When you think of artistic pursuits, you’d probably imagine painting, illustrating, and sculpting sooner than mapmaking.
And yet, cartography is undeniably an artform. Consider the famed 1933 work of Harry Beck: a visually distinct, highly recognizable creation that has garnered countless fans, inspired artists around the world, is on display in a museum… And happens to be a map of London’s iconic Tube network.
Simply put, maps aren’t just a product of research. They may serve a utilitarian purpose, but to achieve this, a considerable amount of creativity and design flair is crucial – something that’s true of the maps of centuries past, and those of today.
Michael Tyznik, a New York-based graphic designer who has produced hypothetical transport diagrams for Columbus and even Game of Thrones’ Westeros, is especially aware of this. “Transit maps range from very geographic to abstract, and come in a ton of styles that say something about what the designer wants your impression of the city to be,” he tells us. It’s through this experimentation with realism, abstraction and styling that all types of maps come to life.
The idea of a designer adding a creative slant to a map’s information may seem antithetical to the science of cartography, but it’s a practice that has been employed as long as maps have existed to ensure usability. For instance, Beck’s Tube schematic was inaccurate by design. It displayed the curving tracks as vertical, horizontal and 45-degree lines, with stations spaced out equally regardless of their actual distances. With the exception of the Thames to anchor the illustration to reality, all geographic elements were removed. But what it lacked in faithfulness, it made up for in legibility, giving Londoners only the information they needed to complete their commutes in a manner that was far simpler to grasp than the more precise maps that preceded it.
This preference for comprehension over correctness is found in what’s probably the most accessed map these days, albeit with fewer topographic details stripped away. The Mercator projection, first introduced in the 16th Century, has become the de facto flat representation of Earth, despite the fact that it distorts the sizes of landmasses based on their latitude. While alternatives exist, the Mercator projection has remained in use because the creative license it takes with its scale preserves the shapes of countries and accurately depicts straight lines, making it useful for navigation.
For Tyznik, deciding whether a map should be true to life or “something meant to give you a feel for the geography” depends on what the cartographer is trying to tell the reader – “there are so many different ways of articulating all the different levels of information,” he says. If a map’s purpose is to lay out geographic information, then just like any well-constructed data visualization, determining the most essential information and the best way to communicate it requires some creative thinking.
"Columbus" ©Michael Tyznik, all rights reserved
Tyznik’s Columbus transit system, for example, takes clear inspiration from Beck’s Tube chart, but with some different artistic liberties. “I tend to gravitate towards maps that really put the network in sharp focus, and push back all the other supporting information,” he says, “... [using] bright colors to help the lines be the first thing you see, while also allowing me to embed neighborhood information behind them.” It results in a diagram that has a less cutthroat approach to the local geography, maintaining landmarks and station distances to make it easier to understand where the stations are located, unlike Beck’s map, which requires some knowledge of London’s structure.
All two-dimensional maps have a deficiency one way or another, with cartographers having to carefully decide what information will make the cut because there’s simply too much to include. But through clever and artistic design, some maps can exist for decades or even centuries, much like the most popular paintings, illustrations and sculptures.
Opposite: "Westeros" ©Michael Tyznik, all rights reserved