it as a temporary local. I also follow a blog of a family who lives there, because I want to live vicariously through them. By mapping my trip, I root my experiences in real places, thereby validating and replicating them for my own sentimental use and hopefully, for the use of people planning their own travels abroad.

Ultimately, this map cannot provide the same experience I had in Oxford. But its “street view” navigation gets me pretty close. Schanuel also says, “Spatial real­i­ties can serve as a mir­ror that reflects one­self, or one’s for­mer self, or even who one might become.” When I explore Broad Street on Google Maps, it’s as if I am transported back there, inhabiting the space as the person I was then. For example, I see the gates to Trinity College and immediately remember carrying my backpack through there daily, greeting the porters, and sighing to myself about how completely dreamy Oxford is.

In anticipation of my nostalgia, I took thousands of photos. To see the same corner of a building on Instagram as one I photographed, but in a different season, aligns my physical experience with the digital one. In the same way, my map reminds me of the paper maps I used abroad, reminding me of the journey and experience navigating between cities. Mediums like digital maps and Instagram may not be the same as a vacation there would be, but no trip could be the same as my first anyway. The digital experience is a pretty fantastic alternative as it reminds me of the original trip and my five senses associated with the memories of a perfect trip that cannot be perfectly replicated.

Original photo taken in June 2015
Instagram photo taken in September 2016