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Directional dyslexia or just bad design?

The first GPS I ever had was a Garmin StreetPilot i3. It's about the size of baseball and I paid $400 for it. Definitely some of the best money I ever spent, because I finally had something to help me get to places while driving.

Even to this day as I write this in late 2020, GPS navigation still feels magical to me. I still love it to this day, and I sincerely believe it's the best thing to happen to cars since the invention of the automatic transmission. These days I use a GPS that's much more advanced than that little i3, but I still love it just the same.

Also in 2020, I learned of something called directional dyslexia. This also goes by other names such as geographical dyslexia, developmental topographic disorientation, and so on. Most people just call it a bad sense of direction.

After learning about directional dyslexia, I wondered if I suffered from that, and that's why I made this page.

Here is what I came up with. If you suffer from a poor sense of direction while driving, this information may help you out. Or, if it doesn't help, it will at least answer the question of whether you truly have a bad sense of direction or not.

Navigating is complicated

Driving anywhere is never A to B but rather A to Z. If driving to a place was truly A to B, that means you get in the car, drive on one road, and the only stop you make is when you get to the destination.

That never happens.

There are many steps involved even if where you're going is only a few miles away. Leave the house, turn left, come to a stop light, turn left, stop at another light, go straight, bear right, stay in the right lane, and so on, and so forth. A to B driving does not exist.

Everything looks the same

I live in the DFW (that means Dallas/Ft. Worth) area of Texas at the time I write this. Regardless of where you drive around here, most major intersections look identical. Go to an intersection, see a Subway, McDonald's and a gas station. Go to another intersection, and guess what? Same thing. A Subway, McDonald's and a gas station. Go to another intersection, see a Wal-Mart. Go to another intersection a few miles up the road, see another Wal-Mart that looks pretty much the same as the last one.

DFW has an absolutely ridiculous amount of cut-and-paste landscape going on, so no wonder people get lost routinely. The only way you know you're anywhere is by periodically passing a water tower that states the name of the town on it.

I grew up in southern New England (Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island), and navigating there is even worse. Instead of the cut-and-paste style of DFW Texas, what you get is that if you take one wrong turn anywhere, all of a sudden you're on some skinny back road where all you see to your left and right are trees like this and periodically pass a house. Good luck trying to figure out where you are if you land on one of those roads. You'll never see a water tower telling you where you are there.

I also lived in Tampa Florida, where it's easy to get stuck in the suburbs where every street looks the same and all the houses look similar to each other.

It's too easy to get lost driving anywhere in the USA. You might encounter cut-and-paste landscape. You might end up in the middle of the woods.

Most street signs don't tell you where you're going

Highways and tollways have signs that actually state the cardinal direction (as in north, south, east or west). Some numbered routes state the cardinal direction but most don't. And the majority of roads that aren't highways, tollways or numbered routes don't state the cardinal direction at all.

Let's say you're driving on Main Street. Okay, then, Main Street where? North? South? East? West? You don't know, and none of the signs will tell you, so how are you supposed to know which direction you're driving?

Answer: You don't.

Unless you examine a map on your phone, GPS or use a paper map, you'll never know what cardinal direction you're facing; this is the reason most people don't know north from south from east from west.

In some instances (but usually only on major roads), the green sign stating the street name will have an oh-so tiny single letter of N, S, E or W which indicates the direction of north, south, east or west. But can you read this while driving by it? OF COURSE NOT!

The solution to this problem is actually rather obvious. Put the cardinal direction at the bottom of all speed limit signs, directly under the MPH number.

Wouldn't it be great if speed limit signs looked like this?


Instead of having cardinal direction as a tiny letter that nobody can read while a vehicle is in motion, put the damned cardinal direction on the FRONT FACING speed limit signs that EVERYBODY can read.

Landmarks? What landmarks?

Years ago, there used to be buildings and signs that had a very distinctive look to them. All of those are gone now.

Holiday Inn is a great example of this. They used to have what's known as the "Great Sign" with a big light-up arrow on it and a star on top. Very distinctive. It was used from the 1950s to the 1970s.


What's the Holiday Inn sign now? A very boring, bland and corporate looking thing that is instantly forgettable. You absolutely cannot use a Holiday Inn as a landmark anymore because of this, as it looks like any other boring, bland hotel out there.

McMansion Hell

Drive in any trailer park and you'll find your way around it easily because residents like to make their homes unique - and that's cool.

Drive in any "master planned community", and every house looks exactly like the other with very minor variations on a theme. The houses all look the same, the yard sizes all look the same, and even the mailboxes all look the same. This is another example of copy-and-paste, again and again, over and over.

McMansion Hell is in every state to some degree. With everything looking the same, navigation is difficult since there are no distinctive features from one house to the next.

Is directional dyslexia truly to blame for a poor sense of direction?

Directional dyslexia exists, to be sure, but the blame for not knowing where you're going could be pointed at any number of other things that aren't your fault.

The copy/paste landscape, lack of landmarks, severe lack of signs stating cardinal direction, poorly designed suburbs and so on? None of that is your fault at all.

What's the best thing you can do?

You can do the following:

Always use GPS, and make damned sure you have a backup GPS in your car in case the first one fails. Also make damned sure you have a backup power cord (as in charging cable) too.

Set up your GPS properly. Watch this video:

Study the map either on your phone or GPS. Mind where you're going so you can learn your north from south from east from west. After a while, you will naturally start to get a better handle on where you are. Do this long enough, and you'll be able to get back home from no matter where you are.

Buy a road atlas and keep it in the car. You may never need it, but if you ever do, you'll be very glad you have one. Mark where your home is on that map so you have a point of reference. If you do ever need to use that road atlas, just pull into the nearest gas station and ask what town you're in. You can then find that town via the index in the back of the road atlas that will point you right to the page you need to be. From there, find the town, find the nearest major road in town, go there, and you'll be able to get back home.

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