When I’m looking for some intellectual stimulation or inspiration, I often listen to TED Talks online, delving into subjects like Creativity or Motivation for example. TED was originally set up as a design and technology conference in 1984 but has now grown into an online media giant, freely flowing with talks on science, culture and any academic subject you can think of under the banner of ‘Ideas worth Spreading’. So it was with great honour to find one of my maps has made it to a TEDx talk. TEDx helps independent organizers to create a TED-like event in their own community in order to ‘spread the ideas’ too. Smaller in scale but in an age of sharing, size doesn’t matter so much anymore.
This particular TEDx talk was held at the ISM University of Management and Economics in Vilnius, Lithuania this October. The theme was “Question The Expected” and asked the 500 strong audience to be curious about their choices, beliefs and perceptions of the world.
You may remember my involvement in September with the Baby Lab at the University of Sussex. In connection with that, the talk was given by Doctoral Researcher, Alice Skelton, who works there. Her research is particularly about colour perception in babies and how humans develop the use of language to talk about colour.
One of the largest projects Alice has taken part in is the Categories project, which looks at how infants below 6 months categorise colour. And by categories, I mean grouping colours into ‘red’, ‘blue’, ‘green’, ‘yellow’, ‘brown’ or ‘pink’ etc. There is a huge difference between a rich dark wine red and a bright perky pillar box red but in our culture we still group them together or categorise them, as ‘red’. In the study, babies were tested to see if they could tell the difference between colours without having the words for them, if they were categorising them and how they did it. The results will ultimately tell us how we talk about colour as adults.
It turns out that pre-language babies in the study could naturally distinguish 5 different colour categories. The suggestion is that distinguishing any further subtleties or disregarding some subtleties must come after language is learnt. Different languages divide up the spectrum differently- so some languages only have 5 main categories they group colours in but others use 6 or 7 or 8… English has 11 and Greek and Russian for example both have 12 categories. The environment you are born into (and therefore what your community labels as important) teaches you names for colours, in which groups they are categorised and the subtleties in colours you are most able to distinguish.
The ability to see in colour is a skill that humans enjoy very much. It’s what allows us to appreciate great art. But it’s a practical tool in our box too. We can find things at a distance more easily; distinguish between objects (are you about to eat a carrot or a parsnip?); or highlight important features in a simple way. And this is where my map popped up as an example on the TEDx presentation screen…
This map of Brighton (from Hand Drawn Maps) is designed as a sensory map. Instead of focussing on physical features in the town, I have mapped the smells you might encounter using simple coloured icons. Brown for the beer smell wafting heavily outside the many bars, pale yellow-green for the lemongrass smell lingering outside the Thai Restaurants and a dirty lilac for the smell hovering over the rubbish bins in the less brightly lit corners. The intensity of the smell is shown by the intensity of the colour. Sometimes the smells combine, shown by the colours lapping over each other.
Without being able to distinguish the subtleties of the colours I’ve used and categorise them, (as a red or a brown, for example), the map would be much harder to understand. Being able to distinguish those subtleties relies on your language and culture. So although it’s a fairly decorative art-map, leaning more on illustrative aesthetics than pinpoint accurate geography, you can only read it easily if you have the right words and your culture has taught you how to.
And that, my friends, is not art but science.