The other day, I realized that map designers have a really strange blind spot. There’s a certain map element that nearly everyone incorporates, but I may have literally never seen any sort of advice, discussion, research on the role it plays in design. Map Projections? Layout? Typography? Color? Mapmakers know those topics like the back of their hand.
Prose, however, seems to get no attention whatsoever. It’s not that mapmakers are bad writers per se; it’s that we’ve never discussed the considerations of putting text (well, paragraph-or-longer text) into a map.
I think I know the reason why this topic gets glossed over. Maps are a visual medium. So for mapmakers, textual communication takes a backseat to visual communication. This mindset can even result in a kind of anti-prose chauvinism: “If I have to explain the map, doesn’t that mean it’s poorly designed?” … in some cases that may be true, however good prose can benefit even the most well-designed map.
To be specific…
How Prose Gets Used in Maps
For the sake of a cool (albeit informal) list, I’ve identified three common ways prose gets incorporated into maps.
1: The blurb
The blurb might be the most common form of map prose. Used all the time in thematic mapping, the blurb is like a mini-thesis for the map, establishing:
- what topic, broadly speaking, the map is depicting
- why this topic is important or relevant
- sometimes: where the data came from
- sometimes: a small primer on how to read the map or use its interactive components
- and often wraps up with: what conclusions can be drawn from the data
Above: Brian Davidson - The AIDS Epidemic (2013). A blurb with a strong focus on call-to-action. Illustrating the power of the blurb, that paragraph is probably the most informative and engaging part of the piece.
When we first glance at a map, we just kinda take it in how it “looks”, then we begin looking deeper and reading it in a more attentive way. The blurb often serves as the first part of that deeper intellectual engagement with the map; reading the blurb is like the map shaking your hand and formally introducing itself. So it oughta be treated as a fundamental component of the map’s message and purpose. Don’t just write it up as an afterthought or slap it in to fill some whitespace.
2: The writeup
This is a type of map prose I’m seeing more and more of, and I think it’s a fantastic trend. The writeup is similar in structure/purpose to the blurb… but it’s much longer in word count and exists ‘outside’ the map. Usually we see writeups when maps are published in blogs, news sites, or journals, and the author wants to provide a full ‘intellectual audit’ of the thing they created.
ABOVE: Screenshot from: John Nelson - The Dispersion of Life and Gender in New York (2013). The writeup of these maps are as indispensable as the maps themselves.
Even if a map has the most clear data representation possible, there will be subtle but powerful insights (both large and small) that can be plucked from the visualization. The writeup offers a way to share all those insights, while also separating it all from the map itself. If a casual viewer just wants to look at the map and move on with their day, they can do that; those who want to learn more can read the writeup.
3: The text-focused piece
This is less of a style of prose-in-maps as much as a style of maps-in-prose: there’s no shortage of media that communicate their information and story primarily through prose, with maps and other graphics serving only as supplementary material. New York Times’ Snowfall started a trend of richly multimedia news articles with lots and lots and lots of text. At the same time, tower infographics, which have always had an emphasis on being hyper-laconic, have lost a lot of their cultural capital (after you’ve been mocked by both xkcd and smbc, there’s no going back).
ABOVE: Screenshot from: New York Times - Snowfall (2012). You could never tell this story just using maps.
The trend, then, seems to be information designers re-discovering prose as a communication medium. And hey, combining writing and images is a great communication medium at that: it’s how you’re consuming this essay, after all. It seems like a silly epiphany: “hey y’all, you can communicate with words as well as pictures!”. But like I mentioned way back at the start, information designers have spent so much time thinking in terms of visuals that we forget that writing can be one of our tools for communication. When I first made this demographic map of Switzerland, viewers seemed to resonate with the blurb rather than the hefty amounts of data. When I had the opportunity to redesign it, I added a lot of explanatory text and de-emphasized the datavis component, because that’s the way that viewers would learn the most. The maps practically became window dressing.
Good writing is more than just making sure your text is free of grammar and spelling mistakes. Text, as we’ve learned above, is a powerful communication channel that a mapmaker can opt to leverage. So how exactly should we go about that? I’ve touched on a few textual considerations already: the best prose is engaging, informative, and always written with broader communication goals in mind. The last thing I want to touch on is how the style of prose can serve a vital aesthetic purpose.
Images have an aesthetic, which is created by many sub-factors. The content of the image, how that content is organized, and how the content is styled are the main components. Writing is the same way. Just like we design the aesthetic of images to communicate the ‘brand image’ of a piece, we need to ‘design’ our writing to accomplish the same. Contrast these two writeups on mapping/analysis projects, written by Ralph Straumann (about maps of Google Autocomplete queries) and Randall Munroe (about how earth’s ecology would change if the landmasses were rotated 90 degrees).
Go on, open those links and read ‘em. I’ll be right here when you get back.
ABOVE: Screenshot from: Ralph Straumann/Mark Graham - The World Through the Eyes of a Search Algorithm (2014).
Straumann’s prose has an academic flavor, right down to organizing content into research-style headers (description/data/findings) and offering further reading at the end. He is careful to catalog the intellectual provenance of his maps (such as what tools and data sources he used) and describe both the strengths and limitations of his data and analysis. Polysyllabic technical language (e.g., “semantic ambiguity”) is the order of the day. The tone of this writeup lends a potent intellectual legitimacy to the mapping of Google Autocomplete queries, which is normally considered a cartographic frivolity.
ABOVE: Screenshot from: Randall Munroe - What If? (Cassini) (2012).
Munroe’s writing, by contrast, is designed as much to entertain as to inform. Short paragraphs and plainspoken language, sprinkled with his trademark droll sense of humor. No catalog of data sources or bibliography here: instead we’re treated to jokes about fire ants overtaking Minnesota. The emphasis of this writing is on telling a story and stoking the reader’s imagination.
Both of these writeups excellently suit their purpose, despite being very different stylistically. It’s no revelation that different writing styles are appropriate for different settings, but I want to emphasize how the tone of the copy enhances the information contained within the maps, and prompt the reader about how to interpret them. Imagine if the tone of these writeups were switched: the Google Autocomplete maps nested in breezy/jocular copy, and xkcd’s rotated continents surrounded by clinical science-talk.
Your encounter with those maps would be very different, right? Maybe even moreso than if you switched how their maps were designed.
To say it simply, the Atlas of Design is a really cool book celebrating cartographic design. The first volume was released in 2012, and now we’re in the midst of preparing for the second volume, to be released later this year. (I say ‘we’ because I’ve had the good fortune to be helping out as an editor!)
The Atlas has recently announced its Call For Submissions - so if you’ve made any sort of world-class map in the past few years, submit it! Submissions will be vetted by a panel of judges, and if we all agree your map is totally awesome, then it will published in the Atlas for all the world to enjoy.
Our hope is to have a wide diversity of styles and subjects: the first volume featured everything from infographics to fantasy maps, transit maps to web map tiles. (You can see all the maps published in volume one here).
Well, 2013 isn’t quite over yet, but already my mind is on looking back at the year in review. It’s certainly been a very eventful year for the geospatial world.
On the tech side of things, we had the release of QGIS 2.0, the iD editor for OpenStreetMap, and the continued improvement/popularity of tools like D3 and Leaflet. We had awesome events like Penn State’s Map MOOC and crisis mapping after Typhoons Haiyan and Yolanda.
Public attention about maps and geography is bigger than ever, with a spate of “maps that explain the world” listicles and the launch of Wired.com’s mapping blog. We even saw increased public attention about the dark side of geospatial technology, with stories about things like NSA surveillance and Ghetto Tracker.
But most of all, we had the release of a bunch of really cool, creative, and interesting maps. Here’s my very subjective listing of the best maps 2013 had to offer: