Here’s a statement for you to evaluate.
As it stands now, maps are made to look strongly alike.
Even if you have no map design training, you’re familiar with ‘cartographic conventions’; those little things that give maps a cohesive visual language. North is up, water bodies are blue, text curves around rivers, et cetera et cetera. When I say maps look alike, I am not actually referring to these sorts of things, although they do play a role in making maps a visually consistent medium. Rather, I’m talking to the most structural, fundamental aspects forming the look of modern-day maps. For example, think of how well the maps you look at everyday conform to these descriptions:
- The view is generally planimetric (i.e. ‘top down’), rather than oblique.
- Linework is thin and precise-looking.
- Aside from the inherent distortion of map projection, geographic distortion is minimized as much as possible.
- The typography has a legibility-focused, non-decorative personality.
- It is produced digitally, and opts for vector data formats when possible.
- Map symbols are abstracted to their most geometric representation feasible. Cities become dots, points of interest become stars, airports become tiny airplane silhouettes, etc.
- Visual parsimony: the elimination or minimization of graphic elements that serve purely as flourish. The only things on the map are landscape features, quantitative data, and/or functional elements such as scale bars and gridlines.
- A color palette that is ‘even’: not too bold, contrasting, or saturated.
I’m sure there are more examples I haven’t touched upon, but essentially, these are some the universally accepted, yet unspoken rules that dictate how a map ‘should’ look. In other words, they are the components of a certain aesthetic now ubiquitous in map creation – the Cartographic aesthetic.
Though maps have almost always exhibited some of these qualities, to some degree, it’s obvious that the general look of maps have evolved over time. Colonial-era maps were drafted in pencil and abound with ornate graphical trappings. These gradually gave way to the maps of today, which have the clinical, technical, minimalist appearance described above.
It’s obviously impossible to capture a truly representative set of examples on how map aesthetics have changed over time, but here’s my best attempt.
TOP: Adriaan Reland - ‘Het Westerdeel van het Eyland Groot Java, 1718’ (1718). This Dutch map of Java has many illustrative elements, including very pictorial map symbols. Yep, I’m counting those drawings of elephants and stone workers as map symbols- they’re a visual icon representing geographic features at that point.
MIDDLE: Author(s) unknown - ‘Great Britain. Her natural and industrial resources’ (c. 1940). This map contains almost identical information to the map above: cities, economic activities, and land cover. What’s different is fewer graphic embellishments, a more drafted appearance, more legible text, and a more formal symbol scheme based more on geometric shapes, rather than pictorial symbols.
BOTTOM: Philippe Rekacewicz - ‘Utopian Africa’ (2011). Once again, we have a map showing natural resources. This time, the map is completely devoid of illustrative elements, and the symbols are wholly abstracted into geometric shapes. The most distinctive aesthetic choices for maps in the digital age.
There are two explanations you could offer for why these aesthetic features rose to prominence. The first is utilitarian. Planimetric, undistorted views allow for the easy and sensible measurement of distances between map features. Non-decorative typefaces are easier to read. Digital production makes mapmaking and data sharing much easier, and the Cartesian concept of vectors are highly appropriate for representing real-world space. The other explanation of the cartographic aesthetic is rhetoric. Several of the features described above, such as inoffensive palettes and geometric symbols, do not serve to make the map any more accurate in terms of portraying geographic reality, or serve any other readily apparent functional purpose. What they do, however, is to make the map look objective and authoritarian. With their tidy, technical appearance, maps have an aura of precision, of professionalism, of intelligence, of trustworthiness. Mapmakers have long known these qualities aren’t totally true, of course. All maps are inherently inaccurate abstractions of reality; all maps contain uncertain and/or incomplete information; all maps reflect some sort of bias from their author. But by employing the cartographic aesthetic, these subtle and unfortunate implications aren’t communicated to the reader. The mapmaker does everything in their power to make their map appear as geographic gospel.
TOP: Jean Klare & Louise van Swaaij - ‘World of Experience’ (2000). This ‘map’ so perfectly co-opts the aesthetic and visual language of cartography, it’s almost easy not to notice that it isn’t portraying any sort of geographic reality, but rather a subjectively organized set of concepts meaningful to the human condition. Non-cartographic subject matter, done in a cartographic style.
BOTTOM: Paula Scher - ‘The World’ (1998). Do you trust this map? This acrylic painting contains all the same information as a more ‘legitimate’ world map: the only difference is in aesthetics. Its most standout features are the medium used, its dense visual hierarchy, and its ‘distorted’ text and geography. Cartographic subject matter, done in a non-cartographic style.
This isn’t to say that the cartographic aesthetic is inherently malicious, or that it should be abandoned. Imperfect as they may be, a properly produced map is the culmination of many sophisticated and reliable components. Our topography is produced by space-age satellite measurements; roads and other features are meticulously geocoded; socioeconomic data comes from thorough, well-funded censuses- just to cite a few examples. If a map is built upon adequately current, functional, and trustworthy information, then it just makes sense to design the map look authoritative, because it is authoritative.
There is a curious side effect to having all maps adopt this same formal aesthetic, though. The cartographic aesthetic is so effective at appearing ‘objective’ because it rejects the inclusion of any appearance of human touch. The human touch is imperfect, you see, and imperfections damage the credibility of a map. A human hand can’t draw a perfectly straight line. A human hand can’t reproduce the highly precise forms of a typeface. A human hand can’t create a perfectly matte field of color. A professional-looking map, ergo, shouldn’t look like it had an actual designer, but rather that it somehow sorta sprang straight from the ether. This creates a unique situation for map designers, relative to their other peers in the commercial arts. If you are a painter, or an illustrator, or a graphic designer, you’ll generally want your work to be distinctive and have a personality. Offering something that no one else can is how you elevate your craft, and it’s how you distinguish yourself as a creative (and therefore earn a paycheck). Cartographers, however, are essentially encouraged to make their work as personality-neutral as possible. Or, at the very least, they may explore their own artistic voice only within the confines created by the cartographic aesthetic and the nature of their subject matter. One cartographer may like sans-serif fonts and drop shadows, while another may always work in darker backgrounds and rounded rectangles. Are these tiny stylistic choices really enough to distinguish the works of these two cartographers, the same way we can instantly tell the difference between, say, Picasso and Dali? Probably not. So then, is it a worthwhile goal, in and of itself, to create a field where each map designer’s works are highly distinct from each other? Where with enough familiarity, you can identify who made a map from a mile away? I honestly don’t have an argument one way or the other. But what I am pretty sure of, and I hope I’ve made the case of with this whole writing, is: mapmaking has rules, and if you want to create a truly distinctive map, you can’t be afraid to break a few of them.
Tune in two weeks from now, when I make a map that goes ahead and breaks a few rules. Next Sunday, though, we’re going to have the first of MapHugger’s in depth map critiques. You’ll get to learn what my favorite map of all time is, and why I like it so much! Stay tuned.