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Directional Sense - Front CoverExcerpt from Directional Sense: How to Find Your Way Around
Copyright 2012 by Janet R. Carpman and Myron A. Grant


This book is for people who have trouble finding their way around everyday places. If the mere thought of navigating long, twisting hospital corridors, making sense of cryptic expressway signs, or fumbling with cumbersome, undecipherable maps fills your heart with dread, you’ll find useful information here. If you call yourself directionally challenged, you never learned how to find your way around, your wayfinding skills are rusty, or you’re curious about new technologies like GPS devices, you’ll want to dip into the book’s descriptions, explanations, and practical advice.

People who competently make their way from one place to another are usually described as having a good sense of direction: an innate ability to know where they are, conjure up the location of their destination, and figure out the route from one to the other.¹  The assumption is that if you have this gift, you’ll always be effortlessly oriented. By this way of thinking, there’s nothing that can be done for those poor unfortunate souls with no sense of direction.

While there certainly are differences in spatial abilities from one person to the next, your own effectiveness at navigating the highways and byways of life does not have to be settled at birth. A more useful way of thinking about finding your way around is directional sense: learned skills, attitudes, and behaviors that help you get from Point A to Point B. Like all new skills, these can be mastered only with considerable commitment and much practice, but the potential payoffs are great.

Knowing how to find your way around reduces stress, makes you safer, enables you to be more independent, and saves time, energy, and money. While feeling lost may lead to sweaty panic, navigational skills reduce stress by giving you a sense of control over the situation. The ability to navigate on your own will enable you to travel independently if you want to, rather than relying on others to escort you. When you know the way, you can allow less time to get from one place to another and will be less likely to be late or miss something important on account of being lost. Knowing your way also takes less energy: you won’t drive the wrong way and have to backtrack, you won’t walk too far and exhaust yourself, and you won’t need to splurge on taxis or hire guides just to point you in the right direction. Wayfinding abilities also make you safer. If you pay attention to where you are and what you’ve passed, it is more likely that you’ll know how to exit in case of emergency and not wind up in a dangerous place.

The first step in acquiring directional sense is to find your way around this book. Introductory chapters set the stage. You’ll see that, at least on occasion, “Everyone Gets Lost” (Chapter 1), hear about the amazing mental feats that help us when “Navigating from Here to There” (Chapter 2), and realize how some people, perhaps you included, seem to have been “Born with No Internal Compass” (Chapter 3).

The next chapters introduce you to six wayfinding skills that are the building blocks of directional sense: “Deciphering Wayfinding Words & Numbers” (Chapter 4), “Comprehending Spatial Layouts” (Chapter 5), “Reading Maps” (Chapter 6), “Following Signs” (Chapter 7), “Recognizing Landmarks” (Chapter 8), and “Asking Directions” (Chapter 9). Learning each skill involves becoming familiar with its benefits and shortcomings, knowing the steps involved in carrying it out, and practicing until it feels like second nature.

“Taking Advantage of Everyday Wayfinding Technology” (Chapter 10) is part of life in the 21st century and something that can be a real boon to your navigation efforts. “Using Good Directional Sense” (Chapter 11) goes beyond the acquisition of wayfinding skills and technological magic to focus on approaching wayfinding with a positive attitude and good habits.

If you’re directionally challenged, reading this book is the first step toward making a large and positive change in your life. But just reading it won’t be enough. You’ll also need to take time to consider and practice the six wayfinding skills, and begin to change how you think and act as you make your way around our complex and confusing world. While it’s tempting to want to see an overnight transformation, becoming someone with directional sense is more likely to be a gradual process.

Sad to say, no book can completely prepare you for every situation you’ll encounter. Some of your future journeys will no doubt be effortless – signs being exactly where you need them and conveying the information you want to know, directions containing just the right amount of accurate detail, and unmistakable landmarks coming into view precisely when they are supposed to. Other journeys will be difficult since wayfinding cues all have shortcomings – signs may be absent or unintelligible, directions may be out of date, or there may be no landmarks on the horizon. Your own wayfinding behavior may also be less than ideal – you may not pay attention to directional information on signs, you may mis-hear an important directional step, or you may overlook an important landmark.

This book acquaints you with the good, the bad, and the ugly about wayfinding. If you know what to expect, you won’t be surprised when things go well, but you’ll also be able to figure out what to do when they go badly and you become lost. There are no magic answers, but understanding wayfinding cues and the skills needed to use them should help you pinpoint the problem, finding the disconnect between the information you have and the actions you need to take. As someone with newly acquired directional sense, you will be able to puzzle out how else to get needed information or what you should be doing differently. You will be confident enough to find your way once again, without panicking or blaming yourself and with a minimum of stress and delay.

A rich array of sources contributed to this book. Indepth interviews with 20 directionally challenged people provided insights about the world of the perpetually turned around. We quote the interviews in almost every chapter and refer to these men and women by first names, using pseudonyms for confidentiality.²  We also draw on wayfinding experts,  wayfinding articles, related research, and our own three decades as wayfinding consultants. Research – from educators, brain scientists, and others – shows that human beings can continue learning new things throughout their lives. If you’ve been frustrated by your past inability to find your way from one place to another, this book offers a chance for a fresh start, with a new blueprint for understanding and action. With effort, practice, and a positive outlook, you can become someone with directional sense: confident in your ability to get from here to there . . . and back.

¹Edward H. Cornell, Autumn Sorenson, and Teresa Mio, “Human Sense of Direction and Wayfinding,” Annals of the American Association of Geographers, 93, no. 2 (2003): 399-425.
²Twenty (20) self-identified, directionally challenged people (five men and fifteen women) were individually interviewed by Dr. Carpman in audiorecorded sessions.

Everyone who has ever been late for an appointment, missed a flight, or stood up a date because they lost their way will find both solace and instruction in this terrific book. It’s chock full of fascinating facts, amusing stories, and practical information to help wayward travelers of all stripes.

– Colin Ellard, author of You Are Here: Why We Can Find Our Way to the Moon, but Get Lost in the Mall