Conversations with mapmakers on the works that most inspire them.

Stamen Design, the San Francisco-based digital studio, is not strictly in the business of making maps. But in their efforts to make visual sense of data and information, they make some of the most engaging, incisive, and beautiful maps around. The studio’s commitment to empowering and connecting budding map-makers and civic-hackers has earned them a prominent place in the world of cartography.

In 2012, Stamen released three beautiful, open-source base maps, which quickly became default tile-sets for anyone tinkering with interactive map-making. Their watercolor tiles, in particular, are stunning to behold: zoomable and infinitely reusable, the maps render the entire world in algorithm-generated (but charmingly nuanced) watercolor strokes. Once you notice them, the tiles show up everywhere, from the San Francisco Chronicle to the lining of iPad cases.

Watercolor tile map of the San Francisco Bay Area, Stamen Design, 2012.

I sat down with long-time mapmaker Eric Rodenbeck, the founder, CEO, and creative director of Stamen Design, to talk about some of his favorite maps:

1) Pearl Harbor Commemorative Postcard, 1943

(Courtesy the David Rumsey Map Collection. Photo by Alex Kain.)

“This is a commemorative postcard issued in the 1940s to ‘celebrate’ the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. In this map, the Hawaiian Islands are surrounded by exploding boats and planes. When you open it up, a pair of flagpoles pop up, and strung between them are the flags of the Axis powers, including the Nazi flag.”

“I like [this map] because it's so bizarre; I guess you were supposed to mail it to your friends in other Axis power countries? I spend so much time working with maps of open data that it's easy to forget that people make maps for all kinds of reasons, not all of them positive, and this map reminds me of that.”

2) The Hyborian Age, artist unknown

(Scan courtesy of Eric Rodenbeck.)

“The best books all start with maps. I had a tough time deciding between the one in the Lord of the Rings, any of [those from] Alan Furst's amazing novels about the fringes of WWII, and those in the Conan books (the ones published by Ace). But in the end, I had to go with Conan.”

“I genuinely loved poring over the details of this as a kid, and dreaming about all these far-off places. I try hard to bring that sense of wonder and delight to our work, and to remember that this medium has the capacity to entertain and instill wonder as well as inform.”

3) Election Cartograms, Mark Newman, 2008

(Courtesy of Mark Newman.)
(Courtesy of Mark Newman.)

This was an early [boundary-breaking] map that struck a nerve [with me]. Mark [Newman]’s maps were an effective counter to the [traditional U.S. election] maps that seemed to show huge, solid blocks of support for John McCain over Barack Obama. Mark adjusted the sizes of all the counties relative to their population density, and used a red-purple-blue color scale instead of a binary red-blue switch. [His maps show that] when we talk about blue states, we're really talking about states [whose] big cities have a substantial enough impact on the rest of the state to change it.”

4) The California Water Atlas, California State Office of Planning and Research, 1979

(Image scan courtesy the David Rumsey Map Collection.)
(Image scan courtesy the David Rumsey Map Collection.)
(Image scan courtesy the David Rumsey Map Collection.)

“This was a landmark atlas, the first comprehensive look at California's extensive water system in a geographic context. It's huge, has hundreds of maps and diagrams, and it tells the story of California water in different ways. I've often said that it's a mistake to try and cram every single bit of information you've got into a single map or visualization; this project bears that out exquisitely.”

5. HousingMaps for CraigsList, Paul Rademacher, 2005

(Image courtesy housingmaps.com)

“The very first Google Maps mashup before anyone knew about APIs; the face that launched a thousand ships. When I first saw this map in 2005 I just about lost it. Paul Rademacher, without asking anyone's permission, just went ahead and [made] it, and eventually Google hired him.”

“Paul says on his site: ‘When it launched, it popularized the idea that real estate was best browsed on a map—before that, real estate sites only showed lists of properties! It also introduced the idea that you can build a new website or service by borrowing pieces from existing sites, without asking for permission. The web is open, and we can shape it to our needs.’”

“[Paul’s map] was the start of a whole different way of working openly on the web.”

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