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How do you organize space?

What is it about a specific place, building or location that holds significance for you? Is there a certain street that you just “like” and don’t know exactly why? Why do we find some places more attractive or repulsive than others?

Blob maps.

How do we organize and interpret space? Understanding how space becomes place by focusing on behavioral, multi-sensory mapping avoids the paradigmatic rigidity seen in traditional, cognitively designed maps and navigational systems. Blob mapping explores alternative methods of spatial communication and examines possible applications across various disciplines. We want to better understand how we navigate individually and the implications of social interaction with spatial decision making and behavior.

Designing Space

What is a map? Essentially a communication tool, maps help us to organize the physical world. Maps help us orient ourselves, especially needed in complex, urban spaces.

From cartographer’s daunting task of rearranging spatial information captured by warped photographs to Harry Beck’s genius simplification of the London Underground subway map, designers have always been responsible for communicating the physical world and in turn how we use it. 

The Problem

Oversimplification

Systems designed to simplify an environment often include overly-generalized iconography and categorization. In some cases basic, visual references function perfectly, but the issue arises when boiling down a complex environment to its bare bones neglects or restricts organic movement and our freedom to interpret space on an individual level.

Technology

Systems designed to simplify an environment often include overly-generalized iconography and categorization. In some cases basic, visual references function perfectly, but the issue arises when boiling down a complex environment to its bare bones neglects or restricts organic movement and our freedom to interpret space on an individual level.

Mono-sensory

The available systems both printed and digital for navigation are primarily mono-sensory. In general, our experience of the real-world goes beyond the visual; we aren’t just a blue dot on a map. We organize and understand space by collectively piecing together our individual experiences. Every taste, smell, touch, sound and sight is embedded in a memory that constructs experiences. Therefore, shouldn’t spatial information be communicated in a similar way?

Borders & Zoning

Systems designed to simplify an environment often include overly-generalized iconography and categorization. In some cases basic, visual references function perfectly, but the issue arises when boiling down a complex environment to its bare bones neglects or restricts organic movement and our freedom to interpret space on an individual level.

Effects

Social Interaction

The way we move through a city and how we interact with the other people in that city is highly dependent on your reason for being there. Our attention is pulled in different direction depending on what you’re trying to do. Think about how a group of tourists would behave in a place versus locals and how the interaction between these groups of people would effect their perception of that space. Social disconnection potentially reinforces division between groups of people.

Cultural Influences

Culture and social interaction both virtual and real play a huge role in our usage and interpretation of space. Popularity, hashtags, ratings and reviews govern how we explore space before we even arrive in that place.

Understanding Space

Making Sense

We make sense of the physical world by adding meaning. Meaning doesn’t have to be scientifically factual though. Spatial explanations have originated from simple, empirical conclusions that evolve into myths and legends such as the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland. We can better grasp and navigate a physical world that is familiar. 

Orientation

We are each conscious of our existence in space. Orientation is the realization of our body’s movement and position in relation to others and our surroundings. We need to be able to stop ourselves from bumping into another person on the street and understand which direction is north. Only once we understand where we are can we begin to deliberately move through space, to navigate.

Navigation

Maps, signage and wayfinding systems today tackle the fundamental task of navigating from point A to point B. Expansion of urban spaces has resulted in more people and less space.

Interpreting Space: Cognitively

We don’t have to rely entirely on maps or signs to point us in the right direction. Our brain processes all things navigational and spatial information in a part called the hippocampus. Further, there are basically two types of navigators, “creatures of habit” who navigate based on definitive directions, and “cognitive mappers” who mentally orient themselves in a physical space. Our interpretation of the physical environment isn’t the same across the board however. Age, culture, and language all affect how we process spatial information.

It gets a bit more complicated; navigation and reading a map require problem solving on the user’s end. All sensory information is processed in the cortex of our brain. So when we look at a map, written directions or our GPS location, we are interpreting something we see. However, you’re probably simultaneously processing all the other sensory output of an urban place; sights, sounds, smells… So our brain is overloaded with information and then has the additional process of taking that information you’ve just read on a map and sending it to the hippocampus for spatial and navigational decision making. So don’t feel bad the next time you get lost in a new city.

Interpreting Space: Behaviorally

Jane Doe visiting Italy for the first time and bouncing between overwhelmed and excited, drank her very first espresso at the cafe in the Santa Maria Novella Station in Florence. She burnt her tongue, hated the taste and laughed about her choppy Italian with the barista. Now, when she reflects on Florence as a whole, this memory and the lasting affective state come to mind. In Jane’s head, the train station is linked to this experience. Jane’s place attachment specifically to the Santa Maria Novella Station in Florence encompasses both aspects of place dependence in her search for coffee as a consumer and place identity connected to the personal, symbolic meaning of her first espresso.

We construct our underlying regard towards a place with experiences that are of emotions and memories that translate into affective states (an overall mood or regard) and thereupon place attachments. 

Blob Maps

What would be the best way to gather feedback about spatial awareness? In order to understand, we must observe. Before we are able to speak a verbal language, our primal mode of communication as infants involves gestures, touch and noise. With blob maps, we gathered feedback in the form of non-linguistic, tactile communication- clay or blobs and applied a psychogeography approach in understanding the effect of physical geography on our emotions and related behaviors

Blob Map: Current Home
Participant: Bridget Hannah
Blob map: Florence, Italy

What is a Blob Map?

Taking the research and understanding I have done regarding directional navigation and mental orientation, I wanted to further understand our unfiltered interpretation of space. What does a place you are familiar with look like in someone else’s mind?

With a piece of white blank paper, a pen and a colorful array of playdough. I asked myself and others who made blob maps to “use the clay to portray your personal connection to this physical space” focusing on large, urban spaces. The aim was to vaguely frame the instructions as to elicit the most organic responses and avoid any type of partisan responses by not including any predefined city segmentations, zones, or icons.

Where We Blob

I wanted to understand how our blob maps differ based on length of stay, general familiarity and native status. Our biggest cultural influences come from the place we consider to be our native, hometown.

Familiarity

Does having been physically present in a place equal familiarity? Participant’s uncertainty was evident during the creation of blob maps of foreign places they had never physically visited. There was much less tactile contact during the clay formation than participants who created blob maps of familiar, native places.

Native Places

Participant Camilla Torna
Native home- Florence, Italy
Blob map: native home- Florence, Italy

Foreign Places

Participant Franco Leonardi
Native home- Castelnovo ne’ Monti, Italy
Blob map: foreign place- Amsterdam, Netherlands

“Home”

Our biggest cultural influences come from the place we consider to be our native, hometown. This however doesn’t necessarily mean that we culturally identify with the place that we spent our childhood. Our memories and experiences in a highly familiar place have surely evolved over time and our overall impression and understanding of that place is much more complex compared to others. Is there a time frame or level of comfortability that must be reached before calling a place other than your hometown “home”?

Current Home
My Personal Blob Map
Blob map: current home- Florence, Italy

Native Home
My Personal Blob Map
Blob map: native home- Tulsa, Oklahoma

What We Blob

Once we have a frame of reference for place, what exactly is it that we are creating with these blobs? From what I observed, people repeatedly depicted significant places, people, sensations, and city structure.

Significant Places

Most smartphones take your location data and compile a list of what they call “significant places”. These are the places you’ve been most frequently visiting physically. With this data, we can consider whether or not frequency of visitation equates to personal significance by comparing the smartphone’s significant places to blob maps.

How We Blob

The process and techniques I observed others using while making blob maps varied between use of color, shape and dimension, touch, and relativity. Additionally, the starting point of a blob map differed among participants.

Some immediately began with the space where they live. Does the order in which we create blob maps linearly mimic our learning of that space? If we create blob maps of places without a “home” where do we begin?

When We Blob

How are blob maps related to time? Participants that created a blob map of a place where they presently were able to indicate their exact location within the map. Some blob maps are essentially a moment, a memory in blob form while others reflect the passage of time or a cohesive impression built upon experiences.

Martin and his wife Daniela sitting on a bench by the sea.
Martin Foessleitner
Trieste, Italy

Future Blobs

More Effective Communication

Tactile communication is invaluable. Previous research and blob map observations have supported the position that communication outside of a verbal language is conceivably even more effective. How then could we apply this innovative perspective towards fields heavily focused on designing information? A better system for communication has potentiality in advancing the ways we interact singularly, as a whole, between cultures and with our environment.

Cognitive – behavioral shift in mapping

Blob mapping is a shift in the way we think about mapping our environment. Cognitive mapping, signage and wayfinding systems don’t currently take into account our subjective interpretation of the physical world. When we navigate through space, it is so much more complex than understanding what streets to take and where to turn left. Our individual spatial organization is further complicated by social and cultural interaction. Blob mapping opens up the discussion of “how and why” instead of simply “where” we navigate.

Reimagining Space

Blobs allow us to examine space without the influence or restrictions of walls, obstructions, floor levels, accessibility. With blobs, space is fluid and envelopes an area, it doesn’t have to be contained to a room or a zone. Urban expansion has started looking towards the sky. More densely populated areas can’t eternally grow horizontally, at some point vertical space must be considered.

AR blobs

Using what is available now, I decided to experiment with viewing and experiencing our blobs in augmented reality. After creating a blob map by hand with clay, we can then take those forms and visualize them in space through our phones, laptops, or AR goggles. Augmented reality offers the opportunity to carry our blob maps with us in our pockets, view them in real-time and understand our mental map from a different perspective.