What Maps Can Teach You About How Your Mind Works

Our minds, like maps, are an intricate combination of details and big-picture thinking.

What Maps Can Teach You About How Your Mind Works
[Image: Flickr user BrianSwan]

These days, with smartphones in our pockets, it’s hard to truly get lost. Gone are the days of trying one route and then the next, of stopping to to ask for directions or letting yourself wander because you have no other choice. But is it always more beneficial to know where you are going?


“We all want to be efficient in some way,” says writer Peter Turchi. “Sometimes there’s a different kind of efficiency that comes from allowing ourselves to explore and get lost.”

Turchi is not talking about navigating literal roads of course, but rather, the process of creative thinking. He’s interested in the idea of “story as a model of information design,” a concept he explores in his book A Muse and a Maze. Creative writers can learn a lot from puzzles and maps, he believes.

Walk into a room with a map on the wall and you may very well find yourself gravitating toward it, leaning in, trying to make out the names of places and details marked there. A map tells a story. But to do that, every map must leave out certain details and put others in.

Every mapmaker must ask: What do I want my final product to do or say? How do I want people to interact with it? What process do I need to take to get there? In other words, lots of wandering and exploration needs to happen to arrive at an end result.

Imagining new worlds, fiddling with details and figuring out how to present it all as a finished product are challenges every creative professional and artist faces. “We compile mental maps that are wildly skewed, a mental atlas so large and complex that we can never fully convey it to anyone else,” Turchi writes in his book, Maps of the Imagination. “Then we live in the world those maps create.”

But how to actually build something from that wild terrain of ideas? Mapmakers give us a window into how our minds work, particularly during the creative process. I spoke with Turchi, whose study of maps has inspired writers, artists, and designers for more than a decade, about what maps can teach us when it comes to the creative process. Here are five key points to help you tackle your creative work with more confidence:


What you leave out is just as important as what you leave in.

A map is not a replica of the world. It exists by way of what it leaves out. Take for example Henry Beck, who in 1933 invented the Way Finder, a map for the London Underground that used color-coded lines drawn at neat angles. While this sounds a lot like the public transportation maps we use today, doing away with accurate proportions and details was a novel idea back then.

By omitting everything but the details absolutely needed by commuters, the map made navigating the trains a lot easier. “People think about inclusion all the time but it’s a little less common for people to think about omission,” says Turchi. “What you want to convey to any reader or user is often defined by what you leave out.”

You don’t need to start at the beginning.

It’s easy to get hung up on where to begin. The illusion of needing to find the right place to start often holds people back from simply breaking into a creative project. But allowing yourself to explore requires a willingness to start with a vague idea and let yourself follow it. “We start off either with some sense of what we want to find or with curiosity and patience, trusting our imaginations to show us that a path exists, though no one has ever seen it,” writes Turchi.

Let yourself wander.

Whether you’re writing a novel, making a painting or building an app, you’re creating your own contained world in miniature. You won’t fully know or capture that world until you get lost in it. That requires letting yourself test different scenarios–going in one direction, then trying another–allowing for the process of creative exploration to happen. “Artistic creation is a voyage into the unknown,” says Turchi. “In our own eyes, we are off the map.”

Exploration and presentation are not the same thing.

Pick up a map and you won’t see the drawing and redrawing, the painstaking measuring and marking, the leaving in and taking out of details. While the process of creating something is usually long and tedious, like a map, the end product should not track all of your labor.

“The piece we compose is not meant to depict for the reader the path we took,” according to Turchi. “To guide us, a map’s designers must consider more than content and projection; any single map involves hundreds of decisions about presentation.”


Shift your vantage point.

We can work our minds into a corner when thinking too narrowly about solutions to a creative challenge. “If you are in advertising and you are trying to come up with pitch phrases over and over again, you might find yourself in a rut,” says Turchi. “It’s useful to look at other fields.”

Try seeing your challenge from a new perspective. “Just as mapmakers have traditionally put their homeland at the center, the part of the world we know best, the place or places we live, loom largest,” writes Turchi.

Recognizing this and trying to see things from a different perspective can help you reimagine what you’re working on in new and exciting ways.


About the author

Jane Porter writes about creativity, business, technology, health, education and literature. She's a 2013 Emerging Writing Fellow with the Center For Fiction