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Why schematics aren’t maps

Deirdre Wilson – Thursday, October 24, 2013   


Maps and schematics look very different to each other.  A schema is a system of organising information. We use schemas / schematics to:

  • organize information according to priority 
  • organize current knowledge 
  • provide a framework for future understanding.

Here’s a map showing the M80 from the Calder Freeway to Sydney Road

Here’s a schematic of the same stretch of road (click here for a more detailed view)
VicRoads M80 Calder to Sydney Road Diagram

Organising information according to priority

In our road schematics the only secondary roads showing are the ones that intersect the freeway / motorway. They are rendered in a different colour to the main freeway / motorway and detail about road marking and intersections are reduced, providing visual clues as to their level of importance. Any information that appears on the schematic has to have a purpose and its level of importance needs to be consistent with similar information already on the schematic. The proportions of the freeway / motorway are manipulated to prioritise content.

Through the use of a schematic, everyday situations require less effortful processing.tweet this

Organizing current knowledge

Through the use of a schematic, everyday situations require less processing effort. By organising what we know into a schema, that is shared by the group, thinking can then concentrate on how to manage the situation rather than how organise the situation. The shape of the roads has to be changed to fit into the available artboard but sufficient shape needs to be retained to ensure that the road and its intersections are recognizable, enabling the users to tap into their current understanding about how the road works. Zoom in and different location information appears as the bigger picture disappears. Zoom out and the road shape becomes apparent again.

Providing a framework for future understanding

Landmarks are standardised across all schematics so that shopping centres, schools, petrol stations, airports use consistent iconography. The way the road structure and features are shown is also standardised. These aspects of the schematic allow operators to move from one schematic to the next and read them the same way – whether that schematic is in the same room or on the other side of the country. Schematics provide cognitive shortcuts. By using the same style of schematic with the STREAMS software, users tap into their STREAMS knowledge as soon as they see one of our schematics. Any associations they have had with previous schematics of this type or with STREAMS are activated – and we work towards making sure those are positive associations!

This post is by Deirdre Wilson, Director of Hothouse Design – Australia's most sensible information design company.
Deirdre applies her background in industrial design and design management to the complex and wondrous projects undertaken by Hothouse Design.

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