Sunday, January 14, 2007

Graphic designers and cartographers are grinding their teeth

jbkrygier’s comment got me thinking about the gap between map perception and creation. It’s not a problem maps alone have — remember the classic Saturday Night Live William Shatner skit about Trekkies? In general, creators of images, texts, expressions of all kinds have to deal with people taking their creations and (in the creators' minds) misusing them. Or in any case blowing some aspects of them out of proportion.

I actually rather like that "aura of authority" a map can have. It's one of the things that drew me to cartography. But when I look at other cartographers (and at myself, though that is never a trustworthy exercise), I don't see power-mongering. I see if anything bafflement at the power-based critiques of modern carto-critics. I think a lot of us see ourselves as like librarians, or scriptorium workers. Our first job is not to create power for ourselves (or for our Fearless Leader, whomever that may be), although of course our product may be framed to serve that purpose. Our job is to translate the World into something intelligible and navigable. That aura does not reflect a power of dominion, as Denis Wood et al have suggested. Power is not always power. Wood's urging the People to take maps' power into their own hands is something people have always done. A map are like a stage setting: We take it and when it is laid out before us, we can—anyone can—make arguments upon its surface.

Returning to jbkrygier’s point (that his students actually do need to be disillusioned of the idea that the map is the territory, and for that reason the map-as-proposition-not-representation idea makes a lot of sense): as I was driving around in the snow here today (finally), it occurred to me how this felt like the ongoing gritting of teeth between cartography people and graphic design people, when our professional lives intersect.

Folks approaching from the world of graphic design often have the opposite problem than what jbkrygier described: instead of thinking of maps as pictures of the world, and needing to be persuaded that they are propositional images, they assume that maps are there to persuade, and need to be persuaded of the necessity of ground them in real, accurate data, scale, an appropriate projection, etc. I'm wildly overgeneralizing here, but I expect most readers who are from the world of map production have run into the designer who has assigned the equivalent of a landscape-shaped space for a map of Chile. On the other hand, I know I have been at times a less than ideal vendor for clients who wanted something that looked "less mappy." Mappy is what I do, mostly.

If anything, cartographers need to think more about maps as pictures. I just got done reading a very interesting little book by the illustrator Molly Bang, which purports to show how picture composition forms the emotional content of a picture. Very simple, but quite effective; reminded me of Scott McCloud on comic book composition. A lot of well-balanced practitioners swear by Edwin Tufte.

The problem is, we as cartographers are blocked by the basic nature of cartographic maps from truly thinking about them as pictures. It's not a part of how we are supposed to think. More on this later. I need to go...


Jonathan Ward said...

I really enjoyed this post.

I know a few people that have made the jump from Designer to Cartographer, one being myself. It's reassuring to hear about philosophical views that I've encountered as well.

Hopefully I can get some time to read through the rest of your site.


Visual Think Map said...

ditto with jonathon back in 2007 in all fronts. hopefully more time to read posts. i scanned through till i saw graphic designer (me) and thought this was a good place to start reading.

love your ethos of calling for the map to be seen as picture.

almost map as shape, word as shape/marks. reciprocating what r arnheim talks about. great to see referencing to scott mccloud

reminded me of this:

abstract shapes representing.

like the idea of map as propositional rather than representing, but does representing mean lack o focus/communication? see the designer in me.

well as you can see, enjoyed it. got me thinking.

cheers nat

Katie Benjamin said...

I'm approaching cartography from a graphic design perspective and am actually researching it for my BFA thesis, especially the ideas of translation and representation.

And are you talking about Edward Tufte?

natcase said...

Katie: I haven't talked about Tufte here, have I? He has certainly been the kind of "last word" on information graphics for the last couple decades. I probably ought to haul out my Tufte books and really look at them carefully for the blog someday.

You might be interested in trolling through the discussions on Carto-Talk sometime; lots of chit chat and technical stuff, but some interesting discussions around design for cartographers (not as much cartography for designers).