Why your maps should get in touch with their feminine side

Google does it, Apple does it but do your maps use landmarks to improve users familiarity? More to the point, why aren’t popular landmarks a standard GIS dataset?

For more than 10 years now it has been known that the majority of the population use spatial recognition to navigate. When I say “majority”, I mean women & gay men….okay, controversial? Maybe, but the facts are there in black and white. There is a large divide between the spatial recognition which men & women have, this is believed to be rooted as far back as cavemen times, where men used to hunt they tend to create mental maps and then mentally superimpose their position on the maps, while women would gather & need to remember landmarks [1].

As reseach improves and more understanding comes to light, it becomes more evident that we may not be reaching our whole audience.

Let’s go over the numbers:

  • According to Geohive in 2010 there were 3,477,829,638 Males worldwide and 3,418,059,380 Females worldwide [2]
  • In February 2005, New Scientist found that Gay men read maps in the same way as women [3]
  • The Kinsey report states that on average that 10% of men are homosexual (35% have homosexual tendancies but can be ignored for this) [4]

So in total there are approximately (as of 2010), 3,765,842,343 men & women who are genetically ‘wired’ to navigate through the use of landmarks, which is over 55% of the world population. Of course, this is very generic and there will be a proportion of women who think like men and so on, these are only rough estimations based on research and known articles, but it does make you think…If over half the population navigate more using landmarks, why aren’t there more landmark based maps? Why don’t we see landmark focussed sat navs?

Let’s have a think about that…

Let me tell you a little story, I’ve recently been on holiday and the great thing about holidays is those tourist maps. What is great about them? They are designed to help you get around a city or town which you know nothing about but also show you all the sights you want/should/need to see. They can be really hit or miss but some are true gems, take for example this one:

Isle of Wight Tourist Map

Yes, even though I live a mere 20 miles away, I went to the Isle of Wight, but what you see here is a perfect example of a map based on landmarks. I have to admit, this was a pretty useful map, we had an idea of where to go and what we could see when we were there, but as a map to navigate by….it is dreadful. For starters there are no roads marked on to figure out HOW to get to the landmarks.
This got me thinking though, surely there must be some examples out there of maps whereby the designer has created a road map which shows landmarks for reconition?
Here are some of the better ones I found:

Landmark Map3 Landmark map 1map

I know these places pretty well (maybe not Hirafu so much) and if I were to use these maps, I would no doubt find where I was going with ease, even though I am a male and apparently use mental maps, the landmarks provide a good indication (on the ground) of where it is you are. From a non-geo person perspective, you can look up, see and relate to the visual object near you to identify where you are and where you need to go.
There was one map I found which was far superior to these, it not only had the landmarks on a very detail street map, but was also a scalable web map and there is also a mobile version. Not only did the landmarks have icons but also you could click on them to see them in 3D or even a photo….I am of course talking about Google Maps.
©Google Maps 2015
©Google Maps 2015
When looking at the research, it would appear that Google maps ticks all the boxes, it has a landmark on almost every street which allows for easy spatial recognition & from a cartographic point of view, the street map view is extremely clean and clear.

So should we all go out and mimic Google Maps?

No, not really. By looking at the sheer volume of tourist maps which use landmarks to show features, shows that there are a multitude of ways to display the information and to make the information easily digestible. It is true that Google have done an amazing job of making such a complete and easy product, it is a testiment to the years of development and user interaction, but is a navigational map, it makes it easy to find places and has to be extremely generic about it too.

Should we all mimic Apple Maps?

©Apple 2015
Maybe, though it wouldn’t translate too well to paper! Again, Apple have done an amazing job of create a product which has features which are instantly recognisable. Walking down the street you have no doubts about where you are and where to go to. Landmarks are obviously marked and road names are clear. I’m not sure what the street maps are like but these fly over maps are perfect for navigating by.


The point of this rather long winded blog is that there are more factors to consider outside of the cartography (see the OS cartoblog) when creating a map, the most important of those being the audience. If you know that your map will be used for navigation by women, then you may do well to consider landmarks and easily legible road names, as this blog suggests.
What if you AREN’T creating a map for women to navigate by? You could still consider landmarks as we all use some form of spatial recognition, when we look at maps on the web or paper, the first thing we look for is familiar patterns or locations, followed by names.
No matter how cool you wish to make your map, if it doesn’t make it easy for the user to understand, then it is failing its purpose.
Don’t worry though, if it fails in its purpose as a map, maybe it would do well at being a work of art….
Image courtesy of Emma Johnson
Image courtesy of Emma Johnson


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