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


A growing number of voters will never own their own home. Why is the government ignoring them?

A lettings agent window. Image: Getty.

The dream of a property-owning democracy continues to define British housing policy. From Right-to-Buy to Help-to-Buy, policies are framed around the model of the ‘first-time buyer’ and her quest for property acquisition. The goal of Philip Hammond’s upcoming budget – hailed as a major “intervention” in the “broken” housing market – is to ensure that “the next generation will have the same opportunities as their parents to own a home.”

These policies are designed for an alternative reality. Over the last two decades, the dream of the property-owning democracy has come completely undone. While government schemes used to churn out more home owners, today it moves in reverse.

Generation Rent’s new report, “Life in the Rental Sector”, suggests that more Britons are living longer in the private rental sector. We predict the number of ‘silver renters’ – pensioners in the private rental sector – will rise to one million by 2035, a three-fold increase from today.

These renters have drifted way beyond the dream of home ownership: only 11 per cent of renters over 65 expect to own a home. Our survey results show that these renters are twice as likely than renters in their 20s to prefer affordable rental tenure over homeownership.

Lowering stamp duty or providing mortgage relief completely miss the point. These are renters – life-long renters – and they want rental relief: guaranteed tenancies, protection from eviction, rent inflation regulation.

The assumption of a British ‘obsession’ with homeownership – which has informed so much housing policy over the years – stands on flimsy ground. Most of the time, it is based on a single survey question: Would you like to rent a home or own a home? It’s a preposterous question, of course, because, well, who wouldn’t like to own a home at a time when the chief economist of the Bank of England has made the case for homes as a ‘better bet’ for retirement than pensions?

Here we arrive at the real toxicity of the property-owning dream. It promotes a vicious cycle: support for first-time buyers increases demand for home ownership, fresh demand raises house prices, house price inflation turns housing into a profitable investment, and investment incentives stoke preferences for home ownership all over again.

The cycle is now, finally, breaking. Not without pain, Britons are waking up to the madness of a housing policy organised around home ownership. And they are demanding reforms that respect renting as a life-time tenure.

At the 1946 Conservative Party conference, Anthony Eden extolled the virtues of a property-owning democracy as a defence against socialist appeal. “The ownership of property is not a crime or a sin,” he said, “but a reward, a right and responsibility that must be shared as equitable as possible among all our citizens.”

The Tories are now sleeping in the bed they have made. Left out to dry, renters are beginning to turn against the Conservative vision. The election numbers tell the story of this left-ward drift of the rental sector: 29 per cent of private renters voted Labour in 2010, 39 in 2015, and 54 in June.

Philip Hammond’s budget – which, despite its radicalism, continues to ignore the welfare of this rental population – is unlikely to reverse this trend. Generation Rent is no longer simply a class in itself — it is becoming a class for itself, as well.

We appear, then, on the verge of a paradigm shift in housing policy. As the demographics of the housing market change, so must its politics. Wednesday’s budget signals that even the Conservatives – the “party of homeownership” – recognise the need for change. But it only goes halfway.

The gains for any political party willing to truly seize the day – to ditch the property-owning dream once and for all, to champion a property-renting one instead – are there for the taking. 

David Adler is a research association at the campaign group Generation Rent.

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