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Blog posts tagged as 'map'

Maps and macroscopes

I wrote this article for Scroll Magazine in October 2009, to coincide with my Web Directions keynote, Escalante. It builds on the themes in my June 2009 talk, Scope. The piece is now online here but it’s always nice to have a record on your own site so here it is! And go pick grab yourself a copy of Scroll. It’s a lovely, lovely mag.

Richard Feynman, the 20th century American physicist, was once challenged by an artist friend as to whether a scientist could see the beauty in a flower: “You take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing.”

Feynman worked on the atomic bomb and developed the theory of quantum chromodynamics. He didn’t agree.

“I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside which also have a beauty,” he said in an interview, telling the story of his response. “I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension of one centimetre, there is also beauty at a smaller dimension, the inner structure. Also the processes, the fact that the colours in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting – it means that insects can see the colour. It adds a question: Does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which shows that science knowledge only adds to the excitement and mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds; I don’t understand how it subtracts.”

In addition to being a physicist, Richard Feynman is (sadly: was) one of the very few, very great explainers.

This double view of a flower doesn’t fixate on its beauty. When you see two scales simultaneously – the flower in your hand; the atoms and processes of nature at a global scale – your consciousness ricochets between them, producing awe and enlightenment both. Maybe Feynman’s story resonates particularly for me. I was trained in physics.

Stewart Brand, pivotal in the creation of the earliest electronic communities and the culture of the Internet, is another hero of mine. He’s both a connector and explainer. In 1966 he started a movement in San Francisco, distributing buttons with the message, ‘why haven’t we seen a photograph of the whole Earth yet?’ He campaigned for Nasa to turn its cameras back on the planet and show it to us, laid out.

In the early 1970s Nasa obliged and published the Blue Marble photo. You will have seen it: the Earth hangs as a crystal sphere of white, blue and precarious brown, alone in a black cosmos.

You see yourself and the planet all at once, two perspectives overlaid. We’re hardened to such images now and it’s tough to imagine what it was like, a generation ago, to have the God’s eye view of the Blue Marble for the first time.

Brand later spoke about why he’d campaigned. “People act as if the earth is flat, when in reality it is spherical and extremely finite, and until we learn to treat it as a finite thing, we will never get civilization right.”

Feynman’s flower and Brand’s whole Earth are, to me, scientific instruments. Biologists have microscopes. Astronomers and peeping toms have telescopes. The instruments we have here, to use the designer John Thackera’s term, are macroscopes.

Thackara gives a definition: “A macroscope is something that helps us see what the aggregation of many small actions looks like when added together.”

A macroscope will focus ideas as a microscope focuses light. It’s a tool for the designer. A designer’s job is not only to fulfil their craft, in graphics, or furniture, or silver or whatever it may be. And it’s not only to understand all kinds of context and produce objects that are aesthetically and functionally pleasing. A designer’s job is also to invent culture.

I make that addition, to the designer job specification, prompted by my business partner Jack Schulze. In a recent interview he attacked the view that design is about solving problems: “Obviously designers do solve problems, but then so do dentists. Design is about cultural invention.”

Schulze points out this feature of design because otherwise design is not distinguishable from others of the many processes of creation. Great products can come out of processes such as ethnography, market analysis, opportunistic use of the cheap products of the Chinese manufacturing industry, and luck. Design is but one approach. Design’s differentiation, says Schulze – and I concur – is its obligation to participate in and invent the world. There is an obligation for designers to push culture forward, and because of that, to be relevant.

Since I’m being pedantic about the definition of design, I could easily be as pedantic about the definition of culture. Happily Bruno Munari, Italian designer and author of “Design as Art,” supplies a working definition of “culture” which is both adequate and profound. Culture, he says, is “the things that make life interesting.”

But the world is changing at pace and at scale. To remain relevant, let alone interesting, is a struggle if culture is too large and too broad to apprehend. Take, for example, the global financial system, which in late 2008 and early 2009 almost collapsed and took civilization with it. The cleverest people in the world – the cleverest people by any measure you can name – cannot tell a cohesive story about the near collapse of the banks. We can’t say why it happened. It is too big to see.

Why haven’t we seen a photograph of the whole financial system yet?

To see the banks and, by extension, all of culture on a human scale, we need a special sort of instrument: a macroscope. A macroscope could show us the personal effect of debt and finance on a human scale, and the globalised system together. It would help us make connections and to make human connection. And from there, act.

Such an ability to feel the human scale and the grand view all at once seems like a superpower. Recently, at BERG, we attempted to visualise this superpower as it would change the way you navigated a city, the urban environment being the archetypal human creation which is lived in but also too large to comprehend.

The result is a new kind of map projection, and a map of Manhattan named “Here & There.” The projection warps the city grid, showing the top-down and street view in one. Now, looking over conventional photos of the New York skyline, I notice the absence of my new power to see here and spy there together, and being able to plot a path between them.

A macroscope of the banks would have the long zoom power of Feynman’s point of view of a flower, and the visual clarity of the map of Manhattan.

I believe our job is the creation of Here & Theres for all sorts of matters of cultural importance. Macroscopes give all of us sight of our place in the world, and the power to participate in it; and, as designers, they help us understand culture more directly, in order – ultimately, and simply – to better engage in our craft with integrity and relevance.

What if GPS worked like Here & There?

You get used to the Here & There projection really fast. Timo Arnall, friend of S&W, was talking to Jack:

I’ve been sitting here staring at the map, pretty much on and off since yesterday. It comes across as a totally natural projection! … it’s as if you have wired two separate bits of my brain together; the bit that does maps, and the bit that does perspective.

Here’s a comparison:


Thanks Chris Woebken for the photo!

It starts feeling weird that you can’t see over rooftops.

And while these prints we’ve shown so far are tied to two intersections (one looking from 3rd and 7th, and the other from 3rd and 35th), yes we are working on doing it on the fly, and yes we’re looking at generating projections from all kinds of places for one-off prints.

The natural question is, what would this look like driving round Manhattan? (If you forget about the traffic.) As Fast Company and Gizmodo said, Garmin should do it. They totally should. And so here it is.

The Here & There projection is on the left, and the equivalent normal view is on the right. Click through and watch the HD version. It’s cool.

There’s another video too, that shows how the streets distort to make the projection possible.

Here’s what I’d like for my future magic in-car navigation system:

  • the superpower to see through the city into the distance
  • real-time!
  • traffic volume overlaid on the distant city map, with my route
  • a way to peek around corners
  • seeing further the faster my car is going

Any more?

Here & There influences

I’m going to tell you a little bit about the influences on Here & There, a project about representation of urban places, from when it began. It was warmly received when I first presented some corners of it back at Design Engaged in 2004, before Schulze & Webb existed. Here & There is a projection drawing from maps, comics, television, and games.

This particular version is a horizonless projection in Manhattan. The project page is here, where large prints of the uptown and downtown views can be seen and are available to buy.

I’ve been observing the look and mechanisms in maps since I began working in graphic design. For individuals, and all kinds of companies, cities are an increasing pre-occupation. Geography is the new frontier. Wherever I look in the tech industry I see material from architects and references and metaphors from the urban realm. Here & There draws from that, and also exploits and expands upon the higher levels of visual literacy born of television, games, comics and print.

The satellite is the ultimate symbol of omniscience. It’s how we wage wars, and why wars are won. That’s why Google Earth is so compelling. This is what the map taps into.

The projection works by presenting an image of the place in which the observer is standing. As the city recedes into the (geographic) distance it shifts from a natural, third person representation of the viewer’s immediate surroundings into a near plan view. The city appears folded up, as though a large crease runs through it. But it isn’t a halo or hoop though, and the city doesn’t loop over one’s head. The distance is potentially infinite, and it’s more like a giant ripple showing both the viewers surroundings and also the city in the distance.


Origins and sources

Some of my favourite maps are drawn by a British writer, walker and accountant named Alfred Wainwright. Phil Baines provides background:

“Wainwright was an accountant born in Lancashire who fell in love with the English Lake District and moved there to live and work. All his free time was spent walking the fells, and he began his series of seven ‘pictorial guides to the Lakeland Fells’ in 1952 as a way of repaying his gratitude to them. The work took 13 years.” (Type & Typography)

Wainwright’s walking maps are drawn to suit their context of use, the books are intended to be used while walking. As the reader begins their walk, the map represents their location in overview plan. As the walk extends through the map, the perspective slowly shifts naturally with the unfolding landscape, until the destination is represented in a pictorial perspective view, as one would see it from their standpoint.

Wainwright spread

This is a reversal of the Here & There projection. In Wainwright’s projection we stand in plan, and look into perspective. Wainwright’s view succeeds in open ground where one can see the distance… but in a city you can only see the surrounding buildings. Wainwright and Here & There both present what’s around you with the most useful perspective, and lift your gaze above and beyond to see the rest.

David Hockney presents a fantastic dissection of perspective in the film A Day on the Grand Canal with the Emperor of China or Surface Is Illusion But So Is Depth. He describes a very old painting from China which depicts a journey along the grand canal. I really like how he describes the scene as ‘making sense.’

He justifies a deviation from Western perspective, that to represent things as they strike your eye is not even functionally as good as some other interpretative distortions. In this painting in which there’s a grossly distorted perspective, in which there aren’t even any rules, it still makes sense because it changes how you put yourself in the painting, and that changes where you put yourself outside it.

Augmented reality

There is a element in the map, in the uptown view, of a bus. Its destinations in both directions are shown. (I love NY bus routes, the cross town super power!) This is to explore how augmenting the map with local information might work.


One of my intentions with the project is to make an exploration into way-finding devices. One of my favourite examples of augmented reality is from these American Road maps from 1905. The map is stored in a book, and good for only one route. In fact, it isn’t a map as we’d typically understand one.

American Road Maps 1905

Michaels, H. Sargent. Photographic Runs: Series C, Chicago to Lake Geneva to Delavan, Delavan to Beloit. Chicago: H. Sargent Michaels, 1905. Used with permission from Prof. Robert French, Osher Map library, University of Southern Maine, Owls Head Transportation Museum.

The book dates from before the national road sign infrastructure was introduced to American highways or inter-city roads. Each page is a photo of a junction, with every junction between the two cities included, and an arrow is drawn over the photo to say which direction to take. As the driver progresses along their route, they turn pages, each junction they arrive at corresponding to the one in the current photo. (Many thanks to Steve Krug for the sharing his discovery of these great pieces.)

First person to God games

I don’t like the way maps (in-game maps) work in most video games. They seem to break my flow of play, and locating one’s actor in the game isn’t satisfying. I’d love to see a first person or third person shooter where the landscape bent up to reveal a limited arc of the landscape in plan over distance. As a video game, the Here & There projection slides from Halo, through GTA into Syndicate, to end in SimCity.

game collage

Although I never played it, I’ve heard a lot about Luigi’s Mansion for the Nintendo GameCube. Luigi wonders around a haunted mansion and hoovers up ghosts with a vacuum cleaner. I heard about a mechanic in the game which involved a virtual Gameboy Advance in the game. Luigi could take it out and use it to inspect the world. The game played out in the third person with a view of Luigi in place, but I think when you look in the Advance, it gave a first person view from Luigi’s position. Well, if it didn’t, it should have done.

I know that in some special games the Gameboy Advance could be plugged into the GameCube, to be used as a special controller. It would be amazing to use the second screen in a controller for that first person perspective. Imagine if you could guide your actor around in third person and glance down at the screen in your hands for close inspection or telescopic sniping.

Powers and cities

Recently Matt Jones and Rod Mclaren discussed Jason Bourne and James Bond and how they use cities. Jones characterises Bourne in contrast to Bond:

“… in addition, Bourne wraps cities, autobahns, ferries and train terminuses around him as the ultimate body-armour”

For Bourne, the city is his power, Jones continues:

“A battered watch and an accurate U-Bahn time-table are all he needs for a perfectly-timed, death-defying evasion of the authorities.”

I like to talk about the projection as a superpower, the power to be both in the city and above it.

Last year Warren Ellis wrote an Iron Man arc called Extremis. As ever, fine stuff. And with great pictures from Adi Granov too.

Ellis, unsatisfied with controlling the Iron Man suit by normal means (sensors, or weeny joysticks in the gloves or something) as an exoskeleton (picture Ripley in the clumsy Powerloader), Stark must ingest the Extremis serum in order to match his enemy, Mallen, and prevent him from his destructive path into Washington. The serum welds Stark to his tech. It leaves him ‘containing’ the membrane-like ‘undersheath’ he uses to control the Iron Man suit. It is stored inside his bones.

Iron Man mind control

The final sequence of panels in the penultimate book has Stark wearing the Iron Man suit, setting off to confront his enemy, his recent transformation has left him with new powers…

Iron Man leaves to confront Mallen

“I can see through satellites now.”

What a thought! Within one field of view, to be both in the world and to see yourself in it. The power of looking through, and occupying, your own field of vision. Awesome.

What if the projection appeared inside location-aware binoculars? Hold them up, and live satellite images are superimposed in ‘the bend’ onto the natural view of the city as it lifts up into plan! You’d see the traffic and people that just pulled out of view into a side street from above mapped onto your natural view.

Timo Arnall posted a video showing a Google Streetview pan controlled with the digital compass inside the device:

It begins to reveal how Here & There might feel if it were moving beneath your feet.


I would like to thank both James King (art direction) and Campbell Orme (technical direction) for their tireless efforts in bringing this work to life. Email them and make them work on your stuff. They are talented, humane and brilliant designer/thinkers.

Art prints of Here & There have been produced in a limited run and can be purchased here. Please buy one and stick it on a wall.

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