Scale Unimaginable: The Intersection of Art and Cart

An atlas never just shows you where you are, where you want to go to and how to get there. It also fires the imagination. Maps which chart rivers, mountains, towns, countries, far-away regions, oceans and continents can arouse intense feelings. An atlas combines reality and fantasy.

Maps evoke travel, exotic places and the allure of the unknown. Without a map, there would be no way to know precisely where you are. There is no ‘here’ without ‘there’. There is no world without a map.

Louise van Swaaij and Jean Klare, The Atlas of Experience

Most cartographers, myself included, measure the quality of our maps by the accuracy of data and analysis. The cleaner the line, the higher the product quality. But many map makers, information designers, and illustrators take a slightly different, more emotional approach to map design, incorporating the fantastical into the exact and the real into the imagined. One of the most notable is Rebecca Solint, and her cartographers Ben Pease and Shizue Seigel, in their 2010 book Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas, published by the University of California Press. A catalogue of maps, culture, and history in one of the west coast’s most illustrious cities, the book seeks to teach the reader what’s beyond the page, the streets, the buildings, the lines and the water. Solint seeks to fold out a history on the page, using coordinates to tell a story. Her maps are snapshots in time, overlaying pieces of information that have sometimes clear but mostly tenuous connections, allowing the reader to discover historiographic relationships that would never have guessed existed.

Traditional maps can also create an illusion of a static plane, while the world is in reality dynamic and multidimensional. Solint writes in her introduction:

Places are leaky containers. They always refer beyond themselves, whether island or mainland, and can be imagined in various scales, from the drama of a back alley to transcontinental geopolitical forces and global climate. What we call places are stable locations with unstable converging forces that cannot be delineated either by fences on the ground or by boundaries in the imagination—or by the perimeter of the map. Something is always coming from elsewhere, whether it’s wind, water, immigrants, trade goods, or ideas. The local exists—an endemic species may evolve out of those circumstances, or the human equivalent—but it exists in relation, whether symbiotic with or sanctuary from the larger world.

Cartographic products as displayed by data analysts and statisticians can serve a variety of purposes. But we can sometimes forget to see the trees for the forest. Maps invoke emotions, regardless of their artistic content. Often, the inclusion of art and other creative cartographic elements can enhance those emotions and guide the reader to discover what was previously thought undiscoverable, or not previously thought of at all.

EXTRA CREDIT: For a bevy of nontraditional maps, check out the Hand Drawn Map Association.