Maptime: The New Storyteller

manhattan and pratt on the right


 “Without the aesthetic, the computer is but a mindless speed machine, producing effects without substance, form without relevant content, or content without meaningful form.” - Paul Rand

If you haven’t already noticed, there is an explosion of maps and data visualizations that inundate our daily twitter feeds, accompany many news stories, and are increasingly found in museums and galleries. Like Medieval and Renaissance maps of the past, there is an emphasis on beauty and graphic detail as much as purveying data and geographic information to the reader. Maps are once again becoming vehicles for visual storytelling.

Here's a few examples of work that intersect these worlds, notably the New Museum of Contemporary Art’s Bowery Artists Tribute and a visualization of the sculpture garden at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York.


Bowery Artist Tribute:

Bowery Artist Tribute MapBowery Artist Tribute

In 2007, New Museum of Contemporary Art moved into it’s new building on the Bowery, a street that historically inhabits a grittier part of the city in New York’s Lower East Side. The museum took the opportunity to highlight the long-standing connection between art and the surrounding neighborhood by creating an online interactive map.

The aim was to highlight artist’s studios and homes, past and present, which have been an integral part of this community for decades. An interactive map, they decided, loaded with video interviews, images and biographies would tell those stories in a particularly meaningful way. The various media elements are accessed by clicking location hotspots of the area, bringing up artist lists and their associated content.

New Museum Kiosk

Image Courtesy of Jonathan Levy

Along with Pamela Castillo and the New Museum staff, I was commissioned to produce this experience, called the Bowery Artist Tribute map. One of the important parts of the story to me was that the map shows the breadth of artists working in the area, not just the artworld ‘celebrities’. So while there are some of the world’s most celebrated names, such as Keith Haring, Lynda Benglis, Vito Acconci, it gives equal weight to the prolific lesser known artists.


Pratt Sculpture Garden:


Pratt in the context of manhattan

More recently, in preparation for a course I teach at the Pratt Institute Certificate Program in GIS and Design, I developed a class project for students to visualize Pratt’s campus sculpture garden. Through field collection of data related to location, artist info and images using Fulcrum, we created interactive visualizations and map products using a combination of CartoDB, Odyssey.jsQGIS and Geocanvas.  (Mapbox is another great interactive map tool that I would like to integrate into future classes). These programs are all great tools for visualizing geographic data and incorporate interaction, analysis, and 3D rendering.

Pratt Student Projects

The goal of this work is to, just as one would craft a story, lead people on a journey, virtually, through a specific place. Through the artfulness of a watercolor basemap (thanks to Stamen Design), the final experiences mix written narrative, multimedia and map based interactions into a beautiful map driven story.

Pratt Statues - using Stamen Design

Pratt Statues - using Stamen Design

The workshop participant’s projects, which include analysis of number of statues and ratings of the art by location, can be viewed here:

Pratt Statues

Lacking a bit in decades past, design and interaction techniques are a key contributor to the renaissance of cartography and data visualizations, as we know it today. Data inherently has a meaningful story to tell. Combined with good visual design, this story becomes more accessible and inviting. The design and interaction prevalent in today’s maps and data visualizations, adds another layer of meaning and drives the story of data further.


- author