Nearly six thousand hours to make the best map of the United States

Here is some insight into what it takes to create maps and particularly the hard work needed to create the “best American wall map”:

So what makes this map different from the Rand McNally version you can buy at a bookstore? Or from the dusty National Geographic pull-down mounted in your child’s elementary school classroom? Can one paper wall map really outshine all others—so definitively that it becomes award-worthy?…

According to independent cartographers I spoke with, the big mapmaking corporations of the world employ type-positioning software, placing their map labels (names of cities, rivers, etc.) according to an algorithm. For example, preferred placement for city labels is generally to the upper right of the dot that indicates location. But if this spot is already occupied—by the label for a river, say, or by a state boundary line—the city label might be shifted over a few millimeters. Sometimes a town might get deleted entirely in favor of a highway shield or a time zone marker. The result is a rough draft of label placement, still in need of human refinement. Post-computer editing decisions are frequently outsourced—sometimes to India, where teams of cheap workers will hunt for obvious errors and messy label overlaps. The overall goal is often a quick and dirty turnaround, with cost and speed trumping excellence and elegance.

By contrast, David Imus worked alone on his map seven days a week for two full years. Nearly 6,000 hours in total. It would be prohibitively expensive just to outsource that much work. But Imus—a 35-year veteran of cartography who’s designed every kind of map for every kind of client—did it all by himself. He used a computer (not a pencil and paper), but absolutely nothing was left to computer-assisted happenstance. Imus spent eons tweaking label positions. Slaving over font types, kerning, letter thicknesses. Scrutinizing levels of blackness. It’s the kind of personal cartographic touch you might only find these days on the hand-illustrated ski-trail maps available at posh mountain resorts.

A few of his more significant design decisions: Your standard wall map will often paint the U.S. states different colors so their shapes are easily grasped. But Imus’ map uses thick lines to indicate state borders and reserves the color for more important purposes—green for denser forestation, yellow for population centers. Instead of hypsometric tinting (darker colors for lower elevations, lighter colors for higher altitudes), Imus uses relief shading for a more natural portrait of U.S. terrain.

I’ve always loved maps but I can’t imagine spending this much time on hand-crafting a map of the United States. It would be interesting to hear why Imus pursued this: a hobby? Is he a professional cartographer? Did he want to win a prize? Is there money in this? Was he simply irritated with existing maps?

The second half of the article goes on to talk about the continued need for large maps even in an era where many people have maps in their phones and computers. I tend to agree with this view: as a kid, I would spend a lot of time simply browsing through an atlas or looking at a wall map because it is interesting to know where everything is in relation to everywhere else. A close view of the world, say with Google Maps on my phone, has difficulty displaying this interconnectedness. Several features of Imus’ map also add to the imaginative possibilities of maps: the topography and cultural attractions.

One question I have: supposedly map-making companies include little mistakes so that they can tell if someone has simply copied them. Did Imus do something similar or does he even have these same mistakes (this gets at where he got his geographical knowledge from)?

Bonus: Imus responds in the comments section. Here is one interesting comment: “If a map doesn’t depict the uniqueness of the places on it, to me that map is merely a spatial arrangement of data. I wanted to give my readers more than data. I wanted to give them the sense of place that has been missing from our maps. The USA is a place, not a space.”

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