MapCarte 208/365: The United States: Her natural & industrial resources by Stephen Smith, 2014


Colour can often be the defining element of a design and which gives the work as a whole a very particular aesthetic. This rather beautiful map is not much more than a fairly standard thematic map showing a range of natural resources for the United States as either shaded areasĀ or through the use of mimetic point symbols. The use of different colours and pattern fills to illustrate the range of a particular land uses is not new. Neither are the way in which shape is used to create pictorial symbols representing certain resources…but the colours used make the map stand out.

The colours are not from a standard map-maker’s palette. They are fairly dark and although bright in hue are actually quite desaturated. This gives the map a retro feel, akin to the atlas printing of the 1950s when perhaps only a few solid colours were used. The dark background used for Canada and Mexico focuses our attention on the shape of the U.S. as the main map. The use of lightly coloured bathymetry also helps frame the main map and creates a sensible hierarchy.

Labels are bold but used sparingly. The use of yellow rectangular masks behind some of the key text gives them a strong highlight but because the whole map is bold in approach they fit right in. The title panel is strong and the use of a circular motif goes beyond the standard approach of just placing the title text on the map.

Overall, a bold and very purposeful use of colour and style that creates a strong visual with a unique aesthetic. Maps don’t have to follow convention and this breaks the mould in terms of it’s use of colour.

UPDATE: Despite the some 100 years+ of collective cartographic wisdom your ICA Map Design Commission team are deeply indebted to Marty Elmer for pointing out that the map featured above isn’t as original as we first presumed. While noting its retro appearance and style we were unaware of the existence of the following map produced by the British Information Services sometime between 1939-1945. The original can be seen at the Boston public library.


This proves a number of interesting points. First, even experienced cartographers are not aware of everything and we learn something new every day. It’s part of what makes cartography fascinating. Second, taking design cues from what has gone before is important because a lot of design is already out there somewhere and informs our work. There’s very little that is truly original and part of what this blog is attempting to do is point to great, properly ground-breaking examples of good design. Third, while the U.S. map we discussed IS a beautiful map it’s a copy. It’s an homage and while there’s nothing wrong with that, if you’re going to make something old, new again then it begets you to cite the work. Both maps are great examples of design. We’re not going to replace the U.S. one with the Great Britain one but had we known of the existence of the latter before the former then it would have been the MapCarte entry.