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. This was a little surprising – as maps are a key wayfinding tool for large or complex environments. We’re likely to use a map to plan our route when visiting somewhere for the first time. They help us develop our own cognitive map and understand the local geography – improving our overall ability to navigate (something that mapping apps with their turn-by-turn instructions struggle to achieve). The design can also be used to reinforce the character of a place and as a mechanism to curate the offer and visit experience.

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 usefulness.

What’s Needed to Design an Effective Map?

The challenge is to create a diagram that helps people identify where they are; understand the layout; locate a destination and plot a route.  Easy to say, but a little trickier to design – at the very least you need to consider the following:

You Are Here Markers

Firstly, to plot a route, you need to know where you are relative to the destination. So 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 the map. For a large area such as a town centre, grid-based systems are often used. For something a little more contained such as a campus or shopping centre – individual buildings, shops or rooms may be numbered sequentially on a plan. 

A list of destinations, arranged in a logical order with their location references needs to accompany the map.  In road maps it’s usual for streets to be ordered alphabetically. For shopping centres, we recommend that retailers are clustered, in alphabetical order 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 make sure to include some. When you plan and follow a route they provide the stepping-stones and reassurance that you’re going the right way. Use representative icons in the design as these will be more memorable and add interest to the map. However, the design should reflect the view you’ll see on the ground, be scaled appropriately and not obscure other information.

Graphic Language and Terms

To be able to use a new map with confidence, we need to familiarise ourselves first with the content. Using terms and a graphic language that visitors recognise, will help to shortcut this learning.  When creating a map for a discrete location, the designer should research the wider environment to identify existing information that a visitor is likely to have already encountered. Analysing this design and the terminology and adopting appropriate references, will enable a smooth transition between these environments.

Ensuring Consistency

Maps to assist with pedestrian wayfinding rarely exist in isolation. There is a good chance they’re 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 part of a wider wayfinding deployment this is  easier to control. However within cities, towns and well-established estates, there may be several different schemes in evidence.  Solutions may have been implemented over many years in response to a particular needs. 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 consider a nested approach featuring 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 design that needs to be ‘on brand’, 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. 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.

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 get around.

If you’re interested in discovering more about wayfinding and map design:

Wayfinding Consultants Tool Box; Maps Vs Plans

Icons, Pictograms and Symbols

The Importance of Landmark

Back to Blog
Mall map design for Trinity Leeds Shopping Centre
Mall map for Trinity Leeds shopping centre showing how the centre fits the wider town context. The design also includes a 'You are Here' marker, numbered units for each store and named retailers as landmarks.
Map design for Oldham town centre
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.
Image showing four different orientations of the town centre map for Bracknell
Four different orientations of the town centre map for Bracknell Town ensure people looking at the maps have a 'Heads Up' view.