Often the simplest and most abstract maps are the most eye-catching and when the map is designed to appear in a magazine article that’s precisely what’s needed. This is a very simple dataset of wine consumption per person by country. There isn’t much one can do with the data if you’re constrained to a standard world boundary dataset. You could use a choropleth or a proportional symbol map or perhaps venture into cartogram territory but if you have the artistic license to explore different approaches then you can develop something totally different.
This, then, is really just a set of proportional circles rearranged in the form of a bunch of grapes. One might class it as a Dorling cartograpm though there isn’t really any sense of geography being maintained. The colours work well and even though colour is not used to encode anything about the data the different colours don’t detract from the message. This proves that cartographic rules can be broken if a separate element in the design is strong enough to carry it. Normlly, we’d associate different the different hues to some qualitative difference between countries but instead, the grapes motif overrules that impression. It does so effectively.
The overlaps also add to the effect even though usually we’d avoid overlaying symbols like this using transparency as it can confuse the message. Because the colour is not part of the map’s encoding the author can get away with it. Finally, the leaves, the ornate lettered cartouche and the simple legend complete this elegant and effective map.
Thematic maps are often regarded as somewhat mundane because the simple geometry of the shapes used, or the colours chosen, can leave them being little more than clinical graphical statements. Choropleths and proportional symbol maps are excellent ways to communicate quantitative information but we see so many that sometimes you need to pay more attention to the style of the overall map to elevate the aesthetics, give it a particular look and feel and, hopefully, inspire more interest. Stephen Benzek’s proportional symbol map of civilian casualties due to acts of terrorism in Afghanistan from 2004-2009 does just that.
Benzek has styled the entire map along the lines of newspaper and propaganda mapping from the 1930s and 1940s. The cartoon-like typeface, heavy line weights and strong colours creates a dramatic appearance that suits the subject matter. The shape of the country lends itself well to a landscape layout and he uses the surrounding space to good effect with an additional map and well placed and sized graphs, textual components and legends. The title is particularly strong and overall, the visual hierarchy designed into the map leads the eye effortleslly to the core detail. Context is there in the form of useful topographic detail but it is unobtrusive and sits quietly in the background, allowing the strong symbols to be the main actor on the map. The use of a heavy drop shadow raises the study area (Afghanistan) above the surrounding geography to give added focus and depth to the map.
A simple thematic map with a very strong graphical statement.
Click image to view the online web map
Beginning with a clear story, user controls allow effortless mining of layers of information across an unobtrusive colour palette with sensibly deployed pop-ups. The temporal dimension can be explored and the switching between choropleth and proportional symbol maps perfectly marries the map type to the data. Users can select variables and modify their depiction such as changing the relative size of symbols to make the best use of screen size. Using terms like ‘bubbles’, rather than ‘proportional symbols’, simplifies terminology so it makes sense for the average reader. A simple, neutral basemap supports the overlay detail and zooming is enabled but not beyond levels not supported by the data. Symbology is transparent, allowing overlapping symbols and base map detail to remain visible. Fine white outlines around only those symbols that overlap, subtle halos and abbreviated labels at small scales which switch to full names at large scale are examples of a high attention to detail. This is a well-crafted web map that perfectly blends form with function using the medium appropriately. The devil is always in the detail and it is the details NYT Graphics get right time after time.