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Why schematics aren’t maps

Deirdre Wilson – Wednesday, December 19, 2018   

 

Maps and road schematics look very different to each but they are both still recognisably about roads. Not only do they serve entirely different purposes but they are used in vastly different environments. All of these differences affect the end result but it is the end purpose that has the most influence on the design.

A road schematic is a very specialised view of a road and its surrounds. It starts off as a construction drawing stripped of all extraneous detail. Specialist information is added. The proportions are changed, intersections and the distances between them are modified. The design is manipulated to allow it to scroll left and right. Contextual information is added to allow the schematic with work at the different zoom factors that will be applied.

Schematics are not maps, in fact they are nothing like maps. A schema is a system of organising information. Schematics are really useful for:

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

To illustrate the difference between a map and a road schematic here’s a road map showing the M80 from the Calder Freeway to Sydney Road.

And here’s the 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, priority is on the managed motorway. The only secondary roads included are the ones that intersect the motorway because these are the only roads that will affect the traffic on the motorway.

A consistent visual language is used to show the level of importance of secondary roads such as rendering them in a different colour to the main motorway and reducing the detail on road markings and intersections.

All data that is used to construct a road schematic has to have a purpose and live in a consistent visual hierarchy.

Organizing current knowledge or thinking vs organising

Thinking and organising are vastly different skills. By organising what we know into a schema thinking can concentrate on how to manage a situation rather than how organise it.

By using schematics, everyday situations require less mental processing effort.

A critical part of making sure the road schematics work to allow operators to think rather than organise, was to ensure that the operators could immediately recognise what part of the motorway they were looking at. Part of the knowledge that operators help was the ability to recognise intersections and roads by their shape. But to make our road schematics work in a scrollable format the shape of the roads has to be changed.

The schema of the motorway had to include shape for a zoomed out view and additional supporting information for a zoomed in view where shape was no longer useful as an identifier.

Providing a framework for future understanding

Creating a standardised visual language for describing anything on an ongoing basis is an efficient way to store and capitalise on institutional knowledge. A visual language is a schema. A visual language organising information so that it can be consistently applied. The result is that organisations need less brain hours spent on repeatedly organising information for each new event, instead they can spend brain hours on thinking about the situation.

One of the reasons we enjoy creating visual languages and schematics is this aspect of organising information once and for all because it fits with one of our values which is:

Rinse and Repeat – we work in such a way that anyone can pick up the thread and continue. This makes us efficient and effective and leaves plenty of room for creativity, passion and reward.

When we don’t have to spend time organising information we can spend time being creative which makes good business sense and creates a more efficient organisation.

The visual language for our road schematics includes landmarks which are standardised across all schematics so that shopping centres, schools, petrol stations, airports use consistent iconography.

The way the structure of the road and its 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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