On the making of maps
After a long interval in which nothing happened, suddenly I’m back working on my little book about Persian ceramics (the trim size, 9.5 x 10 in., is small by museum publishing standards; it would have seemed large back in my text-based literary publishing days). This book required a map. I originally intended to send it out to a professional map maker, but because the budget is tight, I ended up doing it myself.
The curator wanted to show a lot of information, including modern country names (but not boundaries), rivers, seas, a mountain, a regional designation (I think this is analogous to something between “the Bay Area” and “the Midwest”), and a lot of cities/kiln sites. He also wanted some “light topography.”
Shown is a screenshot reduced in size, so it’s slightly crude. This is a work in progress, and I haven’t decided on the final color scheme yet.
I don’t kid myself that I can produce a map of the same quality as a professional (although this compares favorably to the maps I was given as aids to positioning elements). But I do have certain principles that I hope keeps my maps from sucking too badly:
- Information must be legible
It is remarkable how many maps break this seemingly obvious rule. This meant I had to keep my background map rather light and make the overlay text as dark and large as possible.
- Map elements should be clearly distinguished by typography
While country names are among the largest geographic elements, in this map they function just as modern reference points, and the main information is historical. I set the country names in small caps in a nonassertive color and the city names (really the main map information) in black in the typeface’s bold caption font.
- All type should be horizontal
This isn’t always possible, I guess, but I will go to great lengths to achieve it. The model maps I was given had type running this way and that, following the directions of rivers and mountains for example. I think this is migraine-inducing.
- Map typefaces should be compatible with the book text
Maps sometimes are produced seemingly without any reference to the context in which they will be placed. This map uses the same type family that I use in the text of the book (Garamond Premier Pro).
At some point in making a map like this you will be tempted to fudge some elements to make the map look better. Cities that are too close together, for example, present problems when you are pushing the size and weight of the type for legibility. As I mentioned, this is a work in progress,. But I have done my best to be fairly accurate in positioning the cities. Tageo.com is a helpful database of geographic coordinate information.
I suppose you could view maps on a sort of spectrum. At one end you have satelite photography, which captures geographic relationships with absolute fidelity but offers no filtering or organizing of information. At the other end you have something like Massimo Vignelli’s 1972 New York subway map, which presents information pertinent to the map user with scant regard for actual geography. For each map, the maker must determine what information the map is attempting to present and then find the appropriate point on that spectrum to achieve the desired result.