GDES-270 spring 2022 / David Ramos, American University Design

Intro project: observation, representation, and iteration

Create a map that presents the layout of a space, and displays the nature and intensity of the sensory inputs that you encountered. Through this project, you’ll explore ways of representing information in visual form, and walk through a four-stage design process.

See Kate McLean, Sensory Maps.


Design is a process of observing the outside world, reflecting on what you see in a way that incorporates both cultural context and personal insight, making a tangible product, and testing different versions of that project. A designer might run through these phases in series, but they could also move back and forth between steps, cycling through parts of the process in response to what they learn.

This project introduces all four phases. We’ll take them in series, at first.

For due dates, see the class schedule page.

1. Observe

Go spend time in some area that you’re curious about. (Take drawing and writing implements with you.) Be aware of the sensory cues that the environment provides—what you see, hear, smell, and feel.

Since we’re in the midst of a pandemic, you can choose whatever area you’d like. You could even stay in your own room, observing closely.

Gather three kinds of information:

Spend half an hour walking around, making a sketch map of your experience. This isn’t a final map, just a form of taking notes—don’t get too attached.

fallen fruit map

Fallen Fruit of Silver Lake, by Fallen Fruit.

2. Reflect

Back in your workspace, think about what you experienced, and start considering ways that you might represent the information you noted.


Soundmarks, Aldborough Roman Town, a collaboration between Rose Ferraby and Rob St. John. This piece by Rose Ferraby.

3. Create

Make a first version of a map. Aim to use a minimum of text. You’ll have to decide on a system for representing the key features of the place, and another system for encoding the sensory inputs. Think of this map as a way of sharing your space with the rest of the class—a kind of tour you’re taking us on.

lakeland fells

A Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells, Alfred Wainwright.

4. Iterate

We’ll critique and test your first version. In response to this feedback, make new versions of the map that explore different approaches and improve on existing ones.

key to map

From “Colorado River Basin” map, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, 1928.


To turn this project in, photograph or scan your map and upload the resulting image.