MapCarte 365/365: Anson Island by Roger Anson, c.1989

And so to the final map of this year’s blog. 365 entries which form a solid exploration of cartographic design using classic and contemporary examples of the art, science, technology and craft of cartography. And the final map is…not a map. It’s the following description:

MapCarte365_anson_textMental mapping is a natural part of our everyday lives. The maps we form in our own mind help us make sense of the world, picture places and support our navigation. While there is plenty of research to support the notion that modern technology is eroding our spatial cognition, the ability to define our own unseen cartographies remains key to understanding space and place. Our own mental maps are informed by a multitude of factors including education, experience, likes, dislikes, aspirations and desires. Classic studies show us that who we are and where we live play a big part in establishing our own personal spatial order. Our own knowledge allows us to, for instance, draw maps that more closely relate to reality compared to our abilities when imagining unknown places. Mental maps are not devoid of design either. We picture our maps in a variety of ways from simple black and white line drawings to fanciful worlds.

This MapCarte entry is a personal thank you to one of my former mentors, Roger Anson. Roger was Principal Lecturer in Cartography at Oxford Polytechnic. He was the boss and along with his colleagues in the late 1980s and early 90s they taught me all they knew about cartography (and a lot about beer as well – but that’s a different story). As students,one of the earliest practicals we were asked to complete involved the passage of text you see above. I’ve kept it and used it with my own students over the years. It’s a simple description of a place. The task involved drawing this place; building a mental image and then translating it to paper. It was a wonderful exercise in exploring the difficulties of imagining and describing places using words and the importance of maps as ways of seeing and representing space and place.

Unwittingly, we were being taught the importance of mental mapping and learning how to better create a spatial framework in our own minds. The development of our mental mapping capabilities was as important as our abilities to simply make maps using pens or computers. We first had to imagine them. The tools and the buttonology was secondary. They were merely the mechanisms by which we translated what we saw in our mind to a useful tangible product. It’s a principle that still serves well today.

So what of the map that the text describes? Can you imagine what the map looks like? Can you draw the map? Is it a real place or something abstract?

Well, below is my hand drawn effort from all those years ago (yes, I keep everything!).

Mapcarte365_fieldI called the place Anson Island. Can you tell what it is? As Roger said himself in the grading…it’s ‘reasonably convincing’ though when I quickly re-drew the map some years later to show my own students what they were ‘seeing’ (including copious Snowpake!) the map becomes somewhat more obvious in general structure:

Mapcarte365_fieldfootFor some reason that I cannot recall I re-named the island ‘The Undiscovered Foot’. Reading the description back, the answer seems obvious and once seen it’s almost impossible not to ‘see’ the foot in the original passage. But it didn’t at first.

The beauty of mental mapping means it’s neither right nor wrong…it’s one interpretation. There are others! If you follow the basic structure of the description you’ll arrive at, well, a drawing of a footprint or something a little more fanciful like my original effort. Post-exercise we were told by Roger that he got out of the bath one day and stepped onto the bathroom floor whereupon his wet foot made an imprint. He imagined the wet puddle as a map and began describing the puddle as an imaginary island, or set of islands. Where there was more water, he imagined mountains.

It makes for a fantastic exercise to create a fictional topography that shares the same basic structure of a footprint. Of course, many of our maps didn’t look anything like footprints (mine only bears a passing resemblance)…because by the time you’d realized what it was you were drawing you’d already spent a considerable time and you weren’t allowed to start the exercise again. This also taught us the value of time in the cartographic design process…thinking is important. Our use of computers and reliance on defaults tends to bypass that thinking phase for many these days but thinking about your design and sketching it out remains important.

I thought I’d bring my effort up-to-date so here’s a 2014 version which I’ve reverted back to it’s rightful title of ‘Anson Island’. Perhaps interestingly the original version took me possibly a couple of days. This version took me about an hour.

MapCarte365_ansonWe are all mental mappers in the sense that we can all imagine geographies and we translate spatial understanding into pictures using mental cartographies. We design our own maps and they all look different. One other outcome of this exercise has led to a phrase I often come back to…apart from when one makes a constructional error, in map design there’s often no such thing as a correct map and an incorrect map; there’s simply better maps and poorer maps. Following the basic principles of cartographic design gets you some of the way to producing a well formed map. Beyond that, you need a little imagination, a little flair and an ability to bring something innovative and inspiring to your work.

You also need great tutors and Roger and his colleagues inspired me, taught me and nurtured me. This final MapCarte is a dedication to all those great cartography tutors out there who give us the basic cartographic design principles upon which we build our maps. Beyond that, we all bring our own design philosophy, style and influences to our work.

Maps exist in all of us. Some of them turn out to be great, some not so great; but they are all designed in some fashion and all add to the wonderful world of maps.

MapCarte 148/365: A Londoner’s view of the north by anon, c.1990

MapCarte148_viewofnorthMental maps occupy our mind’s eye and help us understand our world. Each of us holds a unique picture of the world that varies in accuracy and quality according to our knowledge and experience of a place. We tend to know familiar places very well and less familiar places not so well. That much seems obvious. But other variables play a part such as our imagination and the way in which our perception of a place can be fundamentally shaped by a range of factors. For instance, we may think we know a place well if we watch a television series set in a specific place. We get to know places even though we have never been there…though of course our view is shaped by the lens through which we’re experiencing that place.

Stereotypical views also shape our mental maps strongly, particularly those that border on humour. This classic example of a mental map drawn from the perspective of a Londoner and showing their view of The North illustrates the combination of humour and stereotype and how that translates into a heavily generalised map.

The shape of the country is massively distorted with the south east exaggerated and everywhere else drawn as smaller and less important. London itself is defined by an arbitrary boundary reflecting the Police force administrative area which amusingly touches Brighton (often known as London on Sea due to the large influx of London residents to the seaside on a hot summers day). Wales is but a pimple and Scotland’s shape bears no resemblance to reality. The entire geography of the UK hangs off a single road – the M1; the main northbound road but by no means the only one. Indeed, the M1 finishes in Leeds and doesn’t even go through Birmingham or Manchester where it seems to magically turn into The Great North Road.

The map depicts Scotland as being so far away it’s within the Arctic Circle and not at all far from the North Pole…but then when you appreciate that Londoner’s might consider Potters Bar as the end of civilisation you begin to understand the perspective a little more.

Such serio-comic maps add some humour to cartography and illustrate that maps can be used as mechanisms to illustrate the modified geographies in our minds. More seriously, they do illustrate that making a map can so very easily incorporate error, bias and uncertainty whatever map is being made and by whomever.

MapCarte 128/365: Stockport emotion map by Christian Nold, 2007

MapCarte128_stockportMapping physical space is the cornerstone of cartography but it certainly isn’t limited to that realm. In some ways, many of our own mental maps are the most interesting yet they are rarely drawn. We hardly ever see a physical representation of the way in which our brain sees the world with all its distortions based on familiarity and bias and how we get from A to B using our own unique points of reference. Of course, the realm of mental maps is a fascinating area of cartographic discourse in its own right but there are simpler ways of exploring how we think and feel about a place.

Christian Nold’s emotion map of Stockport in the UK goes beyond the conventional depiction of the buildings and urban fabric of a place. He has created a map that represents feelings, emotions, opinions and desires of local people. He bases the map on a project involving 200 people who completed a range of mapping exercises that required them to draw their responses to a variety of stimuli. What do they enjoy about Stockport? Where do they meet friends? Who are the most important or dangerous people in town? The resulting drawings were scanned and compiled into the map itself. He also measured individual arousal (positive or negative) at different places in town and included vertical bar graphs on the map to show how people react to different places. Finally, he annotated the measures with participant comments so we get a sense of what people think. It’s not one mental map – it’s a collective mental map.

What he ultimately creates is part art project, part insight into the way we really view a familiar place. The formation of clusters of concerns and comments gives rise to a way of seeing our surroundings that is often overlooked. These disconnected conversations become apparent through the map and reveal an until now hidden side to the way in which people feel about Stockport. For instance, the map revealed that the town’s history is somewhat marginalised, there is a predominance of shopping activities and young people feel somewhat isolated  due to lack of provision of things they find interesting.


The map itself is a collage of different people’s work but that messy, unstructured appearance relates well to the project’s objective. This isn’t about creating a coherently designed view of features, it’s about exploring differences and the expression of those differences. The map won’t win any awards for the most beautiful map you’ve ever seen but it represents perhaps a hidden aesthetic – one that is only revealed when you stitch together seemingly random, disparate pieces into a whole. It’s not without graphical merit though – the hand-drawn approach follows through to Nold’s marginalia, borders and scale bar. There’s a consistent black on white treatment except for the emotional graphs that use colour effectively. Given the amount of random elements from multiple pieces, crafting a map that shows any amount of consistency in design is an achievement in itself.

Visit Nold’s web site here to see a larger version of the map and more detail. Nold has also taken completely different approaches to mapping different cities. Worth a look.

MapCarte 45/365: Rangerland – Sloane is where you find it by Anon, 1982


Our mental maps of the world can be impacted by knowledge, experience and our sense of what and where is important to us as individuals. It’s no wonder, then, that our own personal maps are heavily distorted and reflect a warped geography often exaggerating the familiar and ignoring places and detail that are irrelevant to us. When drawn, we often see bizarre landscapes emerge.

Here, a comical take on the mental map of what is important to the individual from ‘Sloane Rangerland’. The shapes of countries are hugely distorted. There’s a focus not only on England but also a wildly exaggerated road network comprising of the important roads around Sloane Square, London. Only the important towns and cities are located with no real sense of hierarchy yet the map works. Its annotations (as speech bubbles) narrate the landscape and demonstrate that hugely personal maps can be successful in communicating a very specific theme.

This map also illustrates the value of mapping in black and white. Colour can often complicate a map so if it’s unnecessary then consider monochrome – it certainly focuses the design thinking.