MapCarte 363/365: Buyer Beware by National Post, 2012

MapCarte363_buyerThe rise of the infographic as a form of representation has brought with it some unwanted baggage. In trugh, information graphics have always been around but giving them a label has suddenly brought them into focus. What most people think of as an infographic might be summed up in this fantastic parody from web-comic XKCD…the list-like approach to representing a vaguely connected set of facts using seemingly random graphical approaches. Maps have always been information graphics. They are a specific form that deals with the spatial representation of data. We use design to encode meaning and to create visually interesting graphics that communicate to an audience. Perhaps where we’ve seen a development over recent years is in the use of maps as anchors for a story; where a different visual aesthetic is formed by bringing together maps, strong non-spatialised graphics and other components such as text. This example shows how a modern map-based infographic brings together the elements in a well-composed display.

In effect, the infographic approach to cartography emphasises the role of layout in design. The map is used as the core though in truth it’s really used simply as an image. There’s no information encoded into the map itself. It’s devoid of labels or any meaningful data. Instead, it plays the role of the mechanism that leads to other detail and allows us to use forms that might not be useful in other contexts. Here, two azimuthal projections of the globe are organised to support the use of leader lines to the information encoded using systematic, uniform pictorial graphics. Each is represented using the same general form and pictographs encoded with shape and colour give us the detail. The graphics are easily understood and overall, create an interesting pattern on the page, inviting the inquisitive reader.

MapCarte363_buyer_detailThe overall layout is augmented by panels of text that bring the story to the same page rather than an approach which might have seen the map embedded in a passage of text. This combination of the written passages and an interesting graphic gives us a form of graphical story-telling that integrates many different visual components, including maps into a coherent whole. It’s an infographic…but really, at it’s heart, it’s just well designed thematic cartography.

MapCarte 238/365: Tracking Carbon Emissions by Stanford Kay, 2011



Maps don’t have to look like maps though the further they veer from what we see as a traditional conceptualisation of space, the more people think of them in a different way. Terms such as diagram or infographic are commonly applied to maps that people don’t feel are worthy of the title ‘map’. Even Beck’s fantastic map of the London Underground polarises opinion with as many considering it a diagram.

Stanford Kay’s effort in mapping carbon emissions almost certainly fits this mould. The metaphor is immediate as the shape of two footprints is a wonderful way of exploring the cost of our carbon footprint. The feet are made up of proportional circles showing the amount of carbon dioxide emissions per country. It’s a Dorling cartogram but it’s not entirely devoid of spatiality. The symbols are organised into broad regional areas so you get a sense of how different contries compare on a regional basis by simply recognising the colours. International comparison comes through exploring the different sized symbols and their labels.

MapCarte238_carbon_detailCertainly this is at the heavily stylized end of the cartographic spectrum but it maps data represented spatially. The left foot shows us totals and the right foot reorganises the data per capita so we get two feet, each of which shows us a different aspect. Text is fairly limited but a nice touch is the linking of the countries labelled in list form with the symbols of the circles themselves.

The traditional shape of the outlines of projected countries gives way to a more powerful aesthetic. It’s a beautifully organised piece of work.We shouldn’t be afraid to make maps that use strong visual metaphors.


MapCarte 225/365: Is Barack Obama President? By The Guardian, 2012


Infographics are all the rage. In fact, maps have always been information graphics. Sometimes, though, maps and mapping ideas can be used in extremely innovative ways to help create what might be termed a modern infographic.

Take this illustration from The Guardian’s coverage of the 2012 Presidential election. It has the two candidates holding a handful of balloons. At first glance there’s very little map-like about this infographic but the balloons are, in fact, a Dorling cartogram. Each balloon represents a US state, coloured to show strength of vote, with the shared States being held by both candidates in the middle and the more partisan States being held well away from their opponent.

Each balloon is a perfect proportional circle and hovering over the balloon reveals further details.



The combination of illustration and the use of a statistical and highly abstract map form is a great way to present data in a new and interesting way and perfect for journalistic purposes.

The approach is supported by a clean look, effective typography and bold numbers to clearly inform the key facts. The balloons float into the screen and reorganise just as if filled with helium (or a metaphor for hot air perhaps?). There’s very little visual clutter on the page.

Take a look at the interactive version of the Obama map here or, for the sake of being equal, the Romney version here.

MapCarte 222/365: Baseball’s Many Physical Dimensions by Lou Spirito, 2013


Small multiples are a great way to illustrate comparisons because their side-by-side layout allows us to move across the different images while retaining an impression of the last shape or pattern in visual memory. They are particularly useful for time-series. They can be used simply to compare like-for-like when exploring how the same phenomena might vary from place to place.

Lou Spirito has taken the US Major League baseball fields and done just that, by laying them out in a grid on the right of his map that shows the different dimensions and characteristics. This allows him to show detail for each field in its own context as well as provide a comparison. He goes further though by using an overlay technique to emphasise differences which are not necessarily visible from the side-by-side view.



The effect of overlaying the fields gives us an insight into how they vary; and how markedly they vary in their overall shape, dimensions and using the graph at the foot, the minimum and maximum heights of the outfield wall. He has given us multiple views of the same information, each of which teases out a particular part of the information.

On their own, neither the small multiples or overlay provides us with the visual to support easy interpretation. Together they give us a wealth of information.

MapCarte 137/365: European subterranean veins by Accurat, 2012

MapCarte137_veinsIf a map’s main intent is to communicate information through graphical form then they are, by definition an information graphic. Modern parlance has seen the rise (and over-use) of the term infographic which has become synonymous with dramatic, often abstract representations of data. They are often composed of a collection of linked graphs, punctuated by key words, phrases or numerical highlights…the better ones offer some sort of coherent whole that places an emphasis on a well structured layout. This is also the description of a map. Maps have always been infographics, long before someone invented the term…though in the same way that not all infographics are meaningful or well designed, so the same goes for maps. Maps that are abstract (or highly diagrammatic) might very well be seen as belonging to the new fashion for journalistic infographics more than more traditional styles.

This example by Accurat is a terrific example of taking a single theme and developing a strong, abstract depiction of space through the organisation of a range of graphical elements. The shapes of land/water and any typical geographies are eschewed in favour of a mechanism that simply showcases the information. The structure of these components makes the geography implicit rather than the geography itself being used to organise the content.


The map provides the reader with a fascinating exploration of the underground transport  veins that traverse major European cities. The title is attractive and catchy. The layout is clear and well balanced. The colours are simple and do not compete with each other. The main elements – the proportionally scaled circles give an immediate sense of comparison and scale. There’s a wealth of information on the number of lines, the number of users, the cost, the length of extensions and the geographical reach of the system. The use of size is used to great effect in different ways to connotate magnitude. Colours show us difference. Small multiples illustrate number of users. Labels and textual components are used as a literal symbol to give us headline facts and figures. All classic visual variables, well executed. There’s an extremely subtle visual hierarchy also at work that organises textual components and shades of colour which together give us a sense of figure and ground as well as contrast.

The map itself is clean and well composed but the legend is also extremely well organised giving clear information with even the title ‘legend’ (one of the most pointless labels on any map) being replaced by the far more useful ‘how to read it:’. The graph shows us some comparisions with other distances – rivers, mountains, roads and the Tour de France route. Great comparisons that provide some additional perspective.

This is a very well constructed information graphic. It deals with data that is organised spatially and the spatial dimension affords us comparisons. It’s a map…in the same genre as those by Beck, Minard, Snow etc.