Tag Archives: mapping

Less public knowledge, more private meaning (lessons for politicians and brands)

This is a part of a map of London drawn by Fuller (aka Gareth Wood).

Wood says that he created a map to show his relationship with the city over several years.

“It’s about documenting a particular time and experience.”

Wood’s map of London ends up being a personal document.

Of course personal is the last thing that maps are supposed to be. They are supposed to come from official sources and authoritative parties. In an almost magical act of abstraction, they remove everything that has anything to do with anyone. There are millions of people in London interacting with the city in many millions of moments. Mapmaking is meant to make all that disappear. We give you London, all place, no time, all place, no people, all place, no particulars. At all.

Something in us now recoils from this abstraction. Authoritative meanings are on the run. But of course we will continue to need maps of the old fashion, abstract kind. Chances are we will never use Wood’s map actually to find our way around London. (Though that’s a pretty charming idea and it’s easy to imagine a guest who is very late for a dinner party giving as her plaintive explanation that her Fuller map is “really not all that helpful when you get right down to it.”)

But more and more we like a world that vibrates with particularities. Public knowledge seems a little thin. Authoritative versions of the world seem a little unforthcoming if not positively stingy. Surely, we think, the world, and especially London, is more interesting than this.

This shift in expectation runs through us with big consequences. Political figures must learn from it. Romney seemed very “official map.” Obama seemed somehow more particular.  (Though he never did get all that personal.) Hillary is very official map. It’s as if so much of what makes her personal plays to her disadvantage that she wants to get abstract and stay that way. Every politician needs to solve this problem. How to show the real person, the authentic individual, even when everything in them screams to keep the image airbrushed. In his strange, deeply stupid manner, Trump has addressed this problem.

Things are easier in the world of the brand.  Every brand has been struggling to make itself less official and more particular for some time. This means letting in the consumer and the world in ways that were once unforgivable. American brands used to be very abstract indeed. But they are (marginally) less alarmed about making the transition away from abstraction. Out of the USP into life. I always thought Subaru has done a nice job of this.

It’s a good exercise for a politician or a brand. If your present self is a formal map of who you are, what would Gareth Wood’s version look like? Creatives, planners, brand managers, campaign managers, please let me know if you try this and it works.


For more on Wood and his map, see the excellent coverage by Greg Miller here.

Making culture, mapping culture

A couple of years ago, Rick Meyerowitz was on the A train in New York City. He was staring at the subway map and he was thinking about lunch. Suddenly, station names began to look like food.

Rick asked, “What if I redid the subway map [as] a food map?” He brought in his friend Maira Kalman and the two of them renamed 468 stations. Avenue H became Mulligan Stew, Avenue J became Can of Soda, and Brighton beach became Beach Stroganoff. The New Yorker published their map in 2004.

This is remapping, taking a world we know, and reworking how we see it.  It’s one way to make culture.

We don’t have to work with something as grand as a subway system. Over the course of many walks, I have remapped my little town in Connecticut. I live pretty close to “the old woman who listens to her TV really loudly. She’s 100.” I am up the street from the “the house built by that crazy Swedish guy who eventually returned to Europe and died in a pauper’s hospital.” About a mile from my house is “smuggler’s cove.” Down the street from there is “The Chinese pavilion,” and from there it’s an easy walk to the “Fortress of mystery,” “Where the roller coaster once stood,” and “House of the trapped Brazilians.”

Maps used to belong to faceless bureaucracies and the state. They were literal. They gave up everything beautiful and imaginative to be accurate and clear. (By some miracle, it takes even the most sober map around 15 years to turn into a thing of beauty. We don’t know why. Apparently map makers install secret beauty on time release.) There are cultures in which maps are rich in connotative meanings (see Basso on the Western Apache, below), but usually our maps are an unamused rendering of the world. What you see is what we got.

Until now. With the decline of elites and the rise of an technologically empowered everyman, well, remapping is inevitable. All we need is the right pen and paper (or hardware and software) and hey, presto, the world begins to take on new properties.

One precedent was Saul Steinberg’s View of the World from 9th Avenue. This give us a glimpse of The New Yorker’s myopia. Maps like this record not geographical but psychological space.  See also this map of New York City from the point of view of a 3 year old.  

Lots of options. How does a city look to any one of the groups that occupy it? How does Chicago look to a recently arrived runaway? What about a Cubs fan? How about a student at the University of Chicago? (That’s a trick question: UC students do not leave Hyde Park so they have no map of the city.)

Naturally, no one wants to use these remapped maps as way-finders. This would be like driving across the country with the aid of Denny’s placemats. But to be fair there is way finding and way finding. These remapped maps are very good for certain kinds of navigation. They can take us places we could never find otherwise. Those who make them make culture.

Please if you make a "remap," would you let us know.


Basso, Keith H. 1984. “’Stalking With Stories’: Names, Places and Moral Narratives among the Western Apache.” In Text, Play and Story: The Construction and Reconstruction of Self and Society.  Jerome Bruner, ed.  Washington, D.C.: American Ethnological Society, p. 19-55.

For more on the map by Meyerowitz and Kalman, go here.


Hiten Samtani for the New York according to a three-year old.