Cyberspace, cognitive mapping and design: some stray thoughts

I apologize in advance because this is going to ramble. And be wonky. If it helps, please know that it all makes sense in my head.

Our professional development program at work – yeah, my new job has an actual interest in professional development – has us doing some reading each week and informally discussing the insights. This week we were asked to read a section from a human-computer interaction text. It got me to thinking about some issues, and then one of my co-workers had a comment that took me even further down the rathole.

Off the top, the whole literature of design is interesting to me because while I never had any schooling in it, my professional world has compelled me to learn. For starters, a lot of writers just worry about the words, and once upon a time my assumption was that if my writing was brilliant that was all that mattered. But I figured out along the way that if the design in which my words appear isn’t top-flight, then nobody is ever going to read it. The best writing I’m capable of producing can be doomed by subpar design because, as research has shown, people make conclusive and lasting judgments about the quality of a site in the first 50 milliseconds. Which is to say, well before they have the chance to even locate one of my words on the page, let alone process all of them.

But there remains a lot more to design than I’ve had a chance to think about. One of my co-workers has turned me onto Edward Tufte, who’s referenced in the reading, and his sense of how subtleties I’d never considered impact the audience has begun opening me up to more nuanced ways of thinking of about the importance of design factors that are completely invisible to the average reader. To employ a sports analogy, design is like refereeing: it’s usually at its best when you don’t notice it.

Another of my colleagues then had this comment: “I don’t like the term ‘website,’ because it’s not a place.” (The authors had been discussing site design in terms of spatial metaphors.) And all of a sudden I’m back in my doc program. Back in the mid-’90s there was a great deal of thinking on the subject of cyberspace – we did, and still do, think about the Internet as though it were a place. I suppose the whole conceit originally emerged from William Gibson and Neuromancer, which is where the term “cyberspace” was born. If you haven’t read it, it’s one of the most important books of the 20th century without question, and not just for this reason. The idea of the Net as place has thrived for a number of reasons, I suppose, not the least of which is that it’s a powerful, flexible, adaptable metaphor that helps us make sense of something completely new. It’s practical, in part because the spatial metaphor makes its seemingly infinite complexity a bit easier to approach.

But there’s also another angle. In my dissertation research I spent some time with Kirkpatrick Sale, Mark Slouka and the world of neo-Luddism. One of them – Sale, I think – once remarked about cyberspace that it was nothing new. What is cyberspace, he was asked, and his answer was that it was the same as the place where our minds interact with literature and art. The way we visualize the action and characters of a novel as we read? That’s cyberspace, he asserted. All the newfangled talk and vocabulary was simply a way of mapping this new medium onto our intellectual landscape. While I had some issues with other things Sale had to say, this one made a measure of sense.

In this way, my colleague led me back, by another road, to the idea that was bouncing around in my head as I read this week’s article. I first encountered the concept of “cognitive mapping” as an undergrad in a Social Psych class. If you don’t know the term, it basically describes how our minds perceive the physical world in which we live. Back in the old days before Mapquest social researchers asked people to draw maps, from memory, of the places they lived and where they frequented, etc. The maps almost never matched the actual place – we don’t always grasp distances, subtle turns in a road will have you facing west when you think you’re facing northwest, etc. I imagine the effect is amplified if you grew up where I did, in a world of endless curves and hills and lots of trees that closed you in. There were no visible landmarks, like mountains or oceans, and now when I look at maps of where I used to live in NC it’s amazing just how lost I really was in a cognitive mapping sense.

The same goes for the online experience. If you’re on a site you need to know where you are, where you’ve been, what the options are for where you’re going, etc. In other words, you need an accurate cognitive map of the place that you’re navigating.

I lived in Boston for awhile, and that’s the most baffling patch of land to navigate on earth. It doesn’t help that the fine citizens of Beantown don’t believe in signs. You can drive down a road and it will change names three times in three miles without you ever turning, and asking for directions is a shot in the dark. The locals know where they’re going, but when they tell you how to get from point A to point B, the result can be like wandering around Siena blindfolded in the dark.

The principles that this week’s reading discussed (and this goes double for Tufte’s writings) are all about enhancinging clarity in cyberspace – in the popular conception of cyberspace or in Sale’s sense. It works online, it works in art and lit, it works in Web design.

So yeah, fascinating.


  • For wht it’s worth, I had a Boston cop tell me they don’t replace street signs because the frat boys at all the universities in Boston routinely steal them to use as room decor.

    One of the most charming things about S&R is the serendipity. We’re a little too old for dorm rooms and bongs, but back then someone would say, “Hey, have you ever thought…” and come out with something completely off the wall. As adults, we don’t do that very often, and having an intellectual bong around is a nice touch.

    But I am not too struck by the observation that we think in spatial metaphors. In the first place, it’s about the most universal and easily observable metaphor we’ve got. Second, it works pretty well for most things.

    Watch out for Tufte. He’s right until he’s wrong. His arguments on information density are just plain wrong, although his anti-PPT campaign is wonderful.

  • I liked reading Tufte long ago. His first two books are in my office and often lent to students. So is his screed on PowerPoint. As a newspaper page designer, I liked his notion of the data-ink ratio. I think Frank’s probably right, however; Tufte does get a tad overly philosophical about information density.

    Perhaps the best design advice I ever received came from my sports editor when he asked me to lay out a partial page (the first of more than 25,000 pages I designed in my news biz career). John told me to:

    1. Have a good reason for what you do.
    2. Be willing to be wrong some times.
    3. Nothing last forever.

    Design is evolutional in nature. Over the years, I’ve come to think about (and teach) design in this manner: Design is instruction to the viewer about the relative importance of the elements in the design.

    Most of the lousy websites I see ignore these fundamental principles.

    Nice ramble, Sam. Enjoyed it immensely.

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