You Are Here: Maps 101

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Let’s say you’re a pirate, and you’ve scored a really excellent treasure. We won’t “Maps (informed by the critical thinking and design skills used to create them) can tell complex and compelling stories.”discuss how you came into such fortune, but suffice it to say you have yourself a pile of jewels and gold coins and such.

You are not a freelance pirate. Oh no, not in this economy. You work for one of the big worldwide piracy conglomerates, perhaps PiraSeas™ or Global Pillage®. One of your duties as Sr. Pirate Captain (Level 2) is to create a map pinpointing your stash. These days, with Corporate demanding accuracy on penalty of the plank, you need to make your map clear, precise, and understandable for anyone, even those hook-handed crooks at the head office.

When maps can rock your world
Maps are one of the most basic (and informative) infographics. The simple map. A rectangle with a few lines, some labels, and an X can impart what it would take hundreds of words to describe. Maps are an abstraction of our world, a representation of space. At their most basic, they tell us where. If tweaked and tuned properly, they can tell us where, how, and even why.

Maps tell us how places relate to each other as well as where things have gone, are going or will go. But mostly, maps tell us how to get places. And that is what your treasure map is all about.

Creating successful maps requires an ability to plan, attention to detail, design skills, typography skills, and a considerable amount of time. You might be asking yourself why you should go to such trouble when you can quickly sketch a print map or simply link to an online map. Here’s why:

  • Readability and impact. Store-bought maps must serve all conceivable readers with all conceivable goals. They include information – and clutter – you may not need. By depicting only the features necessary to your story, you can make your map much clearer and stronger than any map you can buy.
  • Look and feel. Your map should reflect the look and feel of your publication, site, or killing spree. A pirate map should look like it came from a pirate – not MapQuest.
  • Accuracy. If you know your topic (and you should) and you care (yes?), you can guarantee accuracy. Highly localized or proprietary information doesn’t show up in commercial maps. Also, map companies are known to place “bunnies” in their work to catch copyright infringement. You don’t want to send Corporate across a bridge that doesn’t exist, do you?
  • Artistry. It’s well known that accomplished pillagers tend to be frustrated artists. Believe it or not, rendering a tasty little map is a wonderful exercise in design precision and artistic restraint.

Rendering a map for the first (or even the fifteenth) time can be an exercise in fumbling and bumbling. These guidelines and steps will help you create effective maps quickly and with utmost pleasure.

Thou shalt …
Treasure accuracy. Labeling streets correctly and showing bridges only where they actually exist is just the beginning. The craft demands pathological attention to detail. If you faithfully render every undulation in every road, river and topo line, the cumulative effect is elegantly intricate and something to be proud of.

Draw to scale. As Mr. T would say, “Never fail, draw to scale!” And show the scale. Maps that are not drawn to scale are not maps. They’re doodles best confined to toilet tissue.

Keep north at the top. Don’t deviate from that unless you have a great reason. One exception is a diagram where internal landmarks are more important than compass points.

Show enough to make sense. X marks the spot, but who gives a galleon if they have no idea where the spot is?

Never show too much. The more details you show, the more subtle each detail must be. The more subtle, the less clear. The less clear, the more annoying.

Be consistent. Consistency can be the hobgoblin of little minds, but it kicks ass when it comes to maps. Use consistent styles within and among your maps.

Layer. If you are creating a map with various elements, you must employ some degree of Edward Tufte’s “least effective difference” layering. To make topographical lines, park boundaries, trails, streets and city boundaries all readable and useful, you must treat them with subtlety. Group like elements into graphical families. All city elements might be grays or solid lines while all park elements might be greens or dotted lines.

Focus the reader. This is the key difference between the kind of map you have in your glove compartment and the kind of map that tells a specific audience a single story. Look here! You are here! The treasure is here! Readers should immediately know the main point of your map. Secondary information should receive secondary emphasis, and so on down the line.

Know what you’re gonna show
Let’s say that because of its proximity to the San Francisco and San Jose airports – and its preponderance of singing animals – you hid your stash at the Chuck E. Cheese Pizza Time Theater in Redwood City, CA.

The more completely you plan your map before you start rendering it, the more easily it will come together and the less likely you’ll have to go back and add elements (which invites errors of scale). When you imagine (or sketch) your map, consider these three points:

Details. Provide enough detail surrounding the X so that people can find the treasure. Streets, landmarks, bodies of water, Taco Bells. Putting an X next to a road is insufficient when a patch of quicksand lies between the two. Show just enough detail to guide, educate, or entertain your reader. Any more than that and you’re making a mess.

This lacks local detail and is utterly useless.

Scope. Show enough scope that people can find the detailed area. Assume readers know how to find their nearest major freeway. Plan your maps accordingly. Drawing an intricate map of your neighborhood is useless to someone who doesn’t know your state, city or even your freeway exit.

Views. Consider the size of your finished map. Can it accommodate the essential details AND scope? If not, you need multiple views. For your treasure map, you need one view showing Corporate how to reach Woodside Road from San Francisco or San Jose international airports, and another view to show them the way to Chuck E. Cheese.

7 steps to greatness
If you aren’t practiced in the fine art of map rendering, it’s easy to get lost in forgotten elements and incessant fiddling. If you follow these steps in a vector drawing program such as Illustrator or FreeHand, your maps should come together quickly and slickly.

  1. Scan or import your source materials, then lock them on a layer below your drawing layer.
  2. Trace the essential lines using the bezier tool. As in life, the fewer anchors, the better. Make sure you include the scale. Mark all points of interest. Double check to ensure you’ve included everything you need; it’s easier to delete elements than to add them later. Bonus tip: Trace with a color that stands out from your scan. C100 M0 Y0 K0 will make you feel happy.
  3. Select the whole mess, duplicate it then group it.
  4. Draw the bounding shape of your finished map. Position your group on top of it and scale the group (including the scale marker!) until the essential elements fit as perfectly as your peg leg.
  5. Style the lines and the shapes.
    The shoreline and all major freeways provide context. All but the focal freeway are given secondary treatment.”

    Apply common sense and Tuftean rigor. Think layering and least effective difference.

  6. Set the graphics and text. Cities and area labels should be level, within the areas they describe. Street names should be set along the streets themselves, as long as they are readable. Find a nice place for the scale.
  7. Paste the map inside your shape. Do some fine-tuning, integrate your multiple views, and you’re ready to rock!

Maps are simple, versatile, and useful. While they do a wonderful job of telling us how to get places, maps (informed by the critical thinking and design skills used to create them) can tell much more complex and compelling stories.

For example, this CNN special report includes interactive maps of occupied lands in the Mideast. This article by Monica Moses of the Poynter Visual Journalism Faculty includes links to infographics covering terrorism.

Whether you’re explaining the history of the occupied lands or directing people to your stash, you must give people the information they need to understand your story, and you must present the information in the clearest possible manner.

This is sound design, pure and simple and all the more important when an unclear information display has the potential to send you off the plank.

Lee McCormack created maps and other infographics on daily newspaper deadline for almost six years. Now that he works on search site AltaVista, his maps portray interaction instead of location.