Universiteit Leiden

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PhD project

The Map as Instrument

How can we understand the supposedly ‘neutral’ design typology of the map as an instrument of politics, culture and technology, and further develop its potential to combine representation of data with the creation of edited visual content?

Joost Grootens

The Map 1 as Instrument 2

1  Map n 1 A diagrammatic representation of an area of land (…) 1.2 A diagram or collection of data (…)

2  Instrument n (…) 4 A means of pursuing an aim (…)

—Oxford English Dictionary

The computer, the internet and the widespread adaptation of digital technology have created a knowledge-based society in which individuals are able to understand, explore and shape their surroundings in a way that is unprecedented in terms of speed and scale. Paradoxically the Information Age has also made the world more complicated, because of the exponential growth of the information describing it. The need to deal with this information overload has given rise to a new approach to graphic design, described as information design. This emerging discipline within graphic design is the main area of research and experimentation. Information design shares the cultural ambitions of graphic design, but it cannot do so without explicitly addressing the technological and political context in which it operates.

Information design sets itself the task to synthesize vast amounts of data into clear and manageable narratives. This process demands fact-finding, editing and translation into formats that allow the reader/user to instrumentalize the information. Throughout history maps and atlases have presented such a format. A major change took place when digital tools became available that challenged some of the fundamental aspects of the map.

In 2005 Google Earth (GE) was released. This geographical information software makes satellite and aerial photography available for the individual. Google Maps (GM) presents the cartographic overlay of GE that uses street map design conventions for its graphic language. Two essential narrative devices of the map – frame and scale – have become almost meaningless in these tools. As the user can scroll endlessly, the frame is no longer a meaningful device. Almost the same is true for scale – the degree of reduction between the real world and its representation. In paper maps this is a highly meaningful narrative device with its own graphic language for each specific scale. In the scrollable world of GE the scale is as flexible as the frame and therefore has diminished in meaning.

The most essential narrative device that has changed meaning through new technologies is the legend. Legend is the graphic filter representing reality. In GE what we see is reality itself. In Flyover, part of Apple’s Map App released in 2012, this reality has even resulted in 3D photographic models of cities. In paper maps colours in legends are normally chosen to emphasize aspects and facilitate understanding of reality, but what can be improved when reality itself is shown?

The design research project I propose consists of parallel tracks exploring the political, cultural and technological aspects of the map. I would like to do a reflective, theoretical study as well as an experimental type of research.

Connection with other research

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