Mud maps

Two travellers meet on a path – once the usual pleasantries are out of the way, the conversation begins to focus on important matters… Where have you travelled from? What is the condition of the route? Was it hard or easy terrain? Were there any dangerous sections or good places to stop along the way?

This scene could be taken from any point during human evolution, however it describes an encounter I had with a fellow traveller in the Avon Wilderness Area (in Victoria’s rugged High Country) just last weekend.I find it interesting that during this meeting, despite our access to digital mapping (between us we must have had at least four GPS's) and a number of folding maps expertly drawn by cartographers, we both naturally sought to gather first hand information from our fellow travellers. Crouching at the roadside, we carefully cleared a patch of dirt about a meter square, and with a twig each and a few stones and sticks to denote hills and rivers we began to describe our route and the country it had passed through – I had created a mud map with a complete stranger.

The term mud map is originally Australian, and typically refers to a hand drawn map, often intended for a single use. Originally they were drawn in the earth using the tools at hand (much as my fellow traveller and I had done), but in modern usage the term can refer to any hand drawn map. It’s curious, isn’t it, that despite our ready access to digital maps in all their forms, we still return to mud maps when we need to share detailed, first hand information.

For me, the strength of a mud map is that it is usually drawn in collaboration, with both parties actively involved in its creation, edits and revisions. More often than not, the drawing of the map is accompanied by expressive (and not always entirely relevant) narration and gesturing, but the true value of a mud map is its ability to describe what an environment feels like, rather than just depicting an arrangement of geographical features. Because of the unique layering of additional data that the mud mapping process delivers, we have introduced it as an integral part of our co- design process here at Maynard. Interacting with our clients during stakeholder workshops and the like, we find that mud mapping is fantastic way to gain insight into how the users of a space really perceive their environment, and how they communicate those perceptions to others.

During recent stakeholder workshops with users of the Gold Coast Airport in Queensland for example, mud mapping revealed various patterns in how airport staff describe different processes and spaces to passengers. Common landmarks were revealed, as well as those processes that passengers found difficult to navigate, such as the post security separation of international and domestic passengers. On this and many other projects, we have found that while the act of drawing to create these mud maps may be challenging for some, it does provide a level of insight not possible through other forms of investigation.

Mud maps are a peculiar combination of drawing, collage and performance and appear to be a natural way for us to communicate, its possible that our predecessors were using mud maps to communicate before the advent of the written work.

So the next time you're out for a walk in the hills, you might keep your GPS in your pocket, pick up a twig and have a real conversation with a fellow travellers.