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


Vanilla Skybus: George Romero and Pittsburgh’s metro to nowhere

A prototype Skybus on display near Pittsburgh. Image: BongWarrior/Wikimedia Commons.

The late director George A Romero’s films are mainly known for their zombies, an association stretching from his first film, 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, to his last as director, 2009’s Survival of the Dead.

But many of them are also a record of Pittsburgh, the city he lived and worked in, and other locations in the state of Pennsylvania in the late 20th century. Martin (1978), for example, isn’t just a movie about a kid who thinks he’s a vampire: it’s a moving portrayal of the post-industrial decay of the Pittsburgh borough of Braddock.

Though born in New York, Romero studied in Pittsburgh and stayed in the city after graduation, shooting commercials as part of the successful Latent Image agency. It was in collaboration with advertising colleagues that he shot his debut Night of the Living Dead. On both that movie and subsequent films, Romero and his colleagues used their experience and connections from the agency to secure cheap and striking locations around the city and state. 

It’s in Romero’s little-seen second film, 1971’s romantic drama There’s Always Vanilla, that a crucial scene touches on a dead end in the history of urban transport in Steel City.

In the scene Vietnam vet Chris, only recently returned to town after a failed music career, sees his father off on a train platform, after an evening where Chris got his dad stoned and set him up with a stripper. (It was the early 1970s, remember.) An odd little two-carriage metro train pulls up on an elevated concrete platform, Chris’ father rides away on it, and then Chris literally bumps into Lynn, whom he then both gaslights and negs. (It was the ‘70s.) You can see the scene here.

A screenshot from There's Always Vanilla, showing the Skybus through a chain link fence.

If you don’t live in Pittsburgh, you might assume that funny little train, still futuristic forty years on, is just an everyday way of getting around in the exciting New World. Who knows what amazing technology they have over there, right?

In fact, the Transit Expressway Revenue Line, more snappily referred to as the Skybus, not only doesn’t exist today: it hardly existed at all, beyond what we see in that short scene. In the 1960s there were plans to replace Pittsburgh’s street car system with a more up to date urban transit system. The Skybus – driverless, running on rubber tires on an elevated concrete track with power provided with an under rail system – drew enough support from the Port Authority and Federal Government for them to fund a short demonstration track at the Allegheny County Fair, at that point a local institution.

It’s this demonstration track and train that appears in There’s Always Vanilla. Film makers love isolated systems like this, or the UK’s many heritage railways, because they allow for multiple takes and a controlled environment. So it made sense for Romero to use this local curio rather than seek access to an in-use station.

The sequence in Vanilla shows that the Skybus system worked, and as a potential metro system it looks quite striking to this day with its curved windows and distinctive logo. But the proposed system wasn’t popular with everyone, and cost concerns and political wrangling stalled the project – until it was finally rejected in favour of a more conventional steel wheel on steel rail transit system.

The demonstration track was pulled up in 1980, although the small station and platform seen in the movie remains: Romero expert Lawrence Devincentz narrates a photo tour of the building on the blu ray of There’s Always Vanilla.

Vanilla was renamed and barely seen on release, but is now available as part of a boxset of Romero’s early works from Arrow Video, in ridiculously pristine 2K digital transfer. The Skybus is there too, a curio of Pittsburgh history caught on a few short minutes of film. Neglected back then, both seem considerably more interesting now.

‘There’s Always Vanilla’ is available on blu ray as part of Arrow’s ‘George A. Romero: Between Night and Dawn’ box set, and will receive a standalone release later this year.

Mark Clapham used to work in rail regulation, but now writes things like this. He tweets as @markclapham.