Information Ecology: Bayer’s Book of Maps

by:   |  Posted on
Within the Atlas’ three hundred sixty-eight pages reside one hundred twenty full-page maps of the world supported by one thousand two hundred diagrams, graphs, charts, symbols about the planet earth. One of the purposes of information design is to realize a vivid experience of content. The “World Geo-Graphic Atlas” is a demonstration of this challenge. Edited and designed by Austrian graphic designer Herbert Bayer between 1949 and 1952, and endorsed by industrial pioneer Walter Paepcke’s Container Corporation of America (Chicago), the “World Geo-Graphic Atlas” was released in 1953. Within the Atlas’ three hundred sixty-eight pages reside “one hundred twenty full-page maps of the world supported by one thousand two hundred diagrams, graphs, charts, symbols about the planet earth.” Its debut came decades before the impact of desktop publishing on the design process and before the entry of the term “information design” into the evolving lexicon of visual communications.

An atlas is usually a book of maps. They were named for Atlas, one of the groups of gods called Titans in Greek mythology. For participating in a war against the supreme ruler Zeus, Atlas was punished by standing and supporting the sky forever. Many works of art depict Atlas supporting the Earth, not the sky, on his shoulders.1

The Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator first used the term “atlas” for a collection of maps in the 16th century. 2 Atlases have become saturated containers. Extensive editorial (documentation and descriptions) and graphics (cartography and photography) fill an atlas’ large pages. Such an eclectic and dense array of material is both intensive and intimidating. Such material was illuminated in the “World Geo-Graphic Atlas.” From its Preface, Bayer designed the information “in an abbreviated, simplified style with extensive use of the pictorial medium.” Bayer’s rendition of the atlas can be described by the following techniques:

  • Page presence and harmony
  • Multiplicity of views
  • Storytelling

Page presence and harmony


Each spread acts as a poster. The Atlas page size is 10.75″ x 15″. The book’s physicality is monumental. No page acts alone but in concert with another. The Atlas’ pages are complementary: A single seamless surface packed with data. The contrast of content was optimized between facing pages. Each turning of the page unfolded a spectacle. Showcasing a state is a major template. The left side is a microcosm of features, from a display of the state’s bird to a table measuring consumption of natural resources.

The right side of the spread. Click to pop up a very large version of the page (132k)

The right side is a macrocosm through the map of the state. The unified coverage achieves a “state”ment, two pages functioning as a unit of one. The left page naturally transitions into its adjacent counterpart and vice versa. This toggling between two levels of detail provides a dual survey of the land.

Bayer’s orchestration of “the pictorial medium” is lyrical in the Atlas. The grand symphonic poem of the world is broken down into digestible clusters, rhythmic in their visualization. There is a visual lilt to the layouts. The visual composition of data density naturally lends itself to musical play that amplifies the meaning of the content instead of distorting the truth.

Multiplicity of views

Graphical texture is used to illustrate the earth's atmosphere. Click to pop up a very large version of the page (104k)

The graphical texture is thick as shown, for example, on describing the earth’s atmosphere and circulation of air. Texture showing air circulation. Click to pop up a very large version of the page (106k)

The various views of data are matched by the variety of disciplinary views. That is, Bayer gathered and assembled data that crossed disciplines such as geography, sociology, history, astronomy, and geology.3 From the Atlas’ Preface, Bayer states that “There are close ties and overlappings between geology and water supply, between astronomy and glaciers, between population figures and physiographic features, between sunspots and communications.” This texture of multiple forms stemming from multiple disciplines gives each page a contextual ambiance rooted in the liberal arts and sciences. The cultural and physical properties are revealed in the manner of a tapestry whose choreography incites exploration of the subject matter. It also fosters an appreciation for the scientific fields of inquiry in learning more about our habitat through a local or international lens.


The essence of storytelling is creating a path of self-discovery.Narrative is beyond the analogy of the page being the stage. The essence of storytelling is creating a path of self-discovery. In making the story of our world and its ecology as vivid as possible, “significant detail” is presented. Bayer’s handling of the Atlas’ content is like a curator. Concrete details are arranged sensitively to engage the curiosity of the reader as navigator or meanderer. The exhibition of significant details is theatrical. But they not only entertain, they also educate.

“People and places are the twin pillars on which most nonfiction is built. Every human event happens somewhere, and the reader wants to know what that somewhere was like.”4 The writer William Zissner’s words, from his chapter on “Writing About Places” can be applied to the Atlas. Bayer’s handling of concrete detail builds a strong sense of place. The visual organization and treatment is objective but also evokes a setting – the sight and sounds – that fascinates the senses of the reader turned traveler. “The mere agglomeration of detail is no free pass to the reader’s interest. The detail must be significant.”5 Each page of the Atlas is an eloquent passage, not a superficial heap of data. The reader is presented with a passage through time, space, and culture.

Evangelizing Ecology

The Solar System. Click to pop up a larger version of this image.

The Atlas eloquently presents data of the world – its people and places – in a colorful format that is both enriching and enlightening. Bayer orchestrated a sequence that is strong from beginning to end. The Atlas does not only visually capture the landscape of the mid-twentieth century but rewinds to the beginning of planetary movements and of the planets themselves. The typical strategy is to fast forward to the present day and concentrate on the here and now, but Bayer finds relevance in what was, the origins.

A comparison between the growth of the global population to the availability of the earth's resources. Click to pop up a larger version of this image.

Regarding the future, a graphic is found at the end of the Atlas. It shows a comparison between the growth of the global population to the availability of the earth’s resources. The proportion of land to individual is becoming more disproportionate. Tapping into the power of narrative, the visual coda provides an explicit challenge: Take care of the Earth. This coda matches the preamble that expresses a collective conscience in sustaining the challenge.

Visualizing a collective conscious. Click to pop up a larger version of this image.

From the Atlas’ Foreword, Walter Paepcke states, “It is important that we know more about the geography and the conditions of life of our neighbors in the world so that we may have a better understanding of other peoples and nations.” Global empathy through cooperation and collaboration is a key to our world’s survival. In evangelizing the critical value of understanding in an ever-changing information landscape, information design is nothing short but an environmental discipline.

Photos by Ignatius Aloysius, True Ideas

For more information

1 Atlas with Earth on his shoulders.

2 Geradus Mercator coined the term “atlas” for a collection of maps.

3Bayer, Herbert (edited & designed by), World Geographic Atlas: A Composite of Man’s Environment, Chicago, Container Corporation of America, 1953, First edition.

4From On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, p. 116.

5From On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, p. 117.

Nate Burgos Nate Burgos is a designer who sustains growing design webliography “Design Feast”:

You Are Here: Maps 101

by:   |  Posted on

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.

Improving Usability with a Website Index

by:   |  Posted on

Indexes are important information-finding tools that can enhance website usability. They offer easy scanning for finding known items, they provide entry points to content using the users’ own vocabulary and they provide access to concepts discussed, but not named, in the text. Perhaps most importantly, site indexes provide direct access to granular chunks of information without the need for traversing multiple links in a hierarchy.

What are indexes?
Before I explore how website indexes can improve usability, let’s start with background knowledge that will help show how they fit into the broader picture, especially since indexes have more to them than people often assume.Although great strides have been made with the technology, automatic classification tools come nowhere near the human brain in terms of accuracy in evaluating text.According to Nancy Mulvaney an index is “a structured sequence—resulting from a thorough and complete analysis of text—of synthesized access points to all the information contained in the text.”1

What are the important points about this definition? First, that the index is a sequence, that is, it has a known order of items. While most indexes are arranged alphabetically, other orders are possible, such as numerical (for a parts list index) or chronological (for a timeline). But the index isn’t just a list of entries, it is structured. In other words, the index shows relationships between various subjects, thus leading users to more specific or related topics that might meet their information needs more closely.

Most importantly for the construction of an index, a human has looked at and analyzed the text. Although great strides have been made with the technology, automatic classification tools come nowhere near the human brain in terms of accuracy in evaluating text. There is simply too much contextual meaning that texts carry, too much social and cultural knowledge that while not stated in the text, needs to be accounted for when creating the index. Certainly no computer can yet understand the actual meaning of all texts.

Mulvaney’s final point is that the index comprises access points to all the information contained in the text. An index contains all significant mentions of people, places, things and ideas. Important here is the idea of significance. An index should lead users to relevant material, to significant content chunks that provide useful information, rather than to passing mentions of words.

Thus, indexes are not concordances—lists of every occurrence of every word in a text. This is primary reason why indexes are much more valuable in certain cases that searches. Search results are often overwhelming or even useless; the fact that a word or phrase is mentioned in the text does not mean that the subject is discussed in the text. And it is the discussion that provides information for the user.

How do indexes increase usability?
Indexes, as flat lists of terms, are easily scannable. Users need only use their browser’s scroll bar to navigate through the entire index. (Large indexes often provide alphabetical anchor links at the top of the index, which take users quickly to the portion of the index they need to use.) There are no multiple levels to navigate, nor must users decide which branch of a hierarchy to click on, which often results in their missing information they are looking for or taking longer to find it. In fact, the easy scannability of the index on a single page is an important argument against having separate pages for letter of the alphabet, whenever possible.

Through the use of multiple access points or “see” references, indexes help translate the vocabulary of the users to that of a text. In this example, for instance:

cancer. See oncology

The index is telling the user that this site does have information on cancer, but that it uses the term “oncology” to represent this concept. And, if users click on the link, the index will bring them directly to the relevant information about that term.

“See also” references can lead users to additional or more specific information that might more closely meet their information needs. Every reference librarian knows that many users come to them with ill-formed queries. “See also” references assist users by helping them think about the information they are looking for.

training. See also online training; web-based training

Indexes are especially useful in “know-item finding,” those cases where users know specifically what they are looking for (or what information they saw previously and want to get back to). They simply find the term in the index and click on the link to go directly to the information. No need to drill down through multiple site levels or try to remember what path they took before.

Indexes can also serve an important function by leading users to concepts discussed but not specifically mentioned in the text. For example, a good indexer analyzing a paragraph that talks about Alpo and Purina Dog Chow might add an index entry for “pet nutrition.” Such intellectual analysis and synthesis adds significant value for users. Automated indexing tools fail at providing this kind of added value.

A site index acts as an important complement to the site map or table of contents. Where the latter look at the high-level (or top-down) organization of information on the site, indexes look at the bottom-up view, that is, at specific, granular information chunks.

When should site index be used?
Clearly, small sites have little need for indexes. Usually the navigation labels and page titles themselves will be enough for users to find the information they need (assuming that labels have been well thought out and provide an appropriate information scent).

For extremely large sites, with millions of pages, including everything in the index would be so time consuming and labor intensive as to be uneconomical. In addition, the resulting index would be almost impossible to scan. However, such sites can be improved and their usability increased by providing an index that directs users to the set of information that is most used or that most users need to do their jobs efficiently.

Most mid-sized sites, with hundreds or thousands of pages can benefit from the additional navigation that site indexes offer and can be indexed in a reasonable amount of time at a reasonable cost.

How are website indexes created?
Indexing, no matter what the material under consideration, consists of two steps. First, the content is analyzed to establish indexable concepts and then terms (or labels) for those concepts are created or selected. In website indexing, the URL for the page on which the information resides is captured and used to turn the index term into a hypertext link. For best results, a human mind needs to do the content analysis process.

There is software available, such as HTML Index, that helps automate the index preparation process by spidering a site and creating a preliminary version of an index using page titles and named anchors. The indexer then needs to massage those results to create a truly useful index.

Indexers can also create a site index using regular indexing software. CINDEX, MACREX and Sky Professional are the programs most used by professional indexers to assist with important, but time-consuming housekeeping tasks such as alphabetizing entries, checking spelling or verifying cross references. After the initial index entries have been created, they can then be copied or output (with embedded HTML coding) into a content management system’s index page template for later publishing to the website itself.

That process was the one I used to create the site index for PeopleSoft, Inc.’s website, which won an Australian Society of Indexers Web Index Award 2002–2004. Here, for example is the simple link code used to create the fourth line in the PeopleSoft site index illustrated below:

<a href=”/corp/en/about/pspartner/apply/apply_partner.asp”>Alliance partners, applying to become</a><br>

Special codes (available in most indexing programs) were used to “hide” the HTML coding so that the program alphabetized only the actual index labels themselves.

Having the site index use the conventions of back-of-book indexes, for example, indented subheads, makes it instantly recognizable for users. If they have any familiarity at all with using indexes, they will feel right at home with your site index. And that helps make for good usability.

Creating index labels
Label terms for indexes may be created by one of two different methods, depending on whether indexing is being carried out in a “closed” system or an “open” system.

In the former, nothing other than the text itself needs to be considered. The indexer derives index labels using “literary warrant” from the terminology used in the website itself and adjusts the labels as necessary for whatever reason.

Alternately, in an open system, the indexer selects terms from a previously created list of terms that exists separately from the text itself. These term lists may be authority files, simple lists of approved terms, or thesauri, which show relationships between terms (related terms, broader terms or narrower terms) that help the indexer select the most appropriate term to describe the specific text being analyzed. Open system indexing is used in cases where it is necessary to ensure consistency among multiple, related sites or to control vocabulary in a single large, complex site with multiple authors.

Who should create site indexes?
Whenever possible, a professional indexer should be hired. Such individuals are thoroughly experienced in analyzing content, accounting for user terminology and in creating an appropriate index structure.

The American Society of Indexers has an indexer locater on its website through which you can find indexers with experience in indexing web/HTML documents.

Corporate librarians often have training or experience in indexing and can also be important resources in identifying individuals with indexing skills.

Index maintenance
Once you have created a fabulous site index and have tested it to ensure that all its links work properly, you need to have an index maintenance policy in place. You will need to consider such things as: How often does the index get updated? Who decides when newly created information gets included. When does ROT (redundant, outdated or trivial information) get removed? Who is responsible for updating the index?

Keeping this important information access tool up to date will help ensure that your site’s users continue to find what they need when they need it.

For more information:

  • The American Society of Indexers maintains a page on its website listing indexing courses and workshops:
  • Anderson, James D. Guidelines for Indexes and Related Information Retrieval Devices (NISO Technical Report 2, NISO-TR02-1997. Bethesda, Maryland: NISO Press, 1997.
  • The Chicago Manual of Style. 14th ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1993
  • Mulvaney, Nancy. Indexing Books. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994
  • Wellisch, Hans H. Indexing from A to Z. Bronx, New York: H. W. Wilson Company, 1991
  • American Society of Indexers:
  • Australian Society of Indexers:
  • CINDEX indexing software:
  • MACREX indexing software:
  • Sky indexing software:
Fred Leise, president of ContextualAnalysis, LLC, is an information architecture consultant providing services in the areas of content analysis and organization, user experience design, taxonomy and thesaurus creation, and website and back-of-book indexing.

Exploring Content Filters

by:   |  Posted on

What if I suggested a new way of navigating an online information space? What if it was something we’ve all seen before but just never thought to use? I’m talking about subtracting away information the user doesn’t want.

Content filtering is a much more natural way of sorting through categories, especially when the majority of your content is under more than one subject. Think of a web page that has the game results from every sports game on earth; this may be a huge page, but it is somewhat conceivable. Some people might even call it helpful. As interaction professionals, we might start to think about ways to navigate or sort through the information on that page. At this point, some of you are likely thinking it needs to be organized and others are thinking it should just be put into a database. Continue reading Exploring Content Filters