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Episode 1 of the Applied + Disegno Podcast ‘Re-routing the City’ is now available
The first of the three-part series explores the phenomenon of navigational neuroscience

We often talk about people having a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ sense of direction. What does science say? Do we navigate cities and places in completely different ways to each other? The discussion will uncover how our brains conduct complex cognitive processes based on input from multiple senses that may help, or hinder, us in finding our way. 

Episode 1 of our Re-routing the City podcast is titled ‘Navigating Neuroscience and Design’ and is available to listen to now through Disegno's website, Spotify and Apple Podcasts. This first episode in the podcast trilogy features Applied’s founder and Creative Director Tim Fendley alongside behavioural neuroscientist Professor Kate Jeffery. Kate is a leader in the behavioural neurosciences of navigation, and host India Block engages in a conversation with the pair to explore this phenomenon. 

Together they consider what kind of interventions and choices designers, planners and architects can implement to design places that fit better with how our brains work.

From left to right: writer & editor India Block; Applied’s founder Tim Fendley; behavioural neuroscientist Professor Kate Jeffery

In the next episode which will be released in October, India is once again joined by Tim and guest Julia Thrift, Director of Healthier Place-Making at the UK’s Town and Country Planning Association. 

Episode 1: 'Navigating Neuroscience and Design' is available through Disegno's website, Spotify and Apple Podcasts.


Re-routing the City: Episode 1. Navigating Neuroscience and Design
India Block, Tim Fendley, Professor Kate Jeffery

Summary Keywords: map, brain, design, places, landmarks, direction, navigate, city, sense, colour, find, cells, rat, london, wayfinding, lost, street, environment, legible, recognise

India Block (0:06)
Welcome to "Re-routing the City" with Applied Wayfinding, a spatial experience design practice that makes complex spaces legible. "Rerouting the City" is a new three-part podcast series that navigates how we move around our cities today. Each episode, we invite an expert speaker from across neuroscience, academia, and city planning for a conversation with a member of the Applied team to discuss the new research and technological developments that could help reroute our urban spaces to be more accessible and enjoyable for all their users.

Hello, and welcome to "Re-routing the City: Navigating Neuroscience and Design". My name is India, and I'm the deputy editor of Disegno, The Journal of Design. I'm joined today by Tim Fendley, Founder CEO, and Creative Director of spatial experience design practice Applied, and Kate Jeffery, who's the Head of School of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of Glasgow. Kate is a behavioural neuroscientist, and her lab is focused on studying cognitive maps; the parts of our brains that underpin a sense of direction and how we locate ourselves in space. Tim and Kate are going to discuss the science behind whether people can truly have a good or bad sense of direction and the many different ways that we navigate cities and spaces. What does the neuroscience tell us about navigating urban spaces? And how should designers apply this knowledge to make cities and spaces that are easy and comfortable to find our way around? So, Tim and Kate, you share very similar interests, but you come from different backgrounds and perspectives. How did you meet each other? And how have you found those shared and common ground?

Tim Fendley (1:53)
Oh, I think we met at a conference, that's correct. And yes, we found we've got very similar interests but from a different perspective. My background is in practice and in how do we apply this kind of knowledge? And how do we make a difference in the world? And, Kate, I'm not going to speak for you, but you were coming from a different perspective of how: what's the neuroscience behind it?

Kate Jeffery (2:19)
Yeah, a very different perspective because I study rats, and I have done for a long time. And we're trying to understand the rat brain and this sort of navigation system that's been discovered. And actually, the conference where we met, I organised because it had been becoming increasingly apparent to me that what we've been finding out in the rat brain is very, very relevant to understanding how humans navigate, and I really wanted to get human navigation specialists talking to the neuroscientists. So we organised it, and the response has been very interesting because there are people from such different backgrounds, animal neuroscience, animal navigation, human neuroscience, people like yourself. And we had a lot of very interesting conversations, and that's really led to an ongoing interest, I think.

India Block (3:12)
And so first off, how would you rate your own sense of direction? Kate, I know you mentioned that you've got a bit lost on the way.

Kate Jeffery (3:21)
Yes. When you ask people, by and large, they often say, "Oh, I'm a terrible navigator." And I would say that too. But actually, I think I'm probably around about average, which is to say, I do get lost quite a lot of the time, but I usually manage to find my way to where I'm going. But there are some people who are just super good, and then they never get lost, and there are some people who are incredibly bad and to the extent that they're almost disabled by their disorientation. So there's a very wide range of abilities. Yeah, and I would put myself pretty much in the middle, I think.

Tim Fendley (3:56)
I think I'd unfortunately say I've got to be pretty good at it, considering my job. But I grew up with sports volunteering, I did scouting, I grew up map reading, my job is this. So I understand places, I'm always watching, knowing where I am. I'm always the person in the group who's like, "Which way is it now?" And I'll know which way or which direction it is. And I think my experience is - a lot of that comes from practice. I'm interested, and I've learned - it's kind of like a learned skill. And I've talked to people who say, "I've got no sense of direction." It's a kind of thing, isn't it? But a lot of the time, I feel it's and I did read a few papers on this that innately we've got some similar abilities. The brains are different, but a lot of this is learned. And I would challenge anybody who doesn't think they've got a sense of direction that when they absolutely need to be on the other side of the city, I bet you they can work it out.

Kate Jeffery (4:58)
Yes, I agree. And I think a lot of the difference in individual ability is people just knowing what things, what information in the environment to attend to and take notice of. And I think some people have maybe been taught to do that when they were young. And you know, and I wonder if our generation, in particular, from the days of paper maps, maybe learned to do this in a way that's slightly different from the children these days who grow up with handheld devices, and it's all automated and done for them. So they're learning, well, they're learning different things. And so I think one of the things that you learn when you have a paper map is the importance of aligning the map with the outside world because you're the one who has to figure out the route on the map. Whereas with a smartphone these days, that also figures out the route for you. So all you need to do is to know which way you're facing. So yes, I think a lot of individual variation is people knowing what to look for. And I would tentatively suggest, for designers, that's the thing to focus on: how to get people to notice the important information.

Tim Fendley (6:11)
Maybe there's another factor, kind of cognitive restriction. I studied quite a little bit about how people feel as though they can't do something when they can. It's just cognitively, "I'm not able to do that." And that “well, I can't map read" is very much a kind of barrier. Which is kind of like, of course, you can; we've all got this innate ability. And it's just that how do you get over that restriction? How do you show people? Some things that we try and do is create interesting pictures of places so that people become engaged with them, and therefore, then they can learn about their surroundings better.

Kate Jeffery (6:51)
That's really interesting. Yeah, I think it's a really good point that some people just go blank when they see a map. So I think for situations where they do need a map, so for example, if they're walking into a forest and they have, you know, the map at the start that shows you where the trails go, I think probably attending to what information you put on the map that makes it really engaging and, for them, able to relate to it is really important. But the other thing is designing the layout of the world so that you don't need a map, like it becomes self-evident where you are. And I think that's something we could be thinking about more, is just providing enough information that people can remain oriented without having to consult a map.

Tim Fendley (7:37)
I think that is the ideal. Yeah, you don't need information to help you because it just explains itself naturally.

Kate Jeffery (7:43)
Yes. And I do find, I think this is one of the reasons that I got interested in trying to reach out to real-world designers is I find I'm often in an environment that's really difficult to figure out which way around you are, for example, like a train station or conference center or something where the architecture is such that you look around, and you just can't tell which direction is which. And if you get a little bit disoriented, you've had it; then you're lost. And I think it should be possible not to build really confusing spaces like that.

India Block (8:16)
Well if our ability to learn to navigate is something plastic rather than fixed, then that does suggest that there's no good or bad sense of direction - although obviously you can rate it on a scale - that there's just badly designed places or hard to navigate places versus well-designed places.

Tim Fendley (8:34)
I think that's very, I think that's very true. And I think it's not until you start to really understand how the brain assesses the environment, can you really start to see how the environment is either easy or difficult. We say - it was first coined in the '60s - but that's often called the legibility of an environment, how easy is it to understand, decipher, recognize, and use? 

Kate Jeffery (9:01)
Yes, yeah. So I think from my perspective, now that we have looked into the rat brain, and I should say, incidentally, that the rat brain and the human brain are almost indistinguishable in terms of the navigation systems. It's the same architecture inside the brain; I think the human brain is a bit more sophisticated. And we have a lot of bells and whistles, you know, we've developed language and all of this kind of stuff, but the core machinery probably evolved hundreds of millions of years ago. And the really central system that we have now come to understand quite well is this thing called the head direction system, which is like the compass for the brain. And I think one of the core things that we have learned is that if you can establish, make it easy for the brain to work out which way it's facing, in other words - to set this compass, then everything else follows from that. And when I talk to architects and people who are designing for humans, I find there's very little discussion about the sense of direction. So it doesn't seem to be central to design. And I think that's possibly the missing ingredient. So I think to make an environment really legible, what you need to do is to provide information that lets the compass orient itself, and then everything else will follow from that.

Tim Fendley (10:22)
My experience on the wide range of environments that we work in is that we're often dealing with difficulties of layout to do with maybe the way in which an urban city is laid out, the street pattern. Or we're dealing with a building that has its entrance in the wrong place. And for legacy reasons, history, or poor design, it wasn't thought about. So a big example is the Barbican. Its entrance was actually the goods entrance because the entrance was supposed to be from the water. If you've ever been there, you're supposed to get to the water, and then you come in through there. But the routes through to get to the water were never put in. Therefore, actually, it's nicely hidden away in the middle of that development. And it's often struggled with wayfinding; it’s still not been solved.

Kate Jeffery (11:26)
Yeah, the Barbican is a terrible place to navigate. And I think you've hit the nail on the head with the importance of the entranceway. Because the entrance is a very salient, like when you go through the entrance, it's kind of a salient experience. And it becomes an anchor for the internal compass. And then as you're moving around, you're having to kind of track your movements and update your sense of direction. But it got established the moment that you went in. And the Barbican has two problems. One of them is that the entrance is not very visible, and it's not very memorable.And so it's not such a sailing experience. But also, it's quite symmetrical in the way that it's built. So it's concrete, it's a while since I've been there, so I'm just calling on my rather old memory. But it's concrete, and it's kind of rectangular. So if you lose track of your sense of direction, there's nothing obvious that reorients you. And so once you've become disoriented, that's it, and then as you're walking around, you're failing to build a proper map of it.

Tim Fendley (12:33)
And Kate, the impact of that is an uncertainty, or a cognitive load, “Ah I've got to work out where I am again”. And that makes it feel like a less hospitable, less welcoming place, which obviously is not what the people who run the Barbican want it to be. So this desire to make places welcoming, to spend more time there, it’s well understood that's what you want to achieve. But I definitely feel -and I don't think there's enough research to point out - that the reaction that people have to finding it difficult to be able to orient themselves and to locate themselves is a barrier to people using those places.

Kate Jeffery (13:17)
Yes, I completely agree. And I've come to the conclusion, mainly just from introspection, I have to say. But I've come to the conclusion that if you're in a place that is hard to figure out how to make a mental map of, you do have this negative emotion that I've called spatial unease, which is: I don't fully know where I am, I can probably find my way to places I need to go. But I don't really have a global understanding of where that is, I have to use my smartphone or follow signs or something like that. And my senses - and I would be really interested to try and collect some actual hard data on this - but my senses; those become very negatively valence, in other words, emotionally negative places. And it feels like if we want, and obviously we do want to build places that feel good, we also want to make them legible - to use your terminology.

Tim Fendley (14:12)
That’s really interesting Kate because the word that we use is uncertainty. Which I think is the same thing. 

Kate Jeffery (14:19)
Yes, yes.

Tim Fendley (14:21)
But we walk around a new place, and we will kind of like do an assessment of how uncertain does this make us feel? Which is like a measure of legibility. And some places, like another example is London's biggest shopping street is Oxford Street. One of the benefits of Oxford Street geographically is a long straight Street. It's one of few long straight streets in London. And therefore it's pretty certain when you're Oxford Street, you're on Oxford Street and you're not going to get lost. So that's one of the reasons why I think it's become such a retail centre.

Kate Jeffery (14:52)
Yeah, that's interesting. Although you can get lost if you forget whether you're going east or west along it!

Tim Fendley (14:59)
You can come out of the shop and go the wrong way. But then you can quickly find out - hang on a minute, I don't recognise a lot of the landmarks around here, which is another factor in navigation.

Kate Jeffery (15:09)
Yeah, no, you're quite right. And I think these long linear features, I think… so we're just beginning to understand how the brain processes this type of thing. But I think we're going to find that those are very important in Spatial Mapping. And when we look at animals, for example, we find that they'll often use things like rivers to help them navigate. There's been a beautiful study of pigeons by Dora Biro at Oxford who found that pigeons who are flying long distances will use motorways to help them orientate. If you track them, you can see that they're following these big roads. 

Tim Fendley (15:42)

Kate Jeffery (15:44)
Yes, yeah. So I think it makes sense because -

Tim Fendley (15:46)
So they’re using whatever they can find? 

Kate Jeffery (15:49)
Exactly, exactly. But particularly long, these long linear features are very good for setting the compass, because it's very easy to work out which way you're facing relative to something that's long. Whereas if something is a point, like landmark, like the BT telecom tower or something - you might be able to see it from miles away, but it doesn't necessarily help you know which way around you're facing unless you also know where you are.

Tim Fendley (16:12)
So you've got another landmark to create a trigonometry with. That also comes from the observation, in our experience, of the desire people have for long vistas; the further they can see in a distance, in terms of a direction, the more confident it makes them feel. I mean, I think that comes back to when we learnt our navigation skills on the savanna. We could always see great distances. And so mountain tops could become those landmarks that you could find your way back home. But now our cities are rabbit warrens mazes… you know, we're really stuck in little alleyways. My perception is - I don't have any research on this - but my perception is that it's slightly unnatural to us that we can't see where we are. So we're feeling a bit more threatened, we’re feeling a bit more closed in, we're feeling like we're in a deep forest.

Kate Jeffery (17:09)
Yes, yeah. Well, I think we can now explain that in terms of this compass system, the head direction system and the brain, because the head direction cells - each cell has its particular direction that it likes. And when the rat faces in that particular direction, a particular cell will become active. And all of the cells together account for all of the 360 degrees that you could be facing. And the exact direction that each cell likes can vary from one environment to the other. So it might be one direction in one room and a different direction in a different room. But we have found that if a rat can walk from one room to an adjacent room - so the first time it ever encounters the second room, it's just walked from the first room - then the head direction cells will align themselves in the same direction in both of those rooms. 

So it looks like the brain is wanting some consistency. And the way that it gets that consistency is by tracking the movements that the rat made. So all it did was step through the doorway, so it knows that the rat hasn't turned around, so that north in the first room is the same north in the second room, and so on. But because you're just relying on this tracking of movements, and you know, tracking of whether you've turned your head and all this kind of stuff - its quite vulnerable. So if you're walking through several rooms, and you get a little bit disoriented - you go around one too many corners, or you had to go down a staircase or something - you can very quickly disconnect the head direction orientations and the different rooms. And so then you end up with a fragmented map. So there isn't the same directional alignment in all of the rooms. 

So I think what you're describing with the cities and the little boxes and the lack of vista spaces, is the fact that the head direction system has really had to rely on this not very good quality information to try and get alignment in all of those spaces. And it often doesn't work very well. And you just end up with wrong alignments, and therefore your map’s a bit scrambled. And you could easily solve that by making more or less the spaces, so you can see how the rooms are related to each other through the glass wall or you know, whatever.

Tim Fendley (19:19)
Another little example for me is New York, I’ve done a lot of work in New York. And of course, it's got numbered streets and numbered avenues, which they give other names to just to confuse you. But I've often walked out of a building on one of the streets and thought: I don't know which way I'm facing. Because all the streets in New York pretty much look like all the streets in New York. 

Kate Jeffery (19:44)
Yeah, that's right. 

Tim Fendley (19:46)
And I go to a junction and I'm like: I don't know which way is north. And I might be able to see a landmark that could do that for me… but I'm often then really disoriented and then I'm looking at the street numbers to go hang on a minute the streets go that way, and that goes that way. But I still don't know which way is north. New York's is a challenging place to be on the street. But I think that grid structure has got strength, but it’s similarity, therefore has kind of got weaknesses.

Kate Jeffery (20:17)
Yes. And also, we evolve numbers and language and so on, very late in the piece. So, you know, within the last maybe 100,000 years or so, so the head direction system quite possibly doesn't know how to use numbers to orient itself, or indeedlanguage. So you might be able to point out north to somebody and say that way is north…

Tim Fendley (20:45)
That is fascinating. So don't overcomplicate the codes, you can't have a completely coded system. Because that's requiring, you're going to use a lot of logic in your brain to work it out. It's not innate.

Kate Jeffery (20:58)
Yes. So really, we evolved to use natural features, and that comes very naturally, as you would expect. So I grew up in a very mountainous kind of country - New Zealand - and the town where I grew up was surrounded by hills, and each of the hills looks different. And you can kind of see one or two, or sometimes you know, all three of them. And if you're on top of one of the hills, you can also see the harbour which has a long linear feature. So really, you never really get disoriented in that city, because you can always, wherever you are, see a global landmark that orients your compass.

India Block (21:32)
And so with this studying that you're doing - this research that you are discovering about head cells and direction - how is that something that you've been incorporating into your practice? Do you think that these are things you've known instinctively? Or from speaking to users of spaces? Or do you think this is something that's not being discussed enough in the kind of spatial design arena?

Tim Fendley (21:59)
I think absolutely. I think Kate you’ve already said that urban planners and architects, who are often creating the environment, haven't had the benefit of this knowledge so far. And I think you're on a mission: how do you share this? I think that's fantastic. We definitely feel this, and our job is often maybe making amends for some of that bad design. Bad design, poor design or design that doesn't understand the importance of some of these factors. 

So we're often making amends. And what we're trying to do is, we come in and we try and simplify codes; we try and amplify landmarks because we know that will act as natural, kind of like markers along the journey or to understand a space. Or we will try and amplify entrances and create that ‘you're now entering this domain, it's time to switch on a different set of head cells’. And that's kind of what we're trying to trigger is. Which I think is what you’re saying happens Kate, and that’s what we’re trying to trigger. And so when we did Legible London, we said: ‘you're now entering Soho, this is now the Soho area of London. And therefore, you need your Soho map’. And that is such a difficult shaped environment with lots of little rabbit warrens, your orientation kind of loses it a little bit.

India Block (23:16)
And I think… I mean, tell us more about Legible London. bBecause I didn't realise until we met that it had a name. I just thought, "Oh, it's the fun maps that are everywhere." 

Tim Fendley (23:29)
Fun maps, I love that. Legible London is an internal name. We just didn't think you needed to explain the name of it to the public; it should just be there when you need it. It's aiming to be predictable. In other words, to be wherever you are going to need help and information, you'll find it. And that is a response to reducing uncertainty, is what we're talking about. It's based on the structure of the observation that London has an orientation system that wasn't really being highlighted. Which is: it’s built on a set of villages. Villages that have character; they've got names that are unique. There's books out there, which we actually bought and studied them. What do these villages represent to people in their minds? What does Soho represent? What does Mayfair represent? 

There are other places that are newer that represent less, so we built a system that highlighted that organisational structure. And I remember seeing some studies of place cells Kate, where there are different scales of maps in your head. And what was fascinating was that we developed Legible London based on a scale of street-level and landmark-level neighborhoods, which are little small neighbourhoods. And then you've got bigger areas, villages. And it kind of maps these diagrams we saw - from very recent research of the human brain - that you've got different levels of place cells. So you understand, you know, where do you live? "Oh, San Francisco." Oh whereabouts? So actually, it's not San Francisco; it's Oakland. Or whereabouts in Oakland, and then in a neighbourhood in Oakland. But what you’d say in context is that you live in San Francisco because you're looking at somebody going, "You're not going to know what Oakland is." So you can have, like, you have these zonal area structures in our urban form. And all we did with Legible London was realise that a lot of people navigated using those, and yet they weren't appearing more obviously. So we turned up the volume and used those.

Kate Jeffery (25:35)
One of the things that was a revelation to me about the Legible London project was the totems, you know, the maps, the sort of street-level maps. And I think it might have been at this conference, where we first met, that I learned that around about 75% of people liked to have the map oriented so that what they're looking at matches what is in front of them. So what they call ‘head up’. And 25% of people like north to be up. I'm guessing, that the 25% is slightly older adults who learned as children to use paper maps or something? I'm not sure.

Tim Fendley (26:15)
Actually, I can tell you it is exactly that. Most of the people who said “no, these need to be north”, actually, were trained orienteers. Often anybody in the military.

Kate Jeffery (26:28)
Interesting, interesting, because I'm one of those 25%. And I get tremendously confused when I look at a map that is head up; I have to look at the map and try to work out where north is on that map so I can put it in my mental map. But I thought it was very interesting that there's this difference. And that corresponds to something that we've found in the rat brain, which is that some things are stored relative to each other in the outside world, and some things are stored relative to the rat's own current location. So it's called egocentric if it's related to the rat's own body and allocentric if it's out there in the world. 

And it was really a revelation to discover that there's this allocentric representation, that the rat has a stored map of the world that functions no matter how the rat has been walking around, and so on. And that really, back at the time when that was discovered in the 1960s, psychology didn't really believe in these kinds of internal representations inside the brain. So that really overturned decades of psychological thinking. And I think it was why the discovery of these cells in the brain, the place cells, won a share of the Nobel Prize, because it didn't just tell us about navigation but also told us about how the brain makes knowledge of the world and also uses that to organise memories.

India Block (27:58)
That's fascinating because I grew up in a military family. So I'm very much a, "I want my map to be facing north." I find it really weird and disconcerting because, I mean, I love my mapping apps, but they try and turn you round in these weird ways. And I'm like, "No, that's not right. Like I want the compass back on, please."

Tim Fendley (28:16)
My hypothesis is that when you asked your first question, "Are you good at map reading?" I think you're probably better than normal. And both of you because you've understood how a map works in the north way. Whereas a lot of the people when we did research, we met people who were like, "I can't read a map." But they would go up to Legible London and immediately go, "Oh, that's where we are. And that's where that is." And they immediately read it. And our view was, we're better off helping those people than the people who already have some mobility.

Kate Jeffery (28:52)
Yes. Yeah, that does make sense. I mean, one way to accommodate both would be to align the totem, you know, the street map, so that head up and north up are the same direction. 

Tim Fendley (29:04)
We tried that. We tried one project where we had everything facing north. Yes. In fact, Princeton University is nearly all of them in north-south; we couldn't get away with all of it. But yeah, that's it because then that helps create a consistent picture every time, you know, which is what you lose from the heads up. So it's all a trade-off.

India Block (29:30)
Along with these head cells and these internal and external maps, what other parts of the brain are involved in navigation? Is there memory, are there other senses? Or does colour have an impact?

Kate Jeffery (29:44)
Yes, I mean, the more we investigate this, the more we discover that I think almost every part of the brain is involved.  So these place cells - I haven't really talked much about those - but they're cells that become active when the animal goes to a particular place. So we've got head direction cells that are active when it faces a certain direction. But place cells are when the rat goes to that place. And they were discovered in this part of the brain called the hippocampus, which we have long known is really important for memory and remembering things that have happened to you in your life. And we now are understanding that the brain has decided to put those two things together in evolution. And that makes perfect sense because when something happens to you, you know, you nearly get eaten by a lion or something, it's really important to know where you were when that thing happened so that you know not to go back there. Or if you go back there, you know, what expectations you have about what might happen and so on. So those two things go together. But also, the parts of the brain that are figuring out your goals, like what do you want, you know, "I'm hungry right now; where's the nearest cafe? I need to post a letter; where's the nearest post office?" and all of that kind of stuff. So huge, huge parts of the brain are involved in the navigation system and in recalling where you have been, knowing where you are now, planning where you want to go, updating your map when you discover that something's wrong or something's changed. It's very, very busy.

Tim Fendley (31:14)
When we're developing a wayfinding system for a building, or a campus or a city, we do an assessment of how legible we think junctions, locations, landmarks, or routes are. And actually, I think what we're doing is we're trying to assess that mixture of inputs and characteristics that means that this one's really memorable. You know, which could be all sorts of, we see it as it's all sorts of factors. It could be light; it could be smell; it could be sound; it could be the environment; it could be widths of the road; it could be the colour or shape; or the activity that's happening there. And that's obviously really quite four-dimensional, quite flexible. And so what we do is we often come along and we'll map a place and look at: we think these areas are really easy to remember, we think you'll make place cells easy here, these ones really hard to make place cells that will stick.

Kate Jeffery (32:16)
Is that because they're kind of unremarkable, or they look like other places, and there's confusion?

Tim Fendley (32:21)
All of that, yes. Lack of character or similarity. So often with architecture, there's very similar streets. So they all look the same.

Kate Jeffery (32:30)
Yes, we've found that place cells in rats also get confused by that self-similarity in the environment. It's as if the same map is recurring over and over. And so I think you've hit the nail on the head with trying to identify what it is that makes environments distinctive. And I don't think we've gotten to the bottom of it yet for humans, because what we logically think might make a place distinctive isn't necessarily what the brain actually evolved to do, you know, a million years ago. Maybe it doesn't care about the beautiful sculpture or the park bench or the little details that for us seem like they should be important. Maybe the mapping system doesn't care about those little things; it cares about mountains, rivers, and so on.

Tim Fendley (33:17)
And that's why we started to put little drawings of buildings and symbols on the map, not all the time, because then it becomes overload. But we put the ones on that we thought will act as landmarks better. And we did those in 3D as little drawings because it's kind of like, well, you know, it is Selfridges and it looks a bit like this as a piece of architecture. You're not going to miss it if you want to walk down Oxford Street. So we use techniques like that to then reinforce those landmarks.

Kate Jeffery (33:45)
Right. And I think that's a particularly good example because a building is a large topographical feature in the landscape. And it probably is something that we are innately more predisposed to anchor our maps with.

Tim Fendley (34:01)
And my personal experience is, like I said, I'm a good orienteer. But I do get lost. And I get very angry when I get lost because I can't believe I've not got it right. And I realise that I will have come across a junction that I think is that junction, but it's not; it's the next one. And I've assumed that was the one that my memory has told me and I've taken it with uber confidence. But it was wrong. Because my place cells weren't clear enough. I didn't decipher; I didn't realise there was a similar one. ANd I’ve felt that, I’ve done that and thought - because we have these conversations - I thought “what happened there? I’ve missed that junction, I’ve got the wrong one”.

Kate Jeffery (34:41)
Yeah, I do that a lot with direction. So I did it coming here actually, I got slightly lost. I come out of an underground station and I think I'm facing one way but I'm actually facing a different way. And I charge off confidently. And because I'm confident about which way - confidently wrong - about which way I'm facing, I look at the landscape and I fit it into my map. So it seems to fit my memory as well. And it's not until I notice the mismatch with what my phone is telling me that I think, "one of us is wrong."

Tim Fendley (35:14)
And then you’ve got this battle going on in your brain; “I can't be wrong, I can't be wrong .” That’s the bit I've been reinforced by.

India Block (35:20)
But this is why, you know, the more we know about the brain, and so eyewitness statements can be so difficult to actually get an accurate read on because our brain fills in these gaps. And I mean, Kate, you'll know much more about this than me. But heuristics, these mental shortcuts we make that allow us to move around quickly to make quick decisions, which are really useful a lot of the time and save us a lot of cognitive effort. But if you misfire, and you pick the wrong street or the wrong junction, you do get this stressful experience. Getting lost - do we know if that creates a particular reaction in the brain, apart from our anecdotal experiences of finding it really frustrating? What do the rats do when they get lost?

Kate Jeffery (36:05)
So I think there is a natural stress reaction to getting lost. And the first thing that has to happen is you recognise that you're lost. So prior to that time, you might have been confident in your assessment of where you were but wrong. And like in the example that I gave, when I was walking confidently the wrong way and fitting what I could see into what I was expecting, that confirmation bias, it's one of those heuristics. And that can get you a certain way into believing that you know where you are. And then when you discover that you're completely wrong, I think that's a massively stressful event. And we know from lots and lots of studies of stress in humans that there are all sorts of biochemical reactions to that, so you get a release of adrenaline and stress hormones and you get frustrated, and so on, and so on. Some people who are either constitutionally not very good at navigating or have the confidence problem that you mentioned earlier Tim, where they think that they're not good, and therefore they don't really try - they're cognitively blocked. Those people can become so stressed and so disturbed by the experience of getting lost that sometimes they just don't like to leave the house, or they don't like to go shopping, or they don't like to travel or, you know, it can be quite disabling. So I think getting lost is really a stressful experience. And when you think about the evolutionary origins of that, that makes perfect sense because you could die if you got lost, if you couldn't find your way back to the settlement or whatever.

Tim Fendley (37:35)
The other thought here is just - we do a lot of work, as we're designers. There's a wonderful book, Daniel Kahneman, "Thinking, Fast and Slow." Two types of brain processes, we see that in how people navigate. So when you're reasonably confident of your route, you've done it before, you want to be in your thinking fast mode. You're not even actually aware, you're just innately knowing I know where to go. That's kind of like what happens on a commute. You know how it works. You're in autopilot, right? But it also means that if there's a better way, you're not even thinking about it because the brain just wants to keep doing the same way. Because you don't have to think about it. According to Daniel Kahneman.

Kate Jeffery (38:17)
Yes, yeah. So we have uncovered these two systems in the navigation system in the brain, too. So there is a kind of an autopilot, as you describe it, system called the striatum, which comes into play when you are on a very familiar route - you've done it before, your brain has recognized that this is the optimal route between these two places. You don't want to spend time thinking about it, so you anchor your actions to the landmarks that you can see. For example, you just know you have to walk down the street to the corner, turn right, carry on to the big tree, you know, and so on, and so on. So it's completely automatic. And then there's the effortful conscious thinking type of navigation, which is involving this hippocampal system with the place cells. And this is where you need to call to mind your internal map. And this might come into play, for example, when you were trying to commute and the road works or something and you couldn't take your usual route. Now you have to think, actually, where am I and which would be the next shortest route. So that's the thinking slow. 

And I think we're constantly interplaying between those two things. And also, there's some evidence that people constitutionally just differ in how much they rely on one or the other. So some people are a bit more inclined to use the root system, to use the landmarks to base their kind of navigational planning on a remembered sequence of actions. And other people are constitutionally slightly more likely to maintain a kind of global awareness of where they are and to use their internal map and to navigate that way. And so when you're designing to help navigators, you need to kind of think about both of those modes of navigation and provide for both types of people in a way that's not disrupting the other, which I think is...

Tim Fendley (40:06)
There isn't a right or a wrong way. We've often tried to design a system that can handle different people's navigational strategies. When we design the city systems like Legible London, and we've done that in many other cities too - we’ve just got Madrid going in which has been fascinating… we actually, those we call the monoliths - we designed them to answer only four questions which is: where am I? Where is it? What else is around here? And how do I get there? And that was it. And because, I don't believe you can… that's already a lot. And if we can get it to deliver the answers to those questions, we've got people really gaining a lot more confidence in how they move around. And the "What else is around here?" was the little nudge to say: there is another tube station there that you could walk to or there is an interesting street down here. What we're trying to do is to design something that draws them in, to get them in the thinking slow mode, to analyse what's going on, "I'm here. And that's there," because that's the thinking slow side of the brain. But then when you're doing that, I believe that if you really engage somebody's mind, they will learn. They'll start to take it in, and they'll start to suggest there are place cells and things I might want to do on this map. And I'm aware, "Okay, it's to my right. Oh, and that's to my left." And we've definitely, we've recorded people using things like Legible London, and we've definitely seen that happen.

Kate Jeffery (41:45)
I guess what you're doing is providing people with information not just about the route but about the, you know, the surroundings, and therefore they can make a map. Which I think is amazing. And I think it's been an incredibly useful system. I just have one comment there on the four things that you provide; so I noticed that’ which way you're facing’ is not on that list.

Tim Fendley (42:07)
Well the: “Where are you oriented?” Yes, I meant to say, because it does include ‘you are here’ and ‘this is the way you're facing.’

Kate Jeffery (42:16)
But does it include ‘and that direction is north?'

Tim Fendley (42:19)
It does. And we experimented with a map on the top, which was north, and the map below, which was heads up. And we experimented with that, we took that on the street. And we confused the hell out of people.

India Block (42:33)
What I'm interested in because, Kate, it sounds like what you're saying is there is a universal internal compass, a universal sense of direction that all humans and rats share. But what about the other cultural differences? Because Tim, you are designing not just for London; you've been designing wayfinding systems all over the world. And colours, symbols often carry different cultural meanings. Is that something you think about? And then you also have people visiting these cities from different countries, so you can't rely too much on language, which is why I said the maps are fun because I love those little pictures. I just thought they were a nice treat. I didn't realise they were actually serving a…

Tim Fendley (43:19)
They’re there for a reason. That really, I think, comes into cultural background. Where, as we grow up, we learn environmental codes - what do things mean? And if you go to a different country, a different culture, those codes can be different. Some of those are pretty common - one-way street, pretty much can guess that wherever you are. Other ones, you can be miles off - something written in a foreign language to your own, it can be very difficult. But there are things in nature relating to things like black and yellow, which has proved to be a warning colour mix. In nature, it's the colour of bees and animals. And I think I saw a piece of research once that they tried to take yellow off the front of trains, and research showed that that was the safest colour to paint the front of trains. So I think some of that colour recognition and what the codes mean is innate. But a lot of it is cultural. Understanding what's the environment, this is the way this place works. pPart of going to a different city is that you are suddenly aware of all the different codes and different ways of doing things, and you've got to learn them.

Kate Jeffery (44:31)
Yeah, I mean, I think it's not just the codes either. I think, depending on the type of city that you come from, you may just navigate slightly differently. So if you come from a grid city, for example, then you think about how to communicate navigational instructions differently than if you come from a much more sort of European-type Higgledy-Piggledy city with complicated typography and all of that kind of stuff. So yeah, I think culture does add another dimension to humans that we don't see in animals. But, you know, the place and head direction systems, particularly the head direction system, that was probably one of the very first things that ever emerged in evolution. So we found head direction cells in fruit flies. So we know that must have evolved probably hundreds of millions of years ago. So it's very, very fundamental. And that's why I think it's so important because everything that evolved after that kind of built on that basic knowing which way round things are.

Tim Fendley (45:38)
But there really hasn't been a debate about this in the urban design and architectural communities.

Kate Jeffery (45:45)
No, there hasn’t, that's right.

Tim Fendley (45:47)
There hasn't been: “let's design the building around how we build the entrance - we make the entrance really obvious, we make the building then really obviously the other side of that entrance.”

Kate Jeffery (45:56)
I mean, that was something that was notably missing from Kevin Lynch's characterisation of the legible city. He identified several things that we now know the brain is interested in; the nodes and the edges and the paths between things and districts and so on. Those are things we've seen cells and the brain interested in those things. But the one thing he didn't highlight is a compass direction on top of that, that helps make sense of it all. And so maybe his book needs to be rewritten with another chapter. Because in other respects, it has been tremendously influential.

Tim Fendley (46:36)
But it was after he wrote that place cells were uncovered. And he kind of observed people's ability to misunderstand slow curving streets. When he studied Boston, the angled and the slow curving streets would disorient people. They wouldn't be able to piece it together as easily. We've really noticed that you put a curve into something and the brain doesn't really recognise it very easily.

Kate Jeffery (47:02)
No, that's right. I mean, I think a lot of people have the difficulty that I certainly have with London where, in your mental map, the Thames runs east-west across London, and you put all of the buildings you know, the Houses of Parliament and so on, along that. But in actual fact, of course, the Thames does a huge right angle bend, and the Houses of Parliament are north-south. But even though I logically know that, I cannot convince my mental map part of my brain to update with that information. It's decided to use the Thames to organise everything. And as far as it's concerned, my brain thinks the Thames runs east-west.

Tim Fendley (47:41)
We've asked that question lots. We've found over 50% of people think that the Houses of Parliament runs east-west.

Kate Jeffery (47:47)
Yeah. I'm glad I'm not alone.

Tim Fendley (47:50)
Nope, nope. I don’t think the tube map reinforcing that has helped.

Kate Jeffery (47:54)
That's right. Yes. 

Tim Fendley (47:56)
We also found whilst doing Legible London that 44% of people were using the tube map to walk with.

Kate Jeffery (48:02)
I was just going to ask about that.

Tim Fendley (48:04)
They wanted a tool, they got the tool that they trusted, but it's completely not built for walking with, but they're going to try and use it anyway. 

Kate Jeffery (48:11)
Right, right. Yes, because I guess they have a mental schema for what a map does. And normally, a map has locations that are related to each other, where the directions are correct on the map. And so they're trying to use this topological map where the directions aren't correct. 

Tim Fendley (48:29)
And if you look, it's Westminster, and it goes down and across, and the river comes across on the tube map. 

Kate Jeffery (48:34)
Hmm. So maybe that's why I've got that wrong.

Tim Fendley (48:37)
And - sorry, I know we're going a bit off-piste. But when people create a mental map, and then the world changes, I've found that your mental map doesn't change very quickly. Like you remember old places that have gone - the landmarks gone, but you still think of them as that.

Kate Jeffery (48:55)
Yes. Yeah, I think that's true. So the brain is constantly having to update its memories. But that process, you know, it also retains a memory of what things were like before. And it has to build a kind of layered memory: “Oh they used to be something rather here, but now there isn't.” And, yeah, we could speculate as to why we didn't just evolve the capacity to completely forget what things used to be. And I guess the answer is probably because sometimes things go, and then they come back, like, you know - there's a river which dries out in the summer but comes back in the winter or something like that. So it's adaptive to remember not just what was the state of things the last time you were there, but what has it been like in the past.

India Block (49:44)
We’re almost running out of time here, but I've got to ask one last question. As well as designing maps for so many different audiences, are there ways of designing maps to make them more accessible to those who might be visually impaired or have mobility issues or different kinds of cognitive challenges? Is that something that you think about? I assume it is? And how is that expressed in design? And what do we know about designing for different abilities?

Tim Fendley (50:12)
I think there's two sides to that. One is the cognitive challenge. I think, Kate, you've talked about how different people have different abilities, learnings or disabilities in how they can think. I think we've tried as much as possible to cater for the people who find it harder to navigate first - that's really been our approach. We've kind of left behind the military, “who knows how to get around? They're going to find their way.” But it's the person who's really unconfident. And it's more about anxiety tackling. They can't work it out, they don't think they can. How can we help them reduce that anxiety? Also we're doing a project at the moment where we're finding a lot of people not wanting to go on walking paths. Because “I don't know which way it is” and “I'm worried about all the other people on that path.” And it's like, that's a shame - these people should be able to do this.

So I think that one side of it is: always think about who finds this really hard to understand and how do you work really hard to make it easy? And then the second part is in terms of your input, your disabilities or your movement disabilities, there's a huge range. And that's often tackled best by different tools that they're using to be able to tackle that. So if we can give directions, how can we maybe put that into audio? Or how can we put it into a format that suits their ability? So some people have got tunnel vision, they want everything tiny. Other people need it really high contrast, and really big. So what you want is the interface of how you're giving people that information to adjust to them. And when you're putting physical things in the environment, that's hard to do. So you've always got to do a trade off. But new digital tools are absolutely fantastic in being able to respond to that.

Kate Jeffery (52:12)
So I was wondering, actually about the emerging technologies like augmented reality, and so on, is that going to make things easier?

Tim Fendley (52:20)
Yeah, I don’t think it's maybe the ones that you think. So we've worked with people with, basically sign readers, so glasses that look like normal glasses, and they press a button, and it actually can audio read what they're looking at. Which gives them such an ability in a train station to understand what's going on. And what we realised is, if you design the typography in a way that the reader can't read, they can't understand it. So we've got to connect with the ability of that reader. That was something interesting for us to find out. And we've worked with a number of organisations who are developing tools that handle different types of disabilities. We're working at the moment with Princeton University - we've just launched an app which focuses on routing that takes you along on gradients that you want to be handling. So you can choose the kind of gradients and it will route you along the right route, according to that gradient. Now, that is environmental knowledge that most people wouldn't have. Yet, the university, we've got a plan that we do know that. So the question there is, how do we get that quality data out to somebody who needs it? And a digital tool is the best way of doing that. Also, on the map, we worked on lots of different ways of indicating -we did a whole accessible map of Central Park - where we indicated the incline. And we indicated the quality of the path. So if you're in a wheelchair, “I don't want to go up a steep hill.” And on a map, it's hard to see a steep hill. But we tried some coding of it and there had to be a key that means thinking slow, you've got to learn it. But we wish there was a faster way of doing it and we're searching for it.

India Block (54:06)
That's fascinating, especially the sign reader glasses. It's like alt text but in real life. Thank you both so much. I'm afraid we're out of time. I feel like we could do an entire series on this but it's been an absolute pleasure hearing both of you speak.

India Block (54:29)
You've been listening to a Disegno Podcast. For more podcasts visit This podcast was hosted and edited by Disegno. The panel was selected by Applied Wayfinding and Camron PR. Editing was by Abby Hall and Lara Chapman, and hosting by me, India Block.

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