City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Everyday Information Architecture #2

Written in


Been meaning to post about this for weeks – since it appeared in the Weekend edition of The Guardian. The following might appear to be a somewhat tenuous entry in the ‘Everyday Information Architecture’ category (#1 is more what I had in mind, and I’ve more to follow here). However, if we consider wayfinding to be at the heart of IA, these photos of lost people in London being helped by strangers indicate the human wayfinding framework the street provides.

"For the past five years, the photographer Stephen Gill has been wandering around London taking pictures of things that are so familiar and obvious that they fall below the usual threshold of people’s attention … {Now] this series of pictures of people who are lost in London. See how – as they consult their maps – they turn slightly inwards, to face a wall or a doorway. Stephen noticed this, too. "People often behave in a curiously furtive manner when resorting to maps," he says. "If their efforts are to no avail, they may try to make eye contact with passersby, their facial expressions overtly signalling lostness in order to solicit help.""

Stephen Gill photos

Jon Ronson wrote a nice article to go alongside the photo gallery of Gill’s photographs. Includes these nice asides on Gill’s work, and being lost in London in general:

"The people in Stephen’s photographs have a woman called Phyllis Pearsall to thank if their A-Zs prove helpful to them. Before she came along, most London maps were designed thematically, rather than practically. There were maps pointing out cholera and plague hot spots, and so on. But Pearsall changed all that. Throughout the mid-1930s, she woke up at 5am and walked for 18 miles a day, drawing maps of her route along the way. A buyer for WH Smith was beguiled by her work, and the A-Z was born. By the time of her death in 1996, there were approximately 50,000 roads in London."

"Many visitors to London become perplexed, eventually, by how illogical its road layout is. This is because the map of London is a map of chance decisions taken randomly, long ago. A shepherd in a field decides for no reason in particular to go left instead of right on his way to a market and, 500 years later, Sheep Walk W1 veers off to the left."

"The biographer of London, Peter Ackroyd, has called the A-Z "an attempt to picture [London’s] disorder in terms of fluent and harmonious design . . . London is not a graceful city, despite the testimony of the maps. It is tortuous, inexact and oppressive." Ackroyd adds that London has historically been a somewhat xenophobic place. He quotes a 16th-century French physician who wrote that Londoners "hate all sorts of strangers and even spit in our faces", so it is good news to see how helpful everyone looks in Stephen’s photographs. My guess is, if another photographer had decided to take pictures of people lost in London, the results would have been very different. The lost person would be standing there looking perplexed while passers by blur past, as if to say that Londoners don’t care about the needs of strangers."

The Guardian: Lost in the city photo gallery
The Guardian: Attention to detail


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