Mapping and metaphor

Since geographic information systems have become mainstream, maps are everywhere, and not just on our computers, but on our phones and in our cars. We are now literally surrounded by maps. Yet, despite so much exposure, I have not lost interest in mapping as an art. On the contrary—I am more than ever drawn to maps which have a distinct perspective. To me, the most powerful maps are those which convey identity, or—in the case of geographic maps—a sense of place.

Maps are complex supersigns. So Denis Wood, author of The Power of Maps. In a defined space, they describe an idea, whether a place, a process or a chronology. Mapping is about establishing context, by depicting relationships between elements. It is in the representation of these relationships where identity is formed—identity, as the essence of the thing which is being described. It is always present, whether deliberately or not. Ideally, of course, identity would be considered.

Like typography, maps can be read at various scales—both macro and micro. Recently, Edward Tufte wrote about the power of images as logos when read at a macro scale. Maps work the same way. At a micro scale, maps are functional information carriers. At a macro scale, maps may become iconic, and as icons, they are metaphoric signifiers. Orientation comes from recognition of place, and geographic maps, as signifiers of place, help form recognition through identity. What comprises identity is a similar question to what makes places unique: it is never a single thing, but the combination of many elements that form a whole.

There is a balance. Massimo Vignelli’s subway map is a well-known example of a map which carried a strong identity. For a short time, it became an icon for the city of New York. Yet it compromised usability by being too stylized. But it not only had a strong personality, it was also the embodiment of a modernist philosophy, a perspective which all but defined 1970s New York.

Mapping is an art, analogous to other art forms. It can be used to describe reality or fiction, process or theory, and in doing so assert a perspective. Any map is inherently biased. The point at which it becomes art is when that bias is recognized, and applied to add conscious meaning—in the case of the geographic map, to not only reflect reality, but to convey an idealized perception of a place.

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