Cognitive Mapping – Wayfinding through our World

Kevin Lynch, in his seminal book, The Image of the City (1960), reported that people could mentally map and understand their environments in very predictable ways.  He found that mental maps (maps sketched by a average person from memory) had five common elements:

  • paths, streets, sidewalks, trails, and other channels in which people travel;
  • edges, perceived boundaries such as walls, buildings, and shorelines;
  • districts, relatively large sections of the city distinguished by some identity or character;
  • nodes, focal points or intersections;
  • landmarks, readily identifiable objects which serve as external reference points.



Lynch also coined the term “wayfinding” to be the psychological way we discover how to make our way through environments.  Wayfinding can be promoted by characteristics of the environment including:

  1. Visual Access: being able to visually see your destination makes it easier to wayfind to that location.
    1. For example: this hotel on the Walt Disney World property has great visual access via the large dolphin on the top of the hotel providing visual access from multiple places in the Disney Theme Parks.
  2. Degree of Differentiation: having unique qualities throughout the environment that distinguish one street or building from another makes it easier to wayfind through that environment.
    1. For example:  this neighborhood has hardly any differentiation from one house or street to the next which would impinge on wayfinding to a friend’s house who lives here.
  3. Legibility: being able to make sense of the environment and “read” the travel routes that you would go to get to your destination makes it easier to wayfind to that location.
    1. For example: this map of Rome shows that this environment is so complex that it hinders wayfinding because the legibility of the environment is very low.