Modern Day Mapping

The practical purpose of maps has often overshadowed their artistic value. Maps are meant to be easy-to-read guides that lead you from Point A to Point B. At the same time, their design is the work of skilled illustrators taking great pains to make the maps not only practical, but visually appealing as well.

As technology advances and borders are redrawn, it's tempting to think of old maps as obsolete relics. But they provide a fascinating look at the world as it once existed, and the illustrative methods that were once considered state of the art. The following two stories show us how far we've come and perhaps provide a glimpse of what lies ahead.

Course Plotter

There are few people in the United States who can read an atlas as well as John Hessler can. A cartography expert for the Library of Congress, he's made it his life's work to chart the evolution of the visual guides that humans have used to get around. One of the most important things he's discovered is that the visual design of a map is just as important as the geographical data it represents.

Ptolemy Map
Image via Wired.

"What we're looking at whenever we're looking at a map is an abstraction," Hessler says. "Really what we're doing is like any visual art or design; were taking extreme complexity that takes place in the real world and abstracting it to simple visual images that help us understand complex interactions." Hessler showcases a great deal of his knowledge in the new Phaidon Publishing book Map: Exploring the World. The book collects over three hundred historical maps from all over the world.

Big Apple on the Tree

Although the isle of Manhattan is renowned for being a hub of cultural change, its place as a hub of geographical change can sometimes prove controversial. Both historians and casual New Yorkers have wondered what it would be like to see The Big Apple before the skyscrapers were built. Thanks to the Wildlife Conservation Society, you can.

Green Manhattan
Image via Mental Floss.

The Welikia Project is a digital experiment by the WCS which takes satellite images of modern-day Manhattan and replaces them with realistic visualizations of how they would have looked in years past. This allows users to see the city covered entirely with flora and fauna.

It's impossible to predict how maps may be used in the distant future, because it's impossible to know what new areas will be discovered next. But, then, part of the fun of looking at maps is documenting how far you've come.

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