Mental Landscapes

exploratory and generative research for a university design lab

Purpose & Role

The purpose of this project is to design and develop new methods for expressing thinking about complex phenomena through the use of a landscape metaphor. As a research assistant, I created a series of landscape elements in Illustrator, laser-cut them out of cardstock, and informally tested them with peers to gauge their utility in expressing career paths.


I began this project with an audit of qualitative methods of expressing thinking about complex phenomena writ large. As I reviewed various examples, I began coding them according to method, topic, and audience.

3D wire models of motion in the workplace by Frank Gilbreth (via
Jane Echelman's visualization of the tsunami waves of 2011 (via the Renwick Gallery).

One of the most compelling examples I found was of a landscape, meant to visualize the complex experience of completing an online course. Although the visualization was coupled with a quantified measure of progress (points), I found the landscape to be most representative of my qualitative experience of the course. Given my background in edtech, I was particularly interested in how this metaphor could apply to other experiences.

A screenshot of Code School's "CSS Cross Country" online course.

To learn more, I researched references to landscapes and conceptual metaphors in anthropology, cognitive science, and design. I found that landscapes are commonly used as metaphors for complex systems. Understanding a complex information system as an "information landscape", for example, helps convey the idea that such a system, like a landscape, is vast and encompasses many interacting variables. While we commonly use landscape metaphors in speech to help us understand complex systems, we rarely use landscape metaphors in visuals to help us understand complex systems. Where landscapes have been used as visuals to help explain complex systems, they are often abstracted from either the information they are meant to convey, or from how landscapes actually look in reality.

To further investigate the utility of using visual landscape metaphors (rather than pure verbal) to explain complex phenomena, I decided to design a series of landscape elements in Illustrator and laser-cut them out of cardstock. By informally asking peers to use the elements to create a landscape of their career paths, I hoped to gain insight into the following questions: Do visual information landscapes provide a useful framework for people to understand their own career path? Are there shared methods of utilizing a visual framework?

The materials I provided to create mental landscapes.

Broadly, I found that the framework was useful as a reflection tool to express emotional parts of an experience that are difficult to express verbally. Moreover, prescribing a metaphor and pre-cut elements forced people to think about their experience in a different way, which seemed to be valuable in and of itself.

Below is a timelapse of one person's career-scape.