Tactile Mapping Overview

(Prepared for guest presentation to a group of college students studying to become Specialists in Low Vision and Blindness.)

What is a tactile map?

Tactile maps use raised lines, textures, and braille to diagrammatically represent areas or locations (e.g. cities, countries, neighborhoods, college campuses, museums). Tactile maps may include some visual information, like high-contrast color and large print text. The purpose and content of the map help determine the design and production process.

Tactile Mapping Principles

  1. Clutter is the enemy. Use the least amount of tactile information possible to convey content. Simplify designs to include essential information only.
  2. Use a maximum of 4-5 items within each category: textures, symbols, line types. Cognitive overload kicks in if someone has to remember more than 5 different symbols on the same page.
  3. Know who is using the map and why.
  4. Titles and labels give meaning to the map. These can be written in braille and/or large print, or a spoken recording (smart pen or app that tracks finger movement). Always provide a map key, unless everything on the map is clearly labeled. Do not assume that common visual language translates to tactile representation.
  5. Create a point(s) of reference. If the map reader gets lost on the page, they can easily return to the point of reference to orient themselves. For example, North arrow, You Are Here dot (if applicable), Title can all be useful points of reference.

How do we design tactile maps?

Map Concept/Purpose (What’s the point?)

  • Why are we making this map? (e.g. for wayfinding, geography lesson, political analysis)
  • Who is the audience? (e.g. elementary schoolers, adult professionals, experienced tactile map readers, braille learners)
  • What does the audience want from this map? (e.g. to find the restrooms in the airport, to get from the bus stop to work, to practice tactile reading)

Map Contents (What’s on it?)

  • What is the most important information to be conveyed by this map to the user? (e.g. landmarks, paths of travel, streets, buildings, doorways, room numbers) 
  • What other information is pertinent, but plays a supporting role?
  • If this map is for wayfinding, how might someone move through the space? (Is there a main path of travel or are there variable paths or open space)

Production Methods (not exhaustive list)

What materials is the map made from? What tools are used for design? How is it printed?

  • Hand-drawing on specialized tactile surface: 
  • Collage: using any craft or household item that is feelable to adhere to a base. 
    • Pros:
      • No digital tools required
      • Low-cost
      • Customizable 
    • Cons:
      • Takes a long time to make
      • Not easily reproduced (unless made for thermoform)
  • Graphics Embossers: make embossed paper maps, either on a single sheet or as booklets. Some graphics embossers include ink-print capabilities.
    • Pros:
      • Maps can be reproduced from digital files
      • Resolution is good for simple maps
      • Can overlay large print and braille to save space (but sometimes braille makes print text difficult to read) 
    • Cons:
      • Resolution varies, depending on embosser
      • Map/graphic must be designed for specific embossers, depending on their resolution
      • Tactile height can be too low for some users
      • Paper tears, braille and tactile elements can squish if stacked or in a backpack for too long
      • Requires use of digital design tools
  • Microcapsule (or Swell, PIAF) makes tactile graphics or maps on special paper which raises where it is drawn or printed on.
    • Pros:
      • High resolution
      • Cheaper than embossers
      • Can use hand-drawing and/or digital design to create images
      • Can use color, depending on printer
      • Can be reproduced by photocopying onto microcapsule paper or printing from digital file
    • Cons:
      • Inconsistent results
      • Braille and tactile info are lower at edge of paper than in center of paper
      • Print and braille text must be separate because print will raise
      • Some colors raise and some do not, depending on printer ink
  • Other methods for making tactile graphics: UV printers, 3D printers, thermoform, thermography.

Considerations beyond design

Use and Distribution (if maps are for more than one person)

  • Where will the map(s) be located?
  • How will users access the map(s)?
  • Who is the point of contact for the end users?

Training

  • What training, if any, do the users need to be able to read the maps?
  • What training do map distributors (e.g. museum info desk staff/volunteers) need?

Resources

TMAP is an app that produces tactile street map files. By LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired.

BTactile.com is an archive of tactile graphics for a variety of production methods. Download and print graphics yourself.