Rendering Unseen Stories

I was recently alerted to this lovely collection of maps on Canva – a collection that isn’t meant to provide physical directions but to provide inspiration for design. Map-making has almost always been a way of telling stories at least as much as it has been a way to find places.


'Berlin rangé,' a tidied-up map of Berlin. Source: Armelle Caron

‘Berlin rangé,’ a tidied-up map of Berlin’s cartographical elements.
Source: Armelle Caron

This particular collection, which could hardly be more diverse, made me think of a cartographical story in progress. Namely, that we are seeing a democratization of cartography that is practically revolutionary.

I contacted my old friend Peter Skillman, who has a deep knowledge of cartography, and we talked about maps. When you ask a master about one of his favorite topics, you might just end up following an elusive tail down a deep rabbit hole.

Peter has more to say about the evolution of cartography than I have space for here, but what we talked a lot about was the use of maps to communicate the unseen – from political borders to financial interests (especially these days, with the listing of business locations and data so important to map users and providers) to how the same map can look different depending on where you’re viewing it from (the exact location disputed territorial borders viewed from India or Pakistan, for example).

Berlin divided, 1961. Source: Berlin Wall Online

Berlin divided, 1961.
Source: Berlin Wall Online

And then there’s the fallibility of maps, whether intentional or accidental, that can disappear towns or put roads where they aren’t. Once almost purely due to political agendas, now often due to glitchy data.

What I liked, though, was our talk about metro maps. We’ve all gotten accustomed to the abstract lines of color that represent transit lines, the dots that represent stops, but consider the leap in understanding required to read a map so completely non-topographical. This “intentional distortion” is often the only representation of billions of dollars in infrastructure investment a city can offer its citizens for a system that can only be seen in small bits.

Genuine maps of unseen, or only partially seen, realities.

Berlin subway system, as visualized by Jug Cerovic, who has created standardized subway maps for cities around the world. Source: DesignBoom

Berlin subway system, as visualized by Jug Cerovic, who has created standardized subway maps for cities around the world.
Source: DesignBoom

It used to be that if you wanted to give someone a map to your home, or your favorite swimming hole, or that terrific back road BBQ rib place, you had to sketch it out and somehow get it to them. Even those sketches were a way of talking about how we thought of getting from one place to another, our individual travel perspective.

It used to be that we mostly learned to navigate our way through paper maps because we had no other choice if we wanted to get from Point A to Point B.

Berlin. Source: Vianina

Source: Vianina

Now we click and point and create our maps from readily available online maps, which are, in turn, often created/improved/optimized by user-generated input – much of it collected anonymously via GPS. And our maps tell us what to do, where to go, and warn us when we’ve gone astray.

No more serendipitous sauntering to points unknown. Except that with every map telling its creator’s story, you can still get lost, even if you think you know where you’re going.


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