A Sense of Direction or a Direction of Sense?

A Sense of Direction or a Direction of Sense?
The Teaching of Experiential Graphic Design with Neuroscience
Kathleen Meaney


The following article was first published on Design Observer in 2015. It showcased work from an experiential graphic design course (EGD) taught at the University of Cincinnati, College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning (DAAP).

Collaborating with the non-profit Groundwork Cincinnati Mill Creek, students proposed a sign system along a major industrial riverfront — the Mill Creek — for its current and future trail system.

The river itself had long suffered from a history of industrialization and pollution, which destroyed ecologies, fractured communities, and disrupted histories. Wildlife had left. Food deserts remained. Could restoring this watershed rebuild life, in all forms, along the river? This was Groundwork’s goal. Ours was a bit more focused: How could a trail system connect people to an area that had been forgotten, educate them about its ecology and history, and enhance their daily life? Given the scope, research was done in groups that ranged from environmental, historical, cultural, recreational, to political topics.

While this enquiry was happening, discoveries in neuroscience were unfolding. Within the span of a week, two publications on newly found grid cells in the hippocampus emerged. As science was detecting how we navigate internally, we were discussing how we navigate externally. There was clear overlap. And it was clear that these fields needed to be taught together. But how?

It’s important to note that the focus of the class, unlike this paper, was not scientific. Neuroscience was introduced in a limited way — as a teaching strategy. (Only two classes were allocated to address scientific findings.) Nevertheless, the exposure helped us develop research questions that were both site specific and brain-centered. It allowed us to stay current with the field of science, and to consider how a hybrid EGD class could be taught in the future. And it got students thinking in new ways.

The following text has been updated to accommodate teaching methodologies.

Josef Müller-Brockmann’s seminal text on grid systems may need updating due to the discovery of a new kind of grid. This discovery is probably not what you’re thinking, rather how you’re thinking. Let me explain.

Grid systems guide design — they can both direct layout and direct the eye as we interpret layout. They basically help us navigate space. The navigation of physical space may rely on grid strategies too, through our internal mapping. The discovery of specialized cells found in the entorhinal cortex of the brain seem to fire in “amazingly regular” patterns [[1]], i.e. grids, suggesting that our brains map our external surroundings. Mind blowing, right?

In 2014, scientists May-Britt and Edvard Moser were awarded the Nobel Prize for this discovery. Working with lab rats, they noticed that a grid cell’s “active firing positions form a hexagonal pattern that spans, for each cell, the entire local space available to the animal.” [[2]] In other words, as the animal explores environments, their brain dynamically graphs the area, building an internal coordinate system. And interestingly enough, this may reveal how the brain is computing and not just sensing.

How we self-locate, navigate and even remember events in space is a complex cognitive function not yet fully understood. What is presumed is that our internal models integrate information from different types of cells: grid cells, place cells, head direction cells and border cells. Let’s briefly define these.

Methodology #1: Introduce EGD students to the biology of the brain

In “The Wayfinding Handbook,” David Gibson explains that “when people attempt to navigate a place for the first time, they face a series of decisions as they follow a path to their destination,” and he continues with “there is a sequential pattern to this wayfinding process in effect, a series of questions that people ask themselves along the way.”

What is happening in the brain at this time? This questioning is purely cognitive. Wouldn’t knowing how things work internally — i.e. spatial learning — help inform how we design space externally?

Grid cells, as we’ve mentioned, map space. They build an internal coordinate system that helps in navigation. Place cells, which are found in the hippocampus, code environments. They continually ask “where am I now” [[3]] and fire based on field signals (landmarks, self motion, etc.). [[4]] Head direction cells act like an internal compass and fire based on changes in (head) direction. And border cells, you guessed it, fire at the edges of objects and environments. (Needless to say, these descriptions serve only in proxy to more complex functions.) All together, neural firing patterns “may determine how we perceive and remember our position in the environment as well as the events we experience in that environment.”[[5]]

Why is this important for designers? Well, for those studying experiential graphic design (a class I recently taught at the University of Cincinnati), it’s of obvious relevance. Perceiving and proceeding in space is what EGD investigates. Therefore, in determining “where to locate signs, what they should say, and how they should say it” [[6]], we should also be investigating “how we think it”. Context, content, and cognition.

What are our cognitive maps and how do we clarify them?

This is what Kevin Lynch explored in the book, The Image of the City. His approach gathered “material from psychology and the humanities” to investigate “how people perceive urban environments.” [[7]] Through interviews, sketches and qualitative analysis, Lynch identified five key elements that comprised mental maps: paths, edges, districts, nodes, and landmarks. We’re all familiar with his analysis. But in a recent read, because of these new scientific discoveries, it took on new meaning for me: I wondered, do we think in concepts of “landmarks” because of place cells; “edges” because of border cells; “paths” due to head direction cells; and “districts” from grid cells? How fascinating (to consider). Does biology, then, build reality?

Understanding how people understand space is where EGD begins. In the field of cognitive science there is “general agreement” on how people comprehend space. [[8]] It seems our spatial knowledge is organized into three categorizes: landmark knowledge, route knowledge and survey knowledge. (The artist in me starts to think: point, line and plane.) Landmark knowledge identifies objects and associates them with places; route knowledge sequences locations; and survey knowledge is map-like, recording metric distances and interconnectedness. [[9]] What’s more interesting is that “this progression, from least to most complex (landmark to route to survey knowledge) is also the order in which spatial knowledge is thought to be acquired; survey knowledge representing the ultimate state of greatest familiarity with an environment and hence requiring the longest duration of attainment.” [[10]] It’s worth mentioning that new research has  “challenged the notion of a strict progression from landmark to survey knowledge, pointing out that information on all three levels can be acquired in parallel…” [[11]] One question remains: Can the design and sequencing of signs help build better spatial knowledge?

Methodology #2: Teach design with the big picture in mind

Design is often taught on a scale from simple to complex: from the design of an object, to design in sequence, to systems design. This curricular model seems to resemble spatial learning —a progression from landmark knowledge, to route knowledge to survey knowledge (“landmarks” comparing with “objects” and so forth).

However, if spatial knowledge is indeed acquired in parallel and not as a strict progression from simple to complex, should design curriculum follow suit? In other words, would students learn better if exposed to a survey view (i.e. the overall context) while investigating landmarks (i.e. designing at the objects level)? I think so.

Taking this into consideration, our class began by reviewing a comprehensive sign system at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanic Garden. Student witnessed the field of signage, first-hand, through a range of signs — identification, directional, informational, regulatory, and interpretive. They navigated new spaces, audited sign performances, reviewed communication strategies, and fabrication techniques. And arguably, this context elevated design solutions and helped ground learning whilst designing for the Mill Creek.

EGD should really stand for “exponential” graphic design. Oh the possibilities when you add a “z” to your Cartesian coordinate system! My students delighted in new dimensions: multi-sided design, multi-modal experiences, multi-layered messaging. Typography was gauged not only by language and legibility but also by vantage points and velocities. Measuring the difference between expert and first-time users, mapping strategies, and mobility was up for discussion. So too was neuroscience.

I teach EGD like I design for it: from different perspectives. Our neuroscience “research” started with a RadioLab episode, extended to a TEDTalk, and concluded with a conference call. We encountered new terms: path integration, place signals, allocentric space, episodic memory, remapping. For those who think aerially (50% of the class), an animated infographic helped ground new information. It was only after watching a video about the Kavli Institute, were we on a first name basis with May-Britt and Edvard (and their adorable rat June). Exposing students to a new topic from different perspectives, across various media, concretized knowledge quickly.

Methodology #3: Diversification as a teaching strategy

The purpose is to expose students to new science from different perspectives and diverse media. This repetition of information, delivered from different vantage points and media channels will hopefully concretized new content. In the book “Human Learning” by Jeanne Ellis Ormrod, repetition of information is called “redundancy”. This practice helps students effectively select meaningful information in order to store that information in long-term memory.

As a class, we got thinking: What are some ways that signs or placement of signs can clarify spatial representations? Should signs communicate in terms of self-movement (steps as opposed to distances)? Should maps offer multiple representations of space (detail and distal views, hidden perspectives, predictive sequencing)? Should signs be made of multiple sensory items? Should signs be designed to act more like landmarks (offering perceptual salience)? Do they organize information in such a way so as not to tax working memory? Are they placed strategically, at the borders of environments or edges of surfaces? Or should signs be eliminated altogether, to force exploration? All in all, our inquiries served merely “to capture ideas and to suggest how they might be developed and tested.” [[12]]

Methodology #4: Testing

Does the design of our environment reflect how our brains think? In the article, “Navigating Complex Buildings: Cognition, Neuroscience and Architectural Design” Dalton, Spiers, and Hölscher propose that “if a large enough sample of spatial systems (rooms, buildings, neighborhoods or cities) can be analyzed in such an objective manner that any underlying spatial commonalities can be clearly identified then such universalities might also be able to tell us something about how people conceptualize space.” Translation: Maybe the function of space reflects the function of the brain. Fascinating. To decode perception, then, do we need to simply decipher environments?

This example reaffirms the importance of testing. Designers need to start working with neuroscientists and cognitive scientists to test how we understand, navigate and ultimately design for space — a process by which could be integrated in design curricula.

Whether or not you have a strong sense of direction, you can see where design is heading: inside the mind. The brain is the new frontier. Our field is changing based on discoveries in spatial and visual perception. Is the “new role of a graphic designer … to direct the cognitive and emotional processes of the audience?” [[13]] Only testing will tell. We previously designed signs systems. We currently design (for) a thought process. Understanding the user’s navigational needs, then, requires a meeting of the minds.



[1] Burgess, Neil. “How Your Brain Tells You Where You Are,” 2011. [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/neil_burgess_how_your_brain_tells_you_where_you_are?language=en

[2] Moser, May-Britt, and Edvard Moser. “Crystals of the Brain,” 2011. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3377059/

[3] Burgess, 2011.

[4] The 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was also awarded to John O’Keefe for his work with “place cells” — initially discovered in 1971 by O’Keefe and (John) Dostrovsky.

[5] Moser, Edvard, Emilio Kropff, and May-Britt Moser. “Place Cells, Grid Cells, and the Brain’s Spatial Representation System,” 2008. [PDF file]. Retrieved from: http://amygdala.psychdept.arizona.edu/Jclub/Moser-Annreview+2008.pdf

[6] Gibson, David. The Wayfinding Handbook: Information Design for Public Places. Princeton Architectural Press, 2009.

[7] LeGates, Richard and Frederic Stout. The City Reader. Routledge, 1996.

[8] Dalton, Ruth, Hugo Spiers, and Christoph Hölscher. “Navigating Complex Buildings: Cognition, Neuroscience and Architectural Design.”  Studying Visual and Spatial Reasoning for Design Creativity, edited by John Gero. Springer, 2016.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Montello, D.R. “A New Framework for Understanding the Acquisition of Spatial Knowledge in Large-Scale Environments.” Spatial and Temporal Reasoning in Geographic Information Systems, edited by M. J. Egenhofer and R. G. Golledge, Oxford University Press, 1998.

[12] Kevin, Lynch. Image of the City. Birkhauser, 2014.

[13] Malamed, Connie. Visual Language for Designers: Principles for Creating Graphics That People Understand. Rockport Publishers, 2009.

A special thanks to David Eyman and Kelly Kolar, with whom this course was co-taught.

The original text can be found at:
Design Observer