The Best New Maps, According to Cartographers

The new Atlas of Design is a collection of beautiful, innovative, and unusual modern maps.

From charts of UFO sightings in the United States to surveys of bear population density in Finland to a 3-D visualization of where London’s airport employees live, a new collection of maps shows off the skill and creativity of today’s cartographers.

The third volume of the Atlas of Design contains 32 maps, each representative of a different style of design and craft. The one thing the maps have in common is that they tend to “impress the viewer at first glance, and have enough rich details to reward the time spent looking closer,” says atlas co-editor Marty Elmer, a member of the North American Cartographic Information Society, which publishes the atlas.

As they sifted through nearly 250 submissions from more than 15 countries, a panel of NACIS members considered the maps’ creativity, scientific rigor, and artistic mastery. The result is a beautiful set of modern maps that will appeal to both professional mapmakers and casual map enthusiasts. “Whether the mapmaker is a journalist, student, GIS professional, lifetime cartographer, or independent artist, people of all sorts of backgrounds are making maps that are interesting, informative, and fun,” Elmer says.

The striking panorama above of Denali and the Alaska Range was created by draping satellite imagery over a three-dimensional model of the terrain. Brooke Marston, a cartographer at the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, was inspired by the Austrian artist Heinrich Berann, who is famed for his beautiful panoramas of mountain ranges.

While Berann took some artistic license with the precise location and positioning of mountains in his panoramas, Marston’s map is true to the geography. The oblique, bird’s-eye view emphasizes the sheer size of the mountains while maintaining a closeness with the viewer. “Good oblique mapping can transport the viewer straight into the landscape,” Elmer says. “This map makes me feel lost among the jagged, cold, majestic mountains just looking at it.”

“The overall effect is to portray the scale and grandeur of this dramatic wilderness from the perspective of a soaring bald eagle,” Marston writes in the atlas.

“Elk have always been vital to Yellowstone National Park and its adjacent lands,” reads the introduction to this National Geographic map published as a supplement to the May 2016 special issue on Yellowstone National Park. Mapping the migration turned out to be a difficult task that required many creative solutions, as a team of cartographers attempted to portray both the overall importance of elk to the area and the intricate details of specific elk herds and their interactions with other species.

“Migration data is very complex and very messy,” says cartographer Lauren Tierney. “Taking that highly detailed data and translating it into something a general audience could understand was a big challenge.”

The team agonized over choices such as whether to emphasize the large number of individual elk herds that make up Yellowstone’s “superherd” or to focus on the movement of the herds in and out of the park with the seasons. “In the end, we used color to differentiate the known herds, with variations of value and transparency as well as line weight and shape to illustrate the rhythmic, breathing life force of the herds as they move from winter to summer ranges and back,” they wrote in the atlas.

The end result is a beautiful map with lots of different types of information that gives a sense of the relationship between the landscape and the elk. “Their ability to provide dense amounts of data in a way that remains legible never ceases to amaze,” Elmer says.

A wonderful interactive online version offers another way to explore the map.

Every person who died trying to reach Europe by crossing the water from Africa and the Middle East between 2005 and 2015 is represented by a single dot on this map. Levi Westerveld, a spatial analyst and cartographer at the Norwegian foundation GRID-Arendal, placed each dot, one by one, as close as he could to where each person died or went missing. “Assigning a unique dot to each victim helped to portray the unsettling number of recorded losses,” Westerveld wrote in the atlas.

Distances and locations aren’t exact on this map, but Westerveld’s intention was to portray the experience of the people who were fleeing conflicts in their home countries. They were often navigating the Mediterranean with just handheld compasses in un-seaworthy boats, hoping to see a thin line of coast on the horizon, represented on the map by a thin black line.

If you look closer, you’ll see thin blue lines of text waving away from a few of the dots. These are descriptions of who died, how they died, and the destination they hoped to reach. Westerveld writes: “And they leave us wondering: What about the stories behind all the other dots?”

Elmer says the editors all felt that the overall effect of the map is “a total emotional gut-punch.”

Modern maps have converged on a nearly ubiquitous “cartographic aesthetic,” Elmer argued a few years back on his Map Hugger blog. The unspoken but universally accepted rules of how a map should look have given the maps of today a “clinical, technical, minimalist appearance” that is notably devoid of traces of a human touch, according to Elmer.

These words inspired cartographer Stephen Smith to make a new map based on a map of Great Britain from the 1940s that Elmer used as an example of a bygone style with a “drafted appearance.”

“I was enthralled with the style,” Smith writes on his website, “I had to replicate it for the United States.”

The challenge for Smith was to replicate the hand-drawn qualities of the older map using digital tools and modern data sets. He had to make choices about which kinds of resources to merge and which to leave on their own and how to end up with a reasonable number of symbols and colors in order to get the smoothly generalized look of the 1940s map.

“Constraints lead to creativity,” Smith writes in the atlas. “By closely emulating historical designs you can replicate the constraints of the manual design era and often end up creating beautiful cartography.”

If you’ve ever lived in or near New Jersey, you’ve likely heard of the Jersey Devil—a creature with wings, claws and hooves that walks on two legs, lives in the Pine Barrens, and terrorizes towns, schools, and factories. The state even named its hockey team after this monster.

In fact, the United States is filled with mythical monsters that are feared or revered by locals but remain largely unknown to most of the country. Inspired by the monster party described by Bobby Pickett in his song “Monster Mash,” cartographer Chelsea Nestel, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, mapped the monsters of the United States. She filled each state’s territory with a depiction of its most fearsome or beloved mythical beast.

Some of the cryptids on Nestel’s hand-drawn map will be unfamiliar even to local residents. California’s Sierra Nevada foothills were once home to the Roperite, a large birdlike animal with a beak that extended into a rope used to lasso other creatures. Georgia is said to be home to the joint snake, which when cut into pieces can reassemble itself and may even incorporate the knife that cut it into its recomposed body. According to Nestel’s research, the only state apparently free of monsters is Delaware.

“Of course, monsters do not respect political boundaries,” Nestel writes in the atlas, “so I drew state borders as dotted lines to indicate that these boundaries are porous.”

“It's always interesting when a map demonstrates the diversity of a place: in this case, the unique folklore of all 50 states,” Elmer says. “It's also a map that threatened the objectivity of us editors: In narrowing down the finalists, we had to acknowledge we all had a strong ‘pro-monster’ bias.”

The Atlas of Design Volume III is available for preorder and will ship later this month.

The full credit for the Yellowstone map is:
Editor: Martin Gamache
Scientific Adviser: Arthur Middleton, Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies
GIS: Theodore A. Sickley; Matthew M. Hayes and Jerod A. Merkle, Wyoming Migration Initiative, University of Wyoming.
Text: Jeremy Berlin
Map Edit: Gus Platis
Research: Brad Scriber, Shelley Sperry
Graphics: Daisy Chung, Lawson Parker
Map Production: Dianne Hunt, Lauren James, Lauren C. Tierney, Matthew Kauffman, Wyoming Migration Initiative, University of Wyoming; James E. Meacham and Alethea Y. Steingisser, Infographics Lab, University of Oregon; Andrew J. Hansen, Monstana State University; Sarah Dewey, Ann W. Rodman, Douglas W. Smith, Daniel Stahler, Erin Stahler, P.J. White, and Lee H. Whittlesey, National Park Service; Eric Cole, National Elk Refuge; Bruce B. Ackerman and Paul Atwood, Idaho Fish and Game; Ron Aasheim, Justin Gude, Kelly Proffitt, and Neal Whitney, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks; Alyson Courtemanch, Renny MacKay and Doug McWhirter, Wyoming Game and Fish Department; The Nature Conservancy, Montana and Wyoming, National Conservation Easement Database; Paul C. Cross and Lisa Landenburger, Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center; Larry Loendorf, Sacred Sites Research; Montana Department of Revenue; BLM; USGS

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