One of the biggest challenges in cartography is the design of a map that can succinctly illustrate the complex, intertwined nature of connections between similar phenomena. These are typically flow maps between one connected place and another and might show the movement of goods for instance. However, as globalisation continues apace they are increasingly about the interconnectivity of global entities – perhaps not along physical routes but in terms of their relationships to one another. Of course, the larger the geography, the more the content, the bigger the challenge.
Here, KILN’s challenge was to design a map to illustrate the first global database of all the companies around the world. The data was supplied by OpenCorporates and contained all of the interlinkages from global organisations (which in truth are comprised of a multitude of subsidiaries) down to local businesses. The hierarchical nature of the data lends itself to a tree-like structure though with thousands of entries the design would soon have become too cumbersome both visually and in terms of performance through a web browser. Clustering would also be impractical due to one of the major design headaches for cartographers…detail is often most detailed in the smallest areas. Think urban vs rural differences or, in this case, huge numbers of businesses in relatively small locations like the United Kingdom.
The solution KILN settled on was a cartogram that gave each company a symbol of equal size which were then tesselated, grouped by country, into the shape of that country. The result is a map that clearly shows the relative importance of countries in terms of the quantity of companies they hold (the overall size of the country shape) as well as the density of interlinkages between companies. What works visually also works interactively as each company and country can be isolated to show the parent and children links.
It’s a combination of a cartogram and a schematic map. The shapes are abstract but as a design solution to mapping complexity, using as simple an approach as possible pays dividends.
KILN themselves describe more of the work behind their design on their web site.