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The making of a beautiful map of the United States

Most modern maps eschew beauty in favour of getting the user from A to B as quickly as possible. There are, however, exceptions. We speak to Dave Imus, creator of the Essential Geography of the United States of America, who tells us about creating the “greatest paper map of the U.S.A you’ll ever see”.

Mapmaking has changed a great deal since Dave first entered the scene, over thirty years ago. He explains, “I started making street maps in 1983. Tools like the ones I used are now on display at a nearby history museum, which makes me feel kinda old!”


David Imus' Essential Geography of the United States of America Dave Imus' Essential Geography of the United States of America


After taking time out to do some travelling, Dave returned to find that his contract work had dried up, and that street maps no longer interested him like they once did. He decided to move onto recreational maps.

“I started with cross-country ski trails for the local area, and then kept developing more complex work. I worked on back-country guides for backpackers, and then, around six years ago, I began work on a map of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado.”

It was then that Dave decided to make a map that had a greater potential audience.

Dave laughs, “I started doing research into maps of the U.S.A and realized, well, it’s no wonder so many Americans are ignorant about geography! The maps available weren’t great to look at, and certainly didn’t have enough in the way of geographic content. When I discovered this I decided to make the Essential Geography of the United States of America.”

Indeed, what comes across in my chat with Dave is his distress at the American public’s lack of familiarity with general maps, which chart the geography of a place rather than the fastest routes through it.

“General maps are more commonly made in Europe. Here [North America], we don’t make them. My map is the first general-purpose map that most Americans have ever seen.”


The Essential Geography is a marvel of detail, clearly showing the physical features of the country, be they natural or man-made.

“The map expresses the structure and character of the landscape, as opposed to being an aid for navigation. Most maps have a specific theme and the theme of my map is basic geography.”

Including features usually omitted in maps of the U.S.A, such as elevation, land cover, and rivers, the map also includes 1000 iconic American landmarks, like the Space Needle and the Statue of Liberty. “I wanted to provide enough local geography, no matter where you are on the map, to evoke a sense of place.”

How, though, can such an enormous amount of detail be included and still remain clear to the viewer?

“I used every graphic technique I could think of to make the information on the map more accessible. I wanted to present it with clarity, and while a lot of people consider it to be beautiful, this is incidental. I wanted to make it clear and balanced, maximizing the contrast between similar visual elements.”

Employing a mixture of digital and traditional mapmaking techniques, Dave used a computer as a drafting tool, overseeing every aspect of the map. Working with his colleague, Pat Dunlavey, to input data into Adobe Illustrator, Dave then used this data as a template and drew the map from it.


This painstaking process of drafting each line and arranging each type label took Dave, who works alone in his farmhouse, thousands of hours to complete. “I worked seven days a week for two years, and when I was done working each day at the farmhouse, I came home and consulted my partner, a graphic artist, and made design changes there. By the end I’d alienated all my friends!”

The map was a success, and was named “Best of Show” by the Cartography and Geographic Information Society, an annual prize usually reserved for large, wealthy institutions. “It was necessary to work on it in this way. You can insert data into a computer, but it’ll never be beautiful. It may be startling, but it won’t have the beauty of a painting.”

Talk of paintings and artistry is telling, as Dave stresses that his is the work of an illustrator, rather than a cartographer. He places an emphasis on his kinship with botanical illustrators, whose artistry is as important as their scientific nous.

“Whereas most North American map-makers are now data scientists, I feel that I’ve become more of an illustrator. What I do is the geographic equivalent of botanical illustration – illustrating the land so that people can see what it looks like, and appreciate its beauty.”

Dave tells me of his inspirations, including his close friend Stuart Allen, whom he has known for many years and whose work, while different, encouraged David to see the beauty of maps. He also singles out another influence: Swiss cartographer Eduard Imhof.

“Imhof says that clarity and beauty are closely related concepts, which I feel my work confirms.”

As for the future, Dave says, “I’m focusing on cartographic art that is meant to be printed on canvas, including a second edition of the Essential Geography. I want to make a map of each state, making sure they express the structure and character of the land that other maps do not express.”

“Really, I want to open people’s eyes to the beauty of maps.”

Have you seen the Essential Geography of the United States of America? Let us know what you think in the comments below.

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