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May 18, 2015updated 28 Jul 2021 2:51pm

What this pop art map of the world can teach us about cartography

By Barbara Speed

The artist Roy Lichtenstein probably hasn’t inspired too many maps over the years: map designers tend to mostly be inspired by, well, other maps. But this could all be changing, and for good reasons, too. 

An article by two mapping researchers in a 2012 issue of the journal Cartographic Perspectives picked up on a trend among cartographers for loud, expressive designs, completely at odds with the pastels and four-colour rule of traditional maps. In particular, it looked at a new wave of pop art-inspired maps created by students and designers, and asked two key questions: “Is aesthetics an objective in the map design process?” and “does aesthetic quality improve map efficiency?”

The paper’s conclusion? That pop art maps, when done correctly, offer a “more vibrant and expressive” result. In fact, the paper argues, this advance is “a first step towards enhancing map quality”.

Looking at a pop art map of the world created by cartographer Katie Kowalsky, the advantages of this type of design quickly become clear. Beyond the fact that it’s just a lot more fun than other maps (Comic Sans-esque font! Exclamation marks!), the bright, saturated colours, and, of course, those signature dots, actually make it easier to pick out the features within cities; while the bold outlines of the labels makes them more readable. Yes, the result is pretty noisy to look at, but it seems to work.

Uzbekistan has never been so excited in its life. Click for a larger image.

Kowalsky created the map using a program called Mapbox Studio, along with maps from OpenStreetMaps. And as with existing online maps it allows you to look at the world in any level of detail, from the global view above, right down to the level of individual streets.

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Kowalsky says she was inspired both by the Cartographic Perspectives paper and other, smaller pop art map experiments. On her blog, she has said that she’s drawn to cartography for its blend of “history, art, computer science, geography and design”, and her work shows a dedication to each field in turn: the map’s readability pays testament to her passion for geography, but it’s also a painstaking tribute to Lichtenstein’s art.

Kowalsky told CityLab that she used three of Lichtenstein’s paintings (“Blue Nude”, “Crying Girl” and “M-Maybe”) to determine her colour scheme, and had to produce different colour schemes for the map’s 22 zoom levels. Apparently, finding a green colour was a real obstacle – one eventually solved by a green plant in the background  of “Blue Nude”.

She also hints at what, in cartographic design terms, makes her map the most distinctive:

I rarely used any opacity, which is a cartographer’s trick in a lot of cases to make things stand more out. I had to use full, vibrant colors, which was fun, but terrifying as a cartographer.

Essentially, she attempted to make each feature pop out, rather than the more traditional technique of fading each element away so it didn’t overshadow the rest of the map. Another trick is her liberal use of white space, which prevents the more zoomed out views from becoming too cluttered.

Here’s Berlin, for example, on Google Maps (note how little black or white is used): 

And then on Kowalsky’s version:

Zoom in closer on one of Kowalsky’s maps and the colouring helps make individual features like buildings and parks stick out, too:

The difference between the two types of maps is clear: Google’s version is much better if you want to focus on a particular route or road, as the rest of the map is pale enough not to interfere. But for walking maps through cities, for example, the clarity and detail of Kowalsky’s design could help make navigation easier. It might help resurrect the reputation of Comic Sans, too.

You can see Kowalsky’s full map here

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