Interlude: The Journey Project

I’ve decided to revisit the exercise I wrote about previously called the Journey Project as an interlude to this brand. I feel I’m immersed in this agency of map making at the moment that I’d like to branch out and do something even more hypothetical than my hypothetical identity project. Maybe this will just end up being Sojourn, but for now I just want to make things, make maps, and create some form of journey, both objectively and subjectively.

Some initial thoughts as I begin on the project:

Format becomes an immediate concern. For these creative projects in school, there was often the conundrum of being given free reign on what form the completed project would take. Could be a series of posters, a book or a digital presentation, even interactive. In class, a question like “what format should this project be?” would often be met with an answer like “what format do you think is best?” I don’t resent that kind of spur for creativity, but realistically speaking, a graphic designer isn’t normally given such a wide open avenue for production. Regardless, in the very first moments of brainstorming for this journey project, a real design concern will dictate how the rest of the piece will be completed, and that’s deciding what kind of visual piece will represent this journey.

I’m not exactly threatened by this prospect since this is a completely personal project. To answer the question I merely have to decide what I want, and although I can sometimes have trouble deciding between chocolate and vanilla ice cream, a product like this can become way less transient than desert, and therefore carry some importance. The journey could be a series of posters or placards and I could envision them on my wall (should the visuals attract me enough), but then perhaps they’re more like paintings than a real piece of design. Nothing wrong with that of course (see my previous review of Paula Scher’s book). Perhaps the piece is a book; that’s a natural choice since it is inherently narrative and is an age-old practice of keeping scraps of a journey bound to remember it fondly. Maybe the final product is as simple as being a map itself; if the geography of the journey is implicit, then the functionality becomes an inherent foundation for the life of the project. I could envision one being able to use the piece to retrace the steps of my former journey, and coincide their impressions with mine. I feel like this is done all the time with Google Earth—just plop in your own photo of the Eiffel Tower on the map and people can see what you saw. But this project might need more than photographs to convey my internal response to the voyage.

Reference is an important detail that differentiates a map from another form of design. Maps utilize references—a series of indications that help the viewer locate themselves in the visible field. This is, as I’m learning, potentially the most basic and fundamental difference between a map and any other form of graphic communication. Perhaps this is why I’m most drawn to this order of communication, perhaps this is the ineffable aspect to them that draws me in time and again. Of course, it’s difficult to invest fully in that concept as a full definition of cartography, there are many examples of maps that do not geographically represent a place I am currently in, or can ever be (maps of the moon, fictional maps, conceptual maps). But I do believe it is safe to say that all maps must have a quality of reference. If a map in the front of a book shows the travels of Bilbo Baggins, obviously you can never place yourself in reference to that map, the book is a work of fiction. But the illustrations of the book’s geography require a reference to the character in that book. With that simple detail covered, so much more information may be absorbed from the map: how large the world is, where his home is, what features are there to the land, what parts of the world will he explore and what parts of the world might we never even learn about. Some of these questions might be answered, and some may not, but that simple reference point inspires the key quality of wonder to maps that make them so enchanting.

Wonder is found in so many forms of design and art, especially in the narrative world. Books are making you wonder from the very first sentence, and the narrative proceeds to either answer your internal questions or to leave them untied. For this journey project I definitely want to retain some of that curiosity, but a good map also answers some questions and communicates an idea. This project is a bit brilliant because it is combining both a map and a narrative; it can be both place and time. I suppose time could be replaced with impression however, as there’s no true need to dictate how long one thing takes to get from point A to point B, but it could. Time could also be generalized, just like so many aspects of a map. A simple sequential order is inherent, but could be emphasized to enhance the experience.

A path on a map can sway the viewer with an impression of the geography. It’s nearly impossible to omit however, even rivers run a specific course, roads and routes were laid long ago, all of which are some of the simplest ways to ensure that reference is achieved. Even as courses are displayed on any given map, the course of this particular journey also brings up a few queries: should the course be precise? what kinds of travels should be omitted? can a course simply indicate a connection between point A and point B without specifying the actual route? On a GPS this would be disastrous. It is strange to me that it loses so much value in a scrap book though. Recounting a journey in the past has little to do with the course unless that course is meaningful to the story of the journey. When I take a plane from Cincinnati to Seoul I’m pretty inclined to simply draw a straight line between the two, even though I clearly know the airplane I took had a specific course. As I recount a journey for this project, I’ve learned that exact course is less important than communicating a progression. I’m reminded of the Indiana Jones movies where Spielberg gives us an translucent transition map when Indy flies from Nepal to Egypt.

IndianaJones_Travel IndianaJones_Travel2
As in any other form of design, discretion is the root of simplicity and comprehension. Discretion is the quality that ensures meaning is communicated, but needless or pointless information is left out. I questioned what courses should be represented in the section above; showing the path I took point A to point B is important, but from point A to point A.1 to point A.2 would be tedious. Even Google has a threshold for how far in you can zoom to their maps, how detailed a map should be, how many place names should be included and at what degree of perspective they are revealed. As I consider designing a representation of my journey I have to make choices for the viewer about what parts of the journey are unnecessary. This goes for the subjective representation as well. A good place to start might be determining what parts of the journey were most important, and maybe the level of comprehension will help steer me if more elements are needed to find reference.

Cartography is Design

This month I’m returning to this little side project here to stretch my brain and draw imaginary logos after a pretty long hiatus. Though Monthly Brand has decidedly become anything but monthly, I’d still like to come back and take a journey through the rigorous thought study of the identity design process. I still make no promises for final outcomes as everything rests outside of my real life work, but I still like the chicanery of a garage workshop when I can inch in some time.

OnTheMapI’ve been thinking about maps a bit lately, mostly due to the recent Simon Garfield book “On the Map” that’s sitting on my coffee table reminding me of the crazy way people believed the earth was put together. Cartographers are not long for this world anymore it would seem, what with technology providing a lot of the mathematical legwork to create incredibly accurate geography, all in the palm of our hands. Tracking locations is something that’s been taken to an entirely new level in the past twenty years as we have gone from following coordinates in an appendix-style atlas to decide on a route between states to flipping open your hand held to see how many ice cream parlors there are in an exact 3 mile radius of where you’re standing at this exact moment. I won’t even go into my excitement about how we’re so done with mapping the Earth that we’ve hopped over to Mars to get our fix. Curiosity indeed.

But mapping the Earth is not really the full or true purpose of cartography. Data management is not everything the field has to offer, and in many ways it is only the bedrock of it’s true value: providing conditionally accurate and appropriate maps that are both well designed and beautiful. That’s right, beauty is important. Take a look at cartographer Daniel Huffman’s blog, Cartastrophe, where real maps are scrutinized as poor examples for critique on why aesthetics are pivotal in their design. He also authored a post on, expertly synopsizing an oft-wondered question for those in the field, Is Cartography Dead?

I love maps, and perhaps I never truly knew why, but this research has lead me to consider it more deeply as a serious branch of graphic design. It is information design at its root and it is far more than geography; it is far more than algorithms and programming and mathematics, it is the translation of environment into communication.

So I’m inventing a cartography firm. I’m not fully versed in all the skills and software a modern cartographer would retain, but I’m hoping to learn whatever I can during the process. The foundation of the cartography firm’s business would be in customized maps as a product that can be commissioned as property, to educate and highlight information about specific geographic areas, and utilize visual styles and aesthetics for different clients or projects.


Jerry’s Map


Jerry’s Map

I’ll digest the actual brand a little more later, I’m still getting my feet wet on the subject of modern cartography. There is a large community I have found called The Cartographer’s Guild which includes professionals, artists, hobbyists and amateurs alike that may be a helpful resource. I’m also looking at this blog which is inspiring called Making Maps: DIY Cartography. As with most subjects, I’m wary of DIY design, but I also applaud those who wish to learn more by doing, I only hope that through learning, “doing it yourself” lends to respect for those who do it well.

I’m also looking for cartographers who don’t necessarily stay the course of a traditional map-maker, and am seeking examples of cartography as more than design, but as art. Recently I came upon this short documentary that absolutely floored me about a man who systematically paints panels of a fictional place, with fictional geography and fictional residents. His name is Jerry, and his map is special; you can only watch this to fully understand the extent and beauty of his process.

Anyway, I’m collecting lots of thoughts and of course, visuals, and will build my fictional company who needs an identity hereafter. Excelsior.