Aris Venetikidis: Making Sense of Maps

Aris Venetikidis begins his presentation by providing a short description of how he lives where he does today. He quickly describes how his family migrated from Asia Minor to Greece originally to escape a genocide approximately one hundred years ago. Then, he maps out how since that event, migration has remained consistent in his family’s history. His father moved to Greece to Germany, where he studied, eventually married and began a family. This is where Venetikidis starts his personal story, stating that while he was born in Germany, he felt just as much of a foreigner there as he did in Greece. This meant that Venetikidis chose to migrate to Ireland, where he works as a graphic designer. He jokes that his family doesn’t understand what he does exactly, and then proceeds to jump into his presentation, which turns out to be largely focused on Dublin’s public transport.

Venetikidis is a graphic designer who works to organize information. He works professionally as a map designer, attempting to interpret and make sense of the maps we draw in our minds. Venetikidis describes this as an attempt to make sense of something that doesn’t make much sense itself, yet it is something we are all capable of doing. Map-making is simplified from travelling throughout an entire city, to simply determining how to travel between two locations in Venetikidis’ first example. He reinforces the idea that this seems particularly simple if you know the area you are travelling in, and that the real question is exactly why this is a simple process.

In order to demonstrate why this is such an easy process for us, Venetikidis reminisces on his own memories of arriving in Dublin twelve years ago. He explains that you find a base, typically your home, it is then possible for you to begin building a cognitive map of your environment. This is a map that only you can see in your brain, and all animals are capable of doing it, even if we all use different tools to make our cognitive maps. Venetikidis states that humans in particular do two important things in order to make a space their own. The first thing humans do is moving along linear routes, deleting or ignoring slight curves that we may come across in our paths. Venetikidis explains this be demonstrating how when we travel down a main street, we don’t think of all of the bends and curves that are in the street, and instead only acknowledge when we need to turn off of that “straight” path. These turns are defined in our brains as ninety degree turns, which then lead to more straight paths that we think of as side streets. We learn to connect from point A to point B, point A typically being a base, until we take a chance to try starting from different points, thus expanding and connecting our mental maps. He viewed this as a kind of “wormhole” effect or feeling. I found this overall explanation interesting because I had never recognized these behaviors in myself or anyone I know, but I can’t deny them existing. It is a unique example of how there are fundamental design principles that truly connect all kinds of people on a base level that most may have never considered before.

Venetikidis states that the second thing thing humans do to make places our own, is to attach emotional meaning to things we see along our linear paths. I also found this interesting, considering the fact that even when I drive today, I link more of my driving to landmarks of places I enjoy going to, than the actual streets they are on. Venetikidis continues to describe this trait with an example of asking an elderly Irish lady for directions in the countryside, and how she would tell you about a place her sister worked, and where she was married as reference points. Another great example is in the first paragraph, where Venetikidis himself uses this tool to demonstrate to the audience how he came to live in London, starting with the first migration to Greece. These storytelling patterns help us to abstract repeating patterns and recognize them later by taking the experiences and equating them to symbols. I noticed through some reflection on my own processes that the more a person knows a location increases the probability that they will have a stronger story-based pattern attached to it, and be more willing to explain it in such a manner. While we may connect known places through stories, mental mapping through stories are stronger based on the strength of a memory attached to it, versus simple facts attached to the places.

Venetikidis then continues to explain to the audience that if when people attempt to explain how to get to different places, they do so through straight lines and symbols. He presses the importance that compared to a street map, our mental map would never match exactly, and would actually appear incredibly wrong. That is because our mental maps are more diagrams or schematics than they are realistic maps. This caught my attention because I had never considered separating mental maps from accurate maps, yet Venetikidis’ observation demonstrates how many design systems we use, and equate to one another. Venetikidis explains that it really shouldn’t have been a surprise that the pinnacle of icon design today, the London Underground Map, was designed by an engineering draftsman instead of a cartographer or city map-maker. Harry Beck applying schematic diagram design principles to a map in the 1930’s, changed the way we’ve designed public transport maps since. Venetikidis then argues that the key to Beck’s map success was not only the use of schematic diagram principles, but the omission of less important information in conjunction with simplification. This lead to extreme geographic distortion of the map. Connecting stops simply based upon which stops were closest and furthest apart based on the time spent on the route helped to reduce confusion in the general public, but did not resemble the geographic maps at all.

At this point, Venetikidis connects back to his story about moving to Ireland. He discusses how tackling public transport is a whole new experience in comparison to travelling on foot, and since you can only get so far on foot, public transport is necessary. He shows the audience how he found the public transport in Dublin confusing, and then proceeds to explain how exploring these new systems will help to create a separate cognitive map. In this map, a route would be chosen, which is then perceived as a straight line, with all of the stops in a line along the way. Local bus stations found along the way, then create the wormhole effect typically found by taking a new street when walking. Venetikidis then explains how he couldn’t shortcut this knowledge through information maps, due to the fact that the maps had too much information omitted, such as route paths and station names. His solution for this was to draw his own, which worked up until all of the routes overlapped in the city center that couldn’t be deciphered. To fix this issue, Venetikidis applied the schematic diagram principles. The map was still too difficult to be deciphered to be useful, really only representing how overcrowded the city center was at the time.

As a map designer, Venetikidis has been researching to figure out what exactly is the problem with the public transportation system in Dublin. Much of what he found showed that the lack of a simple coherent public transport map was the crux of the problem. Venetikidis then began working with James Leahy, a civil engineer and a master graduate of the Sustainable Development program at DIT. They drafted a simplified model network together, distributing rapid-transport corridors throughout the city center and extended those into the outskirts. These systems would preferably get exclusive road use in some places, and would allow for high quantity and quality transport. Venetikidis wanted to ensure that the system would be easily distinguishable from the normal bus transport, and argued for light rail as the mode of transportation. All of the buses could then be removed, and only be reintroduced if an outskirt community had no way of accessing a rapid transport route, which the bus would then connect them to. This simplified system would also be capable of connecting to further transport modes throughout the city through this method. This method also allows for Venetikidis to show all of the stations and many side streets, their names, and a couple of landmarks along with the routes.

Venetikidis believes his new map it is a nice balance between reality and the language of simplification our brains use to create mental maps, which will allow it to be easily understood. He argues that we shouldn’t stick to accurate representation, but should work with simplification in order to make our public transport maps successful. His last line is that his family from Germany and Greece finally had an example to understand what he did for a living, tying back nicely to a joke made in the beginning of his presentation. This one story Venetikidis also ties back his own examples of the two things humans do to make locations their own. He gave us the linear line of his family’s migration story, the side streets were his own personal stories with map design, before returning back to his base linear street – his family’s migration story.