Academic journal article Visible Language

The Environment Is (Still) Not in the Head: Harry Heft & Contemporary Methodological Approaches to Navigation and Wayfinding

Academic journal article Visible Language

The Environment Is (Still) Not in the Head: Harry Heft & Contemporary Methodological Approaches to Navigation and Wayfinding

Article excerpt

Traditional approaches to spatial cognition focus on postulating underlying mental mechanisms, such as cognitive maps. Alternative theoretical approaches from the field of Ecological Psychology pioneered by Harry Heft offer needed perspectives with respect to how we understand and investigate navigation and wayfinding behavior. Successful environmental communication is about orchestrating an interaction that is flexible and robust; that can capture the idiosyncrasies of everyday activities. Abstracted, disembodied, and static representations of experience like the cognitive map fail to capture these idiosyncrasies. Employing a theoretical framework that focuses on the on-going perception-action processes of navigation will provide new ways to conceptualize communication systems that are adaptive, dynamic, and can successfully operate amongst the increasing technological complexity of contemporary spaces. New methodological tools from the field of Ecological Psychology can provide ways to identify these on-going processes that modulate interactions within environments as the interaction unfolds. These processes are constituted by patterns of physical movement and sensory experience as well as socio-cultural factors. The way individuals are engaged in these processes can change throughout the course of the interaction; the way designers establish, fluctuate, and disrupt the flow of this engagement is driven by when and how they intend users to perceive features of a visual communication system.


New technological methods for communication have emerged that allow information and interaction to be further embedded in physical spaces and feedback loops to become further intertwined. These communication exchanges happen simultaneously across different mediums and between both users and technological systems (figure 1).

It is no longer possible to consider pieces of a design solution in isolation from one another. Design and ecological psychology both continue to take on the challenge of understanding how individuals behave and interact within the complexity of their environments. The tenets of ecological psychology are not unfamiliar to designers. The founder of the field, James Gibson, introduced the concept of affordances which was then popularized in the field of design by Donald Norman's book, The Design of Everyday Things. Lesser-known and more contemporary developments in ecological psychology can provide new approaches to investigating how users navigate amidst the increasing complexity of contemporary space.

Dr. Harry Heft, a professor of psychology at Denison University, has an extensive history of writing about how ecological psychology provides a needed perspective concerning how we perceive and interact with our environments (Heft, 2010,1999,1997). The focus here will be his more recent work regarding an ecological approach to studying spatial cognition and wayfinding processes (Heft, 2013,2012,1996).

Heftdiscusses in his chapter titled "Wayfinding, navigation, and spatial cognition from a naturalist's standpoint" in The Handbook of Spatial Cognition, how the field is traditionally focused on describing our use of cognitive maps. Cognitive maps are overviews of a layout that focus on geometric relations not seen from the ground surface, but from a bird's-eye-view. Heftargues against the idea that exercising spatial knowledge requires referencing a cognitive map existing in the head. First, it is problematic because it is not the way we experience the world. The vantage point of a bird's-eye-view is something we rarely directly experience, thus it is disconnected from the nature of our everyday interactions with the world. For example consider the difference between Googlemaps and Google Streetview (figures 2 and 3). The bird's-eye-view of Googlemaps is a simplification of what is depicted in Streetview. Objects are shown in isolation, but as Heftexplains, the objects we experience while navigating environments rest on surfaces among multiple other objects and perceptual features. …

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