Sunday, August 26, 2007

Interstate rivalry?

So here's the story. Back in February, someone on CartoTalk pointed out the wonderful Strange Maps blog. The blog had come up recently on Maps-L, in particular pointing out Chris Yates' rendition of the Interstate Highway system.

Interesting piece of work. The road geeks and cartographer types jumped all over the obvious inaccuracies (like Wisconsin is missing), but certainly no-one had seen the US portrayed like this before. Why not? Part of the problem is that the system is huge. Doing a tube-map style simplification, where routes are separately colored lines and exits are dots or tick-marks, works in a relatively small system like Britain's motorways or the Dutch system, but there's thousands of exits in the US system... not to mention all the 3-digit spurs and bypasses. So Yates' solution—just focus on the 2-digits, and make junctions of highways the only "exits" is a good, manageable way to do it.

Well, says I, I could do better. And that to me is where it gets interesting, because "better" is a pretty fuzzy term, and what I ended up doing and how Mr Yates reacted I think speaks volumes about the divide between art/graphics folk and geography/carto folk.

The divide: lots of people like maps. Lots of art folks like maps. Art folks make a map, but it isn't complete enough, it isn't accurate enough, and map folks hold their nose. Map folks make a map, and there are things that are obvious to a designer that make the map, well, ugly.

This is our professional life practically every day. I'm sure I drive our designerly clients up the wall... but as a cartographer, as a practictioner in the cartographic tradition, I'm working in the mode we all work in: it's got to be accurate and complete, and it's got to look good. Trying to jiggle those two requirements together is what makes the job challenging.

So back to the story. I realized that to do some sort of diagram of the system, I'd have to first abstract it out, untangle it and get a feel for densities and problem areas. So I started graphing it out by number on graph paper. The Interstate Highway system has an ordered system of numbering. North-south roads are odd-numbered, starting at number 5 on the west coast and going to number 95 on the east coast. East-west roads do a similar thing, starting at number 8 in the southwest (or 10 all along the southern tier), and ending up with 96 in Michigan (or 90 all the way across from Seattle to Boston). So you could in theory start with a piece of graph paper and lay out 1-99 in one direction and 2-100 in the other direction and just start plotting.

So that's what I did. It was a godawful mess, and it took a while to wrap up, and I ended up with this. It took a fair amount of comapny time, but they all thought it was pretty cool too. We got some copies and sold them at Art-a-Whirl (our local annual art-crawl) in May. Then I let it sit around, though I figured I would eventually want to let the road-geek community et al know about it. Finally in August I noted it on Carto-talk and sent an email to Chris Yates.

I was surprised to get an irate email from someone accusing me of copying Yates' map, and I replied that no, I hadn't violated copyright (or trade dress or patent or any other legal intellectual property). Thinking about the letter I went back to Yates' site to find the original postings about his map's incompleteness, and came across, well, myself being pretty thoroughly flamed (and the first email accusation explained)

Yates did eventually did write me directly, much more politely than in the forum, and I wrote back. Radio silence since, which is fine, though as I said, I'm happy to discuss any of this.

So this is what gets me: to him I am clearly a rip-off artist, and to me, I am just working in the usual way we cartographers all work—we see a visual idea we like, and we take it, adapt it, and run. On the other hand, to me and the map-heads out there, how dare he release an incomplete map, and to him, for chrissakes it's a poster, lighten up.

There's a paper at the 07 NACIS conference by Mark Denil, "The Myth and Mythology of Map-Art." I suspect (not sure, but I suspect) that this is kind of what it's about.


laradunston said...

Just discovered your blog - fascinating stuff! I'm a travel writer who writes guidebooks so I have soem contact with cartographers but I've never known of a cartographer to think about maps as you do. Perhaps they do. Perhaps they don't. I guess if more did, there would be more cartographers blogging about maps. My interest is in maps as an inspirational travel tool, which I'm writing a blog about at the moment. I'll link to you from that. cheers, Lara

Moya said...

Keep up the good work.

Chaosboy said...

Heh, I'm going through exactly the same thing with Chris at the moment re: my take on the map.

He definitely seems to think that because he was "first" (and there's no way that can be proved one way or the other), no one else can ever do anything similar. I certainly came across his map, yours and Rebecca Brown's on the internet while researching infographics for work, and was intrigued by the three different takes on the same problem. Like you, I thought I could add something new to the mix. Whereas you went for numerical perfection (an element that strongly differentiates it from the Yates map), I went for the full-blown London Underground diagram, with colour-coded lines and a strong sense of informational heirarchy (again, a strong difference to Chris' map).

Once I started on my task, I did not refer to the Yates map once: I wanted this to be my own take on the problem. If anything, Rebecca's map was the most useful, and that only for place names and intersections, not diagrammatic relationships.

When I was done, I put it up on my Flickr account. For a week, I got a pretty muted response: some family members and some Flickr contacts. Then Coudal Partners, the Chicago ad agency picked up on it, ran it on their front page and I suddenly had a full blown Internet phenomenon on my hands. People started asking for prints and that's when Chris popped up and gave me much the same as he gave you... you know the drill.

I'm very much of your point of view: a concept is there to be played with, tinkered with, crafted, perfected. It's how we progress and learn new things. If anything, it's totally fascinating to see how different people approach the same basic problem - all our solutions are totally unique, and that's a wonderful thing.