Maps, A Lot of Information in a Small Space (Vámonos Vol. 21)

A map, any map, is a picture of the world in miniature.  They can be frighteningly complex, choc full of annotation and information, but they can and should be easy to understand.

A map may have a hundred or more words on it but it’s easy to tell what those words mean.  When the name of the road is written on top of a drawing of that road there’s no doubt about what that name refers to. Beyond that maps often show a number of roads, cities, and geographical features that can be identified and compared to each other.  Not only can we look at where roads are and where they go we can look at roads in the context of the world around them.

This ability to synthesize a large amount of data into an easy to read format is what makes the map one of the greatest pictorial displays of information people ever created.  It’s rare that a picture is really worth a thousand words, but a good map is worth more than a thousand.

Eduard Tufte (who Business Week called the “Galileo of graphics”) highlighted a number of maps when giving examples of well executed visual information. In his works like Beautiful Evidence, Visual Explanation, and Envisioning Information. Envisioning information is exactly what maps do.  It would be difficult if not impossible to write out all info that is visually displayed.  If you read: North Avenue is south of Armitage, which is south of Fullerton, which is south of Diversey it would be reasonable to ask but how far south of Fullerton is Armitage and for how long, when do they start, do they run parallel the whole time. With a map these questions don’t come up.

Like murals, maps put things into a larger context.  The great murals of artists like Diego Rivera or Jose Orozco that contain not a single portrait but a great group of people. Seeing many people together invites comparison.  The eye naturally references each face, in contrast to the other pictured faces. Murals also put each person or object in the mural into a larger context.

People often use maps as metaphors for plans or tactics.  They call their strategies “road maps” as though maps laid out a single path to follow.  But maps are less limiting than that. Like a mural they lay out a number of different things and give them context. Maps don’t exist to direct people to go one way, they lay out a territory and the person holding the map chooses her own direction.