I’m not just a strategist. I’m a big map nerd. (Though not a prerequisite, I have to say that most strategists I know tend to share this fandom.) For me, the fascination began when I was very young, and maps felt like magical portals. Burrowing deep into a road atlas of the United States as a kid in Northeast Ohio, I used to look at random streets and intersections in far-off corners of Texas, or near the Rocky Mountains, or within Manhattan’s neat grid and wonder, “Who lives there? And what is it like?”
My curiosity about the form was further piqued when I had a memorable encounter with the old, iconic electric light-up map at Gettysburg National Park while visiting the Civil War site with my parents. (After the National Park Service upgraded and sold the map in 2008, a private restorer stepped in, so now you can see the 632 new lightbulbs and miles of new wire incorporated into the 30 x 30 block.) The twinkling lights conveyed troop movements and battle lines snaking across the three-by-five-mile battlefield over July 1-3, 1863. The map communicated activity taking place in a huge space over a span of time; now, we can use pixels and coding to create similar, albeit more technically sophisticated interactive maps.
The first time I saw the Panorama of the City of New York, I was reminded of that experience, as I took in the installation of wood and formica models built for the 1964 World’s Fair displaying Robert Moses’ vision for our fair metropolis. (You can still see the Panorama at the Queens Museum; follow it up with a tasty visit to nearby Flushing!) The Museum of the City of New York is another great spot for interactive maps (on- and offline!), telling the story of how “the greatest street grid” came to define New York’s geography and our experience living in the city.
While museums are great spots to take in epic and amazing maps, you can also do so at via in-depth reporting pieces at outlets like CityLab, which has a whole map-filled section where you can learn more about noise pollution or explore a mossy visualization of Berlin’s green spaces.
But why do maps matter, beyond intellectual or aesthetic interest? Here, I’d point to a map myself and thousands (millions?) of other users kept refreshing in earnest as it was updated on election night, November 9, 2016. The electoral vote map on the New York Times told us, in real time, what was going to happen before there were many words to do so. It was the most efficient and timely way to tell a very important data-driven story. Both before and since that night, I’ve admired the in-depth maps and data visualizations the Times has created to explore how climate change is affecting Greenland, incorporating a mix of video and mapping data points to help place readers in the story.
That, ultimately, is what maps do; they invite us to find ourselves in the content. “Where do I live in relation to this place?” Or, “This is what you would be able to see if you could be at this spot on Greenland’s ice sheet.” It makes sometimes abstract ideas--climate change, or social change over time--real. It gives us a more personal vantage point into data than we might have were it presented in, say, a table.
Context matters, of course; were I speaking among academics or at certain types of events, I’d prefer to use a clean and simple table. But if, like many of our clients, you’re trying to foster a personal connection between your audiences and your work, or to entice audiences to join your program or initiative, then data visualization can be mighty effective. And considering how editorial outlets approaches this type of storytelling can be instructive and inspiring for us in the social impact sector.
It turns out that one of the folks behind some of my most memorable experiences with the above-cited Times content in recent years is graphic designer Larry Buchanan, who spoke during NYCxDesign month at the Type Directors Club about maps and storytelling. During his talk, Buchanan shared his perspective as a co-creator not only of those highly detailed 2016 election materials, but of a moving chronicle sharing a Chicago family’s daily experience of commuting to school through a safe zone the city created to help students navigate streets in areas beset with high rates of deadly gun violence.
For my part, I like to think about how we can create a more compelling personal connection for people with information through our design work at Bureau Blank. As a strategist, I enjoy taking the opportunity to help translate data or abstract ideas into a visual story that’s going to engage people and inspire them to take action, whether that means signing up for a program, advocating for equity, or accessing a service. And I’ll continue looking for opportunities to partner with our designers and explore how we can do so.
You can check out Buchanan’s presentation here!