Navigating Time is a research project which explores how different individuals experience time and how it might be possible to visually map these experiences and compare them. The work was completed as part of a two year Design Masters (by Research) at Monash University, Melbourne in 2012. For a more detailed account of the research you may download the Navigating Time Theory publication here.

An Introduction

The experience of time is complex; it differs between individuals and greatly affects our attitudes to life, yet we typically lack the means by which we might recognise and discuss these differences. 

This research project began with a fascination for time, and a frustration with the seemingly limited ways in which it is represented in design discourse. The abundance of calendars, clocks and timelines seems to point to the dominance of the idea of time as a measurable phenomenon, one which is represented by a line. Whilst devices such as these are incredibly helpful, indeed crucial to contemporary society’s functioning, they do not capture the complexity of lived time. 

The potential significance of this research lies in the development of a series of visualisations for a theory of lived time, called the Navigating Time Theory. By drawing upon a range of disciplines that enquire into the nature of time, this series of visualisations integrates theory and practice-based research in order to reveal the different ways in which six research participants experience time. Metaphorical and abstract representation is combined in a comparative visual language to show how five ‘archetypes’ influence the participants’ relationship with time. Visualisation has been utilised as both a representational tool and a method to analyse data and develop theory. As such, in addition to the outcome outlined above, this research seeks to contribute to knowledge in the field of visual communication by exploring the potential for a methodology that translates the experience of time into visual representation.

Research Methodology

In recognising that existing visual representations of time are largely unable to shed light on the experience of time, this research sought to develop visuals that might capture a more complex picture of lived time. This desired objective necessitated the involvement of research participants, whose presence added a social dimension that other representations appeared to lack. The research conducted by Zimbardo and Boyd (2008) provided evidence in support of the claim that people experience time differently; the involvement of participants in this research enabled an exploration of these different experiences. These factors suggested that a qualitative approach, which drew upon both design and social science research methods, was most appropriate. 

In order to visually represent the social significance of lived time, six research participants, ranging in age from 25 to 67, were individually interviewed and asked to complete three tasks. The first task required the participants to record how they spent their time for the duration of one week in a time diary. The second task required them to ‘draw a picture of time with yourself in it.’ The final task asked them to rank nine metaphors in the order that best described their experience of time. A semi-structured conversation surrounding the participants’ experience of time was also conducted, and a variety of topics were discussed. Once collected, the research data was analysed by combining Grounded Theory and visualisation techniques as part of an experimental methodology. 

Zimbardo, P. ; Boyd, J., 2008. The Time Paradox: The New Psychology of Time That Will Change Your Life, New York : Free Press

The Navigating
Time Theory

Our experience of time is complex. Any theory or representation of it must acknowledge this complexity. We don’t simply use time; we also view it, structure it, think about it, and reflect upon it. 

The Navigating Time Theory attempts to communicate how six research participants experience time differently. The theory accounts for the intricate and layered nature of the participants’ experience through a framework that allows differences in experience to emerge. It describes how the experience of time can be understood as a journey aboard a metaphorical vessel, involving five different navigational tasks influenced by five archetypes. These five different archetypes cooperate and at times conflict with one another over how best to travel through time. The five archetypes and the navigational tasks that they influence are listed below:

Archetypes & Tasks

The Architect: influences how we imagine and design the future
The Surveyor: influences how we view and observe the passing of time
The Director: influences how we make decisions regarding our direction in time 
The Conservator: influences how we reflect on and relate to our past
The Banker: influences how we spend and budget our time

How the participants’ archetypes exert their influence varies. In other words, not all Architects are the same, nor are all Bankers. For example, how the participants viewed the passing of time varied. They therefore do not all share the same type of Surveyor. Some participants viewed the passing of time with an optimistic attitude, and other participants observed the passing of time as neither good nor bad, instead adopting a more detached stance. Variations in each archetype were developed to account for these differences. They are listed below. For a more detailed discussion of each, refer to page 7 & 8.

Archetypal Variations

The Architect: Visionary or Adventurous
The Surveyor: Optimistic or Unattached or Assertive
The Director: Cautious or Determined or Carefree or Assured
The Conservator: Resourceful or Creative or Idle
The Banker: Clock Aware or Energy Efficient or Multi Geared

Visualising Theory

A comparative visual language was developed to represent the six participants’ experiences of time. This approach allows their experiences to be compared, and reveals the different temporal worlds in which the participants live. Two types of representation, metaphorical and abstract, have been used in this research to communicate the Navigating Time Theory. Metaphorical representation is used to communicate the influence of five ‘archetypes’ through a symbolic visual language, while abstract representation is used to communicate additional detail surrounding how the archetypes influence the participants’ orientation and tempo. Combined, these two approaches form a metaphorical vessel, representative of the participants’ experience of time at a particular point in time.

Mapping Tempo


Mapping Orientation


The Archetypes


The final six visualisations (Participant 1 – 6)

Exhibition of work



In attempting to develop new forms of visual representation for time, this research has explored how visualisations can capture the social significance of lived time. In doing so, it has also explored the potential for visualisation to play a key role in data analysis and the theory building. These approaches combined to open up many new paths for exploration. Indeed, it would appear that this practice-based research has merely scratched the surface of a topic that extends seemingly indefinitely.

The visualisation of the Navigating Time Theory is by no means the only solution that could have been suggested. However, its strength lies in its ability to aid our understanding of our experiences of time through a metaphorical communicative tool. Any representation of our experience of time must acknowledge the complexity inherent in this experience. Given the relevance of metaphor to both time and cognition, and its ability to bridge the divide between the visual and the verbal, its application here provides a vehicle to communicate this complexity; in essence, it offers a human solution to a human problem.  

The use of visualisation in this research significantly aided the development of the Navigating Time Theory and was crucial to the communication of it. The role that visualisation played in the development of the theory points to the potential for its application in other research. In particular, it could be argued that designers, due to their embodied approach to knowledge and their familiarity with visual methods, are uniquely positioned to explore methods such as this one. Further development of such methods may also work to address specialised academic divides, which often prevent knowledge from being widely accessible. In other words, the development of visual research methods may, as Buchanan (1992) writes, extend knowledge ‘beyond the library of the laboratory in order to serve the purpose of enriching human life.’

Finally, as this research was concerned with developing a method to translate the experience of time into a visual representation, as well as producing a comparative visual language to represent the varied temporal worlds that the participants live in, it was outside the scope of this research to refine the theory entirely. Table 1.0 presents the theory diagrammatically, and highlights potential areas for exploration, if future research were to be conducted.