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Maps: art or wayfinding?

In a recent New York Times article “The World as Their Canvas”, the author Steven Heller describes seminal maps in the history of design and cartography, citing Herbert Bayer’s World Geo-Graphic Atlas and Harry C. Beck’s London Underground map map as “exemplary marriage[s] of information, art and design.” These maps are notable for both their easy synthesis of information and for the creative licenses the authors took.

In the London Underground map, for example, major geographical landmarks were removed, including the center of the city. However geographically inaccurate this map may be, it takes a very complex system and simplifies it to better clarify its message. Today, the bold and rational map is regarded as an archetype for much of the Modernist movement of art, including the Bauhaus School, the work of Massimo Vignelli, the Minimalists and countless others.

In Mr, Heller’s article, several books about interesting and unusual maps are reviewed (all of which are in my next Amazon shopping cart) but the books that look most enticing to me are those of imaginary places. Johannes Hevelius’s “Seleongraphy”, for example, illustrates imaginary heavenly bodies with oceans, islands and detailed descriptions.

For me, maps have always been a healthy obsession and my personal artwork has been heavily influenced by them. The simplicity of the lines, layering and minute details are things I strive for in art and in design.

Despite my reverence for the visual qualities of maps, it would be imprudent to ignore their practicality. Maps have become an integral part of our visual lexicon. To say that Google Maps, Mapquest and Yahoo! Maps are now ubiquitous would be an understatement. With the continued development of the Internet, the importance and reach of maps will continue to grow.

This duality of intrigue in maps begs the question: Are maps more closely related to art? Or wayfinding?