A Map For Getting Places



Maps that outline a single building, like a mall, an office, or an apartment complex are usually straightforward. They mark the entrances and exists, they show stairwells and elevators, and every floor plan is basically identical. You’ll usually see something like this:

Theoretical Map

Using your floor as a reference you can quickly decide “Ok, I need to go that way, but first I need to go up one floor in the elevator”. This works because the floor plan is the same as the one you’re on, so all the spatial cues you’ve already picked up will continue to apply on the next floor, and because standard stairs and elevators travel completely vertically you’ll end up on the next floor in exactly the same position. 

These cognitive rules have been developed over time for the very reason that they make navigation simple. There’s no rule that elevators let you out on the same side you came in, and there’s no rule that you go up a floor using two flights of stairs (the second flight bring you back to your original position). But those subtle aides do wonders to get you around. You can walk into almost any office in the world, look at the directory to find your floor, head on up and just walk down the hall until you find what you’re looking for.

Those rules also make maps very simple. In the picture above, there is no reason, other than convention, to assume that the stairs on Floor 1 take you to the stairs on Floor 2. There are no lines drawn or arrows to indicate that or any sort of label. But because the floor plans are consistent, we just assume it. And it nearly always works.


That’s where creative architecture throws everything into chaos. Take my building, the Waterfront Lofts in San Diego.  It’s unique architecture poses several challenges:

The 1st and 2nd floors are not at all similar. Some apartments have others on top of them, some do not. Sometimes the you have to take a flight of stairs to reach the higher apartments, other times you have to take 3 flights. There’s no consistency in height, so even defining a “2nd Floor” is difficult. 

Stairs don’t always move you vertically. They may also move you horizontally such that on the 1st Floor the stairs begin at one end of the complex and when you reach the 2nd Floor you’re on the other end. 

No useful apartment numbers. Because it’s a bit of a maze, there’s no one line that can circle the complex and the architect evidentially decided to give up. The first apartment you encounter is number 22, if you go upstairs you’re in the 30s, and if you want to find number 1 you have to go to the furthest corner of the parking lot. We need numbers on the map obviously, but we can’t count on the sequence of numbers being helpful. If we use signs to point the right direction, we immediately end up with a sign that says “11-18 back outside and around the corner, 31-41 upstairs, and 22-30, 1-10 straight ahead.” This line represents the apartment numbers in sequential order:

 Apartment Lines


Of course, that assumes you’re able to fly through walls and from one floor to the next. If you were to actually walk from door 1 to door 2 and so forth, and I swear I made this as simple as I could, it would look like this:


Apartment path

No color coding. Apartment numbers are not only not linear, but they aren’t even based around contiguous spaces. If we color code the parking lot, we can group numbers 1-7 and 9, but they we leave 8 and 10 isolated. Likewise with the 20s. Hell, apartments 12 and 18 can’t even be reached from inside the complex, you have to go outside around around the block. This is what an attempt at color coding would look like (note that some of the numbers not grouped are not nearly as close as they seem due to walls: 

 Apartment Groups


 The apartment complex is so disorienting that packages get delivered to the sidewalk by our mailboxes, never reaching the door, and rather than buzz people in we go to the entrance and walk them to our door, they’ll never find it otherwise. How do you tell someone that the need to walk past 22-27 before reaching 8?



The mapping difficulty can be resolved just by understanding the what it’s trying to achieve. The goal is to get a first-time guest through the main entrance (the only one where you can get buzzed in) to the apartment they’re looking for.  With that in mind, quite a few liberties can be taken.

Stretching dimensions: Generally, floor plans are done with proportions and dimensions in mind. That’s fantastic if you’re doing a remodel, but when you’re looking for an apartment, you’re not counting paces to see when you reach the right door. This is the one big break we need to make this work.

Since proportionality doesn’t matter, we can warp the map to bring overlapping apartments onto the same 2d plane.  Apartment 40 is directly above apartment 29? Not a problem. We can stretch the stairs up to apartment 40 much longer than they actually are. All you need to know is where to find the stairs and the general direction you need to go. You’ll know you’re at the top when you get there, whether you get there in 10 steps or 20 steps. 

Combining flights of stairs: It takes 5 flights of stairs to go from ground level to reach apartment 36. Who cares? All that matters is you know which side you enter on and which side you exit on. I’m a bit torn on this solution because if someone is expecting a straight stair case and finds a back-and-forth stairwell it can definitely cause confusion. But trying to portray 5 flights back and forth proved incompatible with the goal of keeping all apartments on the same 2d plane. 

Shading: The real key that brought everything together. Since we’re break the mold, it’s important to convey that this map is NOT 2d, but rather a 2d representation of a 3d space. Gradients on stairs and shadows on bridges convey that dimensionality without having to explain “This is not your normal map”.

It gradients also imply direction. 16 and 17 are particularly hard to find, to get there you must first go up the  stairs by the entrance and down several small flights while you make your way to the back of the complex. It’s completely counter-intuitive, especially once you hit some rather dark hallways, but thanks to shading guests understand that they’re supposed to go back downstairs.

Since the numbers are placed randomly, it’s absolutely key that the numbers have the most contrast in the map. If the walls and lines are any darker, the random numbers because lost within the lines.


And here you are:

APT MAP finalYou now know where the stairs are, which to take and what direction you need to turn at the top of them. Apartment 35? Under the bridge, up the stairs, make a right.

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