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Map as Context

Understanding maps as de­signed ob­jects and at­tempt­ing to de­fine a the­ory for mak­ing dig­i­tal maps on the in­ter­net as good as old pa­per maps.

Looking at maps as they ex­ist to­day on the in­ter­net, we have a pretty solid idea of what that means. It means they look like Google Maps. This is a pretty re­cent de­sign so­lu­tion to the what is a map on the in­ter­net’ prob­lem, only about 10 years old. Which is old for in­ter­net, but pretty young for maps. The Google Maps model is a good one, too! It’s a very ef­fec­tive way to pre­sent what is es­sen­tially a road map - a dri­vers at­las for nav­i­gat­ing a city or a coun­try. Google Maps re­places the AAA State Highway map re­ally ef­fec­tively, but per­haps there are some weak links with how it ap­plies to other, less nav­i­ga­tion-ori­ented maps.

There a large num­ber of re­ally beau­ti­ful maps that ex­ist only on pa­per, and a large num­ber of re­ally ugly maps that ex­ist on screens. How can we start to think about maps in a way that bridges this gap? Is there a way we can ap­proach these other, not-a-roadmap-map maps more ef­fec­tively to make them as good as their pa­per-bound cousins?

To ap­proach this ques­tion from an an­gle, it’s worth tak­ing a mo­ment to think about what a map is. The map is a minia­ture that piv­ots around the body to rep­re­sent the gi­gan­tic enor­mity of the phys­i­cal world. The map shrinks the world down to a place it can be held in the hands and en­tirely seen with the eye. The map con­nects the vast­ness of re­al­ity to the body in way that can be han­dled - both phys­i­cally and men­tally.

This cre­ates ten­sion with maps on the screen - es­pe­cially the in­ter­net. The screen can not be touched, and the in­ter­net can not be re­lated to the body. Phones and tablets mit­i­gate this by bring­ing the screen closer, and mov­ing to the size of the hand, but the core dif­fi­culty re­mains — if a map ex­ists to scale down the enor­mity of the world to the size of the body, the in­ter­net it­self has no bound­aries or edges, and way to re­late the screen to the body.

Why is this con­nec­tion be­tween world and body im­por­tant? The map pro­vides con­text for un­der­stand­ing world-scale sys­tems and land­scape-scale con­cepts in a hu­man-scale ob­ject. The map is a ty­pol­ogy of com­mu­ni­ca­tion that sits half way be­tween the book and the vi­sual art ob­ject. Both the book and the paint­ing — or the print — are tech­niques that are used to pro­vide ac­cess to con­cepts and ideas be­yond the scale of a sin­gle in­di­vid­ual. The book can con­tain cen­turies of in­tel­lec­tual thought, the paint­ing can ex­pose feel­ings and emo­tions that touch any num­ber of peo­ple. If the map ex­ists be­tween these two mode of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, that means that it’s goal is to use a vol­ume of thought, of data, of mea­sure­ments to ex­pose a broad, un­der­ly­ing con­cept. This can be an en­vi­ron­men­tal truth (or the sup­po­si­tion of one) or a so­ci­etal in­sight.

The map does this through a very spe­cific set of vi­sual de­sign tools with for­mal qual­i­ties that lend them­selves to the prob­lem at hand. These for­mal­i­ties are partly de­fined and struc­tured by the tech­nolo­gies be­hind the pro­duc­tion and dis­tri­b­u­tion of the map.

The first maps where hand drawn, and cor­re­spond­ingly have at­trib­utes of other hand-made vi­sual works. With the ad­vent of print­ing, maps started to be carved into wood, and du­pli­cated. After wood, they came to etch­ing, and af­ter that lith­o­g­ra­phy. In each of the print tech­niques, cer­tain marks are fa­vored and made pos­si­ble through the medium of the ma­trix it­self. Shared in all the print tech­niques, how­ever, is the con­cept of plates — in­di­vid­ual drawn lay­ers for dif­fer­ent col­ors. Equating in­di­vid­ual plates to in­di­vid­ual col­ors to in­di­vid­ual ty­po­log­i­cal con­cepts be­ing shown on the map is a big rea­son why printed maps are so good.

The care­ful and de­lib­er­ate ap­pli­ca­tion of the maps for­mal char­ac­ter­is­tics to di­rectly ad­dress the ideas and con­cepts to be com­mu­ni­cated, the ad­dress the use of the map is what makes a map good.

On the in­ter­net, we make maps dif­fer­ently. GIS data sets mean that maps can be made through math­e­mat­i­cal and an­a­lytic tools — com­par­ing sets of data, and cre­at­ing new sets of data to an­swer ques­tions. A ro­bust and open set of pub­lic data means that there are map mak­ing tools which pro­vide ways to style and com­bine ex­ist­ing con­tent.

These tech­niques uti­lize a rel­a­tively sta­tic map that pur­ports to use­fully de­scribe the en­tire ge­og­ra­phy of the planet. All of the maps made are in­tended to sit within larger ap­pli­ca­tion, it­self de­signed to solve a prob­lem.

Most of the time, these maps fail to pro­vide mean­ing­ful con­nec­tion to the con­cepts pro­vided - they lose the es­sen­tial as­pect of the map that join world-to-hu­man scales, in­stead op­er­at­ing at the world-to-world level. The end­less map of the in­ter­net is it­self in­com­pre­hen­si­ble to the body. The maps of the in­ter­net are si­mul­ta­ne­ously too broad and too sim­ple, pro­vid­ing too much and too lit­tle. The prob­lem the map is pre­sent­ing it­self as a so­lu­tion too is usu­ally far too muddy, and the re­sult­ing lack of clar­ity of pur­pose leads to a map with it­self a lack of clar­ity.

Looking to the main pur­pose of the map — sim­plic­ity, clar­ity, and the minia­tur­iza­tion of the world to pivot around the hu­man hand — while us­ing the for­mal vi­sual tools and de­sign lessons of the pre­vi­ous sev­eral cen­turies of pa­per maps — the bal­ance of sim­pli­fi­ca­tion and ex­ag­ger­a­tion, clear con­cep­tual sep­a­ra­tions, and em­brac­ing the lim­i­ta­tions of the ob­ject to pro­vide fo­cus.

In all, the map must be ap­pro­pri­ate and nat­ural for it’s in­tended use, play­ing its role in the over­all pur­pose of the de­sign so­lu­tion.