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.

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