Graphical Maps

So many exciting things are happening with interactive maps, it’s easy to forget about the potential inherent in good old static graphical maps. Don't get me wrong: interactive maps are great. They’re a wonderful tool for data visualizations. And, as viewers, we can zoom-in and -out and pan around to our hearts’ content. But as designers, our control over the map is limited by the software involved, our ability to program it, and the end user's interface. With a series of static graphical maps, however, we control exactly what’s displayed and have abundant resources to make them effective. With that additional control, though, comes additional responsibility—it’s important to make the maps good. Here are three principles I follow: Joshua shared some mapping techniques as part of a seminar he gave to WTS Portland (you can see the course notes here.) We recently put together a collection of graphical maps describing the installation of a really long pipe on the coast. We locate the project with a series of context maps that bring you in with decreasing scale—like zooming in an interactive map. We applied our proprietary blend of pizazz and restraint to a satellite image underlay, then added graphical elements to tell the story of the installation: the pipe, the bore path, the tugboat, the barge. Simple and effective. Click here to see the complete project.

  1. Oversize the map area with enough context to familiarize the audience with the location.
  2. Use an underlay style that doesn’t confuse or overpower the map’s story. Here's where the work comes in. There are many freely available maps on the web, but they're usually too cluttered with information. It's worth spending time to strip away unnecessary features and develop a graphic style that supports the content.
  3. Overlay just enough content to tell the story.

Jason Nolin was an illustrator at Fat Pencil Studio from 2010-2013.