The Velvet Principle

How to Design Effective Pedestrian Maps and Plans

Published on Tuesday 12 March 2019

I recently heard about a significant wayfinding project where the client was very clear about not wanting a map as part of the solution. A map is usually considered a key component of the wayfinding for a large or complex environment. When visiting somewhere for the first time, we’re likely to look at a map to plan our route. Maps help us understand the local geography and develop our own cognitive map - improving our overall ability to navigate (something that mapping apps with their turn-by-turn instructions struggle to achieve). The design can reinforce the character of a place and be used to curate the offer and visit experience.

So a decision to exclude a map is a little surprising. However when you look at what needs to be considered and factored into the design, there is plenty of scope for things to go awry and colour the view of their effectiveness as a navigation tool.


What's Needed to Design an Effective Map?

Ultimately the challenge is to create an easy to understand diagram that enables people to identify where they are; understand the general layout; locate their destination and plot a route to where they want to go. Sounds obvious, but there are a number of elements to think about and a pretty long list of things to cover off including in no particular order:

You Are Here Markers

To successfully plot a route, you need to locate where you are relative to the end point. So maps should always include an obvious ‘You Are Here’ marker. 

Mechanism for Finding Destinations

You may know the name of the place you want to go to, but you need to be able to find it on a static map. For a relatively large area such as a town centre, grid-based systems are often used to pinpoint different locations. For something a little more contained e.g. a campus or shopping centre - individual buildings, shops or rooms may be numbered in a logical sequence on the plan. 

A list of destinations with their location references should accompany the map, organised in a logic so that they are easy to find. In road maps it’s usual for street lists to be ordered alphabetically. For shopping centres the retailers may be clustered under different product categories (e.g fashion, homeware etc); within a campuses by function or activity.


We typically describe routes and where we are by reference to landmarks. So including landmarks on a map will assist with plotting and executing journeys. They provide useful stepping-stones and reassurance that you’re going the right way. Including representative icons in the design will be more memorable and add interest to the map. But to work, the design needs to reflect the view you’ll see on the ground as a pedestrian, be scaled appropriately and not obscure other information.

Graphic Language and Terms

When we first encounter a new map, it’s likely we'll need to familiarise ourselves with it before we can start using it with confidence. Using terms and a graphic language that visitors are likely to be familiar with, will help to shortcut this learning.  When designing a map for a discrete location, it is worth researching the wider context to identify any existing wayfinding information a visitor may already have used. Analysing the graphic language and terminology to accommodate appropriate aspects within the design will help to ensure a smooth transition between these different environments.

Ensuring Consistency

Maps to assist with pedestrian wayfinding rarely exist in isolation. There is a good chance they’ll be one component in a system that includes directional prompts/finger posts and identification signs. At the risk of stating the obvious, the symbols and nomenclature used on the map need to align with those used on these other sign types (and vice versa).

If the map is being designed as part of a wider wayfinding deployment this is basic good practise and easier to control.However within cities, towns and well-established estates, there may be several different schemes in evidence - solutions that have been implemented independently, through the years in response to a particular need at that time. An audit of this content will identify precedents (and probably a few conflicts).

Less Can be More

Judgements are needed about the volume of information to include. Too much and you won’t be able to see the wood from the trees – not enough and you risk failing to meet basic information needs. For city/town wide schemes it’s not unusual to see a nested approach, that involves displaying two maps together. One showing detail about the immediate area and a second with less information, but covering a larger area to provide the wider context.

Substance Over Style

For a map that needs to fit within the broader brand collateral, the challenge is to balance the drive for uniqueness, with a diagram that will be recognisable in the physical environment. Highly stylised maps can look great and help communicate the quirkiness of your brand. But take too many liberties with the relative positions, scale and distances between different features to suit the design and you will impact on the legibility and ultimately the usefulness of the information.

Heads Up - No Question

And of course - it’s got to be heads-up. When looking at the map, the orientation needs to reflect what you see ahead of you in the physical environment. While it might be operationally easier (and cheaper) to opt for a single North-South design for all sites, people find it difficult to do the mental gymnastics required to transpose the orientation so that it fits the view in front of them.

But ultimately the only real way to check whether the design is fit for purpose is to test it with volunteers that are unfamiliar with the territory and see how easy they find it to use.


If you're interested in discovering more about map and plan design:

Wayfinding Consultants Tool Box; Maps Vs Plans

Icons, Pictograms and Symbols

The Importance of Landmark

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Mall map for Trinity Leeds shopping centre showing how the centre fits the wider town context and complete with a 'You are Here' marker, numbered units for each store and named retailers as landmarks.Oldham town centre map with grids to assist with finding your way round. Colour is used to differentiate between different activity zones to help people to get a sense of the town.Four different orientations of the town centre map for Bracknell Town ensure people looking at the maps have a 'Heads Up' view.