What this pop art map of the world can teach us about cartography

Image: Katie Kowalsky at Mapbox.

The artist Roy Lichtenstein probably hasn't inspired too many maps over the years: map designers tend to mostly be inspired by, well, other maps. But this could all be changing, and for good reasons, too. 

An article by two mapping researchers in a 2012 issue of the journal Cartographic Perspectives picked up on a trend among cartographers for loud, expressive designs, completely at odds with the pastels and four-colour rule of traditional maps. In particular, it looked at a new wave of pop art-inspired maps created by students and designers, and asked two key questions: "Is aesthetics an objective in the map design process?” and “does aesthetic quality improve map efficiency?"

The paper’s conclusion? That pop art maps, when done correctly, offer a "more vibrant and expressive" result. In fact, the paper argues, this advance is "a first step towards enhancing map quality”.

Looking at a pop art map of the world created by cartographer Katie Kowalsky, the advantages of this type of design quickly become clear. Beyond the fact that it’s just a lot more fun than other maps (Comic Sans-esque font! Exclamation marks!), the bright, saturated colours, and, of course, those signature dots, actually make it easier to pick out the features within cities; while the bold outlines of the labels makes them more readable. Yes, the result is pretty noisy to look at, but it seems to work.

Uzbekistan has never been so excited in its life. Click for a larger image.

Kowalsky created the map using a program called Mapbox Studio, along with maps from OpenStreetMaps. And as with existing online maps it allows you to look at the world in any level of detail, from the global view above, right down to the level of individual streets.

Kowalsky says she was inspired both by the Cartographic Perspectives paper and other, smaller pop art map experiments. On her blog, she has said that she's drawn to cartography for its blend of “history, art, computer science, geography and design”, and her work shows a dedication to each field in turn: the map’s readability pays testament to her passion for geography, but it’s also a painstaking tribute to Lichtenstein’s art.

Kowalsky told CityLab that she used three of Lichtenstein's paintings ("Blue Nude", "Crying Girl" and "M-Maybe") to determine her colour scheme, and had to produce different colour schemes for the map's 22 zoom levels. Apparently, finding a green colour was a real obstacle – one eventually solved by a green plant in the background  of "Blue Nude".

She also hints at what, in cartographic design terms, makes her map the most distinctive:

I rarely used any opacity, which is a cartographer's trick in a lot of cases to make things stand more out. I had to use full, vibrant colors, which was fun, but terrifying as a cartographer.

Essentially, she attempted to make each feature pop out, rather than the more traditional technique of fading each element away so it didn’t overshadow the rest of the map. Another trick is her liberal use of white space, which prevents the more zoomed out views from becoming too cluttered.

Here’s Berlin, for example, on Google Maps (note how little black or white is used): 

And then on Kowalsky's version:

Zoom in closer on one of Kowalsky's maps and the colouring helps make individual features like buildings and parks stick out, too:

The difference between the two types of maps is clear: Google's version is much better if you want to focus on a particular route or road, as the rest of the map is pale enough not to interfere. But for walking maps through cities, for example, the clarity and detail of Kowalsky's design could help make navigation easier. It might help resurrect the reputation of Comic Sans, too.

You can see Kowalsky's full map here


Barnet council has decided a name for its new mainline station. Exciting!

Artist's impression of the new Brent Cross. Image: Hammerson.

I’ve ranted before about the horror of naming stations after the lines that they’re served by (screw you, City Thameslink). So, keeping things in perspective as ever, I’ve been quietly dreading the opening of the proposed new station in north London which has been going by the name of Brent Cross Thameslink.

I’ve been cheered, then, by the news that station wouldn’t be called that at all, but will instead go by the much better name Brent Cross West. It’s hardly the cancellation of Brexit, I’ll grant, but in 2017 I’ll take my relief wherever I can find it.

Some background on this. When the Brent Cross shopping centre opened besides the A406 North Circular Road in 1976, it was only the third large shopping mall to arrive in Britain, and the first in London. (The Elephant & Castle one was earlier, but smaller.) Four decades later, though, it’s decidedly titchy compared to newer, shinier malls such as those thrown up by Westfield – so for some years now, its owners, Hammerson, have wanted to extend the place.

That, through the vagaries of the planning process, got folded into a much bigger regeneration scheme, known as Brent Cross Cricklewood (because, basically, it extends that far). A new bigger shopping centre will be connected, via a green bridge over the A406, to another site to the south. There you’ll find a whole new town centre, 200 more shops, four parks, 4m square feet of offices space and 7,500 homes.

This is all obviously tremendously exciting, if you’re into shops and homes and offices and not into depressing, car-based industrial wastelands, which is what the area largely consists of at the moment.

The Brent Cross site. Image: Google.

One element of the new development is the new station, which’ll sit between Hendon and Cricklewood on the Thameslink route. New stations are almost as exciting as new shops/homes/offices, so on balance I'm pro.

What I’ve not been pro is the name. For a long time, the proposed station has been colloquially referred to as Brent Cross Thameslink, which annoys me for two reasons:

1) Route names make rubbish modifiers because what if the route name changes? And:

2) It’s confusing, because it’s nearly a mile from Brent Cross tube station. West Hampstead Thameslink (euch), by contrast, is right next to West Hampstead tube.

Various other names have been proposed for the station. In one newsletter, it was Brent Cross Parkway; on Wikipedia, it’s currently Brent Cross South, apparently through confusion about the name of the new town centre development.

This week, though, Barnet council quietly confirmed it’d be Brent Cross West:

Whilst the marketing and branding of BXS needs to be developed further, all parties agree that the station name should build upon the Brent Cross identity already established. Given the station is located to the west of Brent Cross, it is considered that the station should be named Brent Cross West. Network Rail have confirmed that this name is acceptable for operational purposes. Consequently, the Committee is asked to approve that the new station be named Brent Cross West.

Where the new station will appear on the map, marked by a silly red arrow. Image: TfL.

That will introduce another irritating anomaly to the map, giving the impression that the existing Brent Cross station is somehow more central than the new one, when in fact they’re either side of the development. And so:

Consideration has also been given as to whether to pursue a name change for the tube station from “Brent Cross” to “Brent Cross East”.

Which would sort of make sense, wouldn’t it? But alas:

However owing to the very high cost of changing maps and signage London-wide this is not currently being pursued.

This is probably for the best. Only a handful of tube stations have been renamed since 1950: the last was Shepherd’s Bush Market, which was until 2008 was simply Shepherd's Bush, despite being quite a long way from the Shepherd's Bush station on the Central line. That, to me, suggests that one of the two Bethnal Green stations might be a more plausible candidate for an early rename.

At any rate: it seems unlikely that TfL will be renaming its Brent Cross station to encourage more people to use the new national rail one any time soon. But at least it won’t be Brent Cross Thameslink.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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