Monday, February 20, 2012

There is Nothing New Under the Sun

I'll occasionally browse the antique maps on this Etsy store for some inspiration, a sanity check, and to scratch an aesthetic itch.  All of the maps that I link to here are real, old, and sometimes real old (and very likely sold by the time you read this)...

While I wouldn't place bets on my ability to correctly decode this thematic map, it sure is pretty.
Geologists have been banging their heads against the qualitative map wall for 200 years trying to concoct thematic keys for dozens of simultaneous values.  Beyond the problem of just coming up with enough variations, and the human eyeball's really limited ability to differentiate them, is the whole problem of our not-as-awesome-as-you-might-hope capacity to keep these things in our working memory.  Anyways, sometimes it's comforting to know that this kind of dilemma isn't new.
This sort of problem is really softened by a digital interface's ability to let users walk through whatever combinations they deem readable.

Here's an example of a much more straightforward task: using a sequential change to represent magnitude along one data dimension.  This 1959 German choropleth map shows the ratio of forestry to population.  Not only is this map easy on the eyes, it's also immediately understandable (the less-to-more indication anyway; it doesn't enable me to read German).  More vs. Less maps are a super example of 80-20 thematic mapping.  They are a nice focused means of saying what is where and how much of it.  Real workhorses.

I had to rub my eyes in disbelief when I ran across this one.  Made in 1937, it is an almost exact match of a set of flooding profiles IDV Solutions made for the Army Corps of Engineers a couple years ago.  It is a beautiful example of combining two distinct visualizations in the same field where they can provide more meaning than the sum of those parts.  Nice work 1930's Rand McNally cartographers!

This 1905 map of France has an interesting take on the composition of an inset.  The content of the data (river fortification status at distance around Paris along the Seine) drives the layout to the extent that the inset is circular.  It reminds me of the good old floating magnifier that you see from time to time in interactive maps.

I include this 1895 map of Naples because it is so beautiful and because of the precision and quantity of street-level data that is present without demolishing the aesthetics.  These cartographers, in 1895 (and the Noli map makers before that), had mastered the foreground/background ink weights to provide terrific context.  And this map does it all with a two-color pass.  Using varied intensity (or opacity) rather than alternate hues is a great way of encoding loads of information along one soft and effective data dimension.

I found all these obscure examples in two sittings, and they've provided a pretty broad example set of topics that visualization designers ponder today -and tricks that make me wish I could give their makers flux-capacitor high fives.  It's easy to get locked into a heads-down mode where you feel like you are designing in an invention rush, but chances are whatever topic you are pondering has been pondered before, in whatever medium and technology was available at the time (probably with cumbersome and expensive production techniques that warranted lots of planning before trigger pulling).

1 comment:

  1. "it doesn't enable me to read German" To me that's one of the fundamental joys of maps; the information is still conveyed no matter the language. A picture (map) speaks a thousand 'international' words!