The world and the cities not only consist of objects but also of our images of them. In design studios at architecture and design schools there are many specific ways of looking at spaces and analyzing cities as an initiator for design ideas of beginning design students. It is worth to investigate the impressions and images of our physical surroundings in a subjective way – that is what we call mental mapping, cognitive maps or diagramming space.
Cognitive map is the term used to refer to one’s internal representation of the experienced world and includes the various processes used to sense. Cognitive or mental maps also gather «knowledge» via our senses and direct experience of a location or an object. Mental maps and diagrams are a mixture of fact and interpretation, a combination of direct and indirect. Mental maps are not like printed-paper maps with accurate directions and distances, and they seldom stay simple.These cognitive structures and processes are part of the mind, which emerges from a brain, a nervous system and a certain pattern of perception inside of a body that exists in a both social and physical world.
Understanding how different people view the same places and objects individually can help students to recognize assets and liabilities of a space, interpret potentials of a location, approach it in their own particular way and find their own design idea. They then not only understand «hard» factors of a certain space like material, topography, location, size, distance, patterns, and climate but also «soft» factors like atmosphere, perception, changes over time, history, memory, emotions, events, culture, fashion, language. The classification of these factors as hard or soft is not always evident since their transition or interpretation can be fluent, and in fact a classification is not really important.
The modalities of the diagramming can include vision, hearing, smelling, tasting, texture, and temperature to name a few. In some cases they can be utterly subjective and not worth exploring further, therefore the meaningfulness has to be proven. But on the other hand it would be a contradiction to try to prove or approve a subjective approach in an objective way.
Research suggests that the criteria used for our mental maps should be based on functional importance and imageability. By focusing on and differentiating between these two aspects, the subjectivity of cognitive maps and the challenges of their interpretation and standardization would be reduced. Another way to measure the distinctiveness of a place would be to develop some kind of icons, vocabulary or elements. As a result, there would be some basis for comparison among different subjective representations of the same place. This could also serve as a design initiator. Mental mapping exercises broaden the students’ analytical and problem solving skills, and enable them to think about urban design, space, architecture and design in an imaginative, creative and experimental way.
Keywords: mental mapping, cognitive maps, diagramming, design process