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

 
 
 
 

Here’s how Henry Ford and IKEA could provide the key to solving the housing crisis

A flatpack house designed by architectural firm Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners, on display at the Royal Academy, London, in 2013. Image: Getty.

For many people, the housing market is not a welcoming place. The rungs of the property ladder seem to get further and further out of reach. There are loud calls to build hundreds of thousands of new homes (and equally loud demands that they’re not built in anyone’s back yard).

If there was ever a time to introduce mass-produced affordable housing, surely that time is now.

The benefits of mass production have been well known since Henry Ford’s car factories made the Model T back in 1908. It was only made in one colour, black, for economic reasons. Not because it was the cheapest colour of paint, but because it was the colour that dried the quickest.

This allowed the production line to operate at faster, more cost effective, speeds. And ultimately, it meant the product could be sold at a more attractive cost to the customer.

This approach, where processes are tested to achieve increasingly efficient production costs, is yet to filter properly into the construction of houses. This makes sense in a way, as not everybody wants exactly the same type of house.

Historically, affordable mass-produced housing removed a large amount of customisations, to ensure final costs were controlled. But there is another way. Builders and architects have the ability to create housing that allows a level of flexibility and customisation, yet also achieves the goal of affordability.


Back in 2006, the “BoKlok” approach to affordable housing was launched to great acclaim in the UK. Literally translated from Swedish, the term means “live smart”. Originally created from a collaboration between flat-pack favourite IKEA and Swedish construction giant Skanska, the BoKlok housing approach was to allow for selected customisation to maximise individuality and choice for the customers. But at the same time, it ensured that larger house building components were duplicated or mass-produced, to bring down the overall costs.

Standard elements – wall panels, doors, windows – were made in large numbers to bring the elemental costs down. This approach ensured the costs were controlled from the initial sketch ideas through to the final design choices offered to the customers. The kitchens and bathrooms were designed to be flexible in terms of adding additional units. Draw and cupboard fronts interchangeable. Small options that provided flexibility, but did not impact on overall affordability.

It’s a simple approach that has worked very well. More than 10,000 BoKlok houses have now been built, mainly in Norway, Sweden and Denmark, with a small number in the UK.

But it is only part of the architectural equation. The affordable housing market is vital, but the cost of making these homes more adaptable is rarely considered.

Flexibility is key. The needs of a house’s inhabitants change. Families can grow (and shrink) and require more room, so the costs of moving house reappear. One clever response to this, in BoKlok homes, has been to allow “built in” flexibility.

Loft living

This flexibility could include a loft space that already has flooring and a built in cupboard on a lower floor which can be simply dismantled and replaced with a “flat-pack style” staircase that can be purchased and installed with minimal disruption to the existing fabric.

Weeks of builders removing walls, plastering and upheaval are replaced by a trip to the IKEA store to purchase the staircase and the booking of a subcontractor to fit it. The original design accounted for this “future option” and is built into the core of the house.

The best approach to new affordable housing should consider combinations of factors that look at design, materials and processes that have yet to be widely used in the affordable housing market.

And the construction sector needs to look over its shoulder at other market places – especially the one that Henry Ford dominated over a century ago. Today’s car manufacturers offer customised options in everything from colour to wheel size, interior gadgets to different kinds of headlamp. These options have all been accounted for in the construction and costing of each model.

The ConversationThey share a similar design “platform”, and by doing so, considerably reduce the overall cost of the base model. The benefit is quicker production with the added benefit of a cost model that allows for customisation to be included. It is a method the construction sector should adopt to produce housing where quality and affordability live happily together.

David Morton, Associate Professor in Architecture and Built Environment, Northumbria University, Newcastle.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.