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Ambient Findability by Peter Morville

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Chapter 2. A Brief History of Wayfinding

Not all those who wander are lost.

—J.R.R. Tolkien

Labyrinths and mazes are two distinct creatures. In the modern world, we are most familiar with the maze, an intricate and often confusing network of interconnecting pathways or tunnels designed to challenge the skills of all who enter. Mazes are multicursal. They offer a choice of paths, along with a disorienting mix of twists, turns, blind alleys, and dead ends. In a maze, it’s hard to find your way and easy to become lost.

In contrast, a true labyrinth is unicursal, like the one in Figure 2-1. There is one well-defined path that leads into the center and back out again. The labyrinth is an ancient symbol with a 3,500 year history in religion and mythology in such diverse places as Egypt, Peru, Arizona, Iceland, India, and Sumatra. It combines the imagery of circle and spiral into a meandering but purposeful path, a reassuring metaphor for our journey through life.

In practice, we use the terms interchangeably. Our most famous labyrinth was really a maze, designed by the skillful architect Daedalus to entomb the Minotaur and its victims. Only by relying on Ariadne’s ball of thread was Theseus able to escape after slaying the beast at the center. Like today’s mazes of hedge and corn and ink, the labyrinth of Crete was a puzzle, inviting competitors to test their skills.

Semantics aside, our fascination with labyrinths and mazes stems from a primal fear of being lost. Over the course of history, ...

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