Tag Archives: design

Creative Cartography and Maps of the Imagination

Maps are beautiful. The fusion of information, art and science creates a visual device for making sense of the world. Maps provide structure and so give confidence in the unknown, and it is this ability to bring order to chaos which many artists have translated metaphorically to narrate the imagination. Maps and data visualisation are two things that I really love, and this beautiful combination forms the subject of Cartograms –  a delicious bit of vocabulary which is defined by ‘A presentation of statistical data in geographical distribution on a map’, yum. Although it’s not very sexy, this website, Worldmapper, which is full of pictorial distortions of the world informed by statistical data such as population, imports/exports, language and disease – it’s facinating. In this post, I’m going to share the work of some of my favourite creative cartographers, exploring their personal interpretation of the mapping process.

Grayson Perry

Cross dressing Turner Prize Winner, Grayson Perry, is arguably most famous for his ceramic vases – classic, Greek inspired structures, decorated with a cacophony of complex surface techniques to create designs with brash statements. His work is mostly biographical has many times used maps to communicate his thoughts and emotions. Perry’s ‘Map of Nowhere’ is intended to communicate his thoughts on the life and death – “I was playing with the idea of there being no Heaven. People are very wedded to the idea of a neat ending: our rational brains would love to tidy up the mess of the world and to have either Armageddon or Heaven at the end of our existence. But life doesn’t work like that – it’s a continuum.”

The piece, which was inspired by Thomas More’s Utopia, adopts a traditional cartographic style that is enhanced by Perry’s printing process during which ink is left on the plate. The circular composition encompasses key elements of Perry’s personal world; such as his alter-ego, Claire, and expresses his opinions upon society and religion. You can use the zoomable map here to explore it in more detail.

Grayson Perry - Map of Nowhere

BBC4’s 2011 Documentary ‘The Beauty of Maps” features Perry, among many other fascinating artists and cartographers, talking about his personal take on the idea of mapping belief –

Another one of his cartographic works, ‘The Map of an Englishman’ is an intricate illustration of an imaginary island as a visual metaphor for his own mind. Deeply personal and admirably honest, the map gives a true insight into the psyche and mindset of one of Britain’s most influential artists of our time. Within this work, Perry has cleverly manipulated the traditional components of a map to twist them into a metaphorical visualisation of his background, mental state and emotions – The brain shaped landmass features locations such as ‘Wishes’ ‘Sissy Wet Pants’ ‘Bitch’ and ‘Dreams’ all centred around a large dark patch of ‘Consciousness’ and surrounded by busy seas of ‘Schizophrenia’, ‘Delirium’ and ‘Anorexia Nervosa’.

There’s a great resource for seeing this map in more detail here.

Paula Scher

“I began painting maps to invent my own complicated narrative about the way I see and feel about the world. I wanted to list what I know about the world from memory, from impressions, from media, and from general information overload. These are paintings of distortions.” Paula Scher

Paula Scher is a powerhouse for creativity and innovative designs – her ambition and ability to turn her hand to any task makes her work incredibly diverse and consistently fresh, and this cross disciplinary attitude to creativity is something that I find inspiringly admirable. In her series ‘The Maps’, Scher applies her design and typography skills to the art of cartography, thereby creating vivid colourful maps which give a personal and opinionated view upon regions and continents. The painstakingly intricate maps are bursting with names, numbers and information from within a clever composition that manipulates the size, direction and scale of the type to form in an impressionistic visualisation of her opinions. Although the maps may appear geographically accurate, Scher insists that “They’re all wrong, I mean, nothing’s in the right spot. I put in what I feel like. It’s my comment on information in general. We receive a lot of information all the time and mostly it’s lies or slight mistruths.”

close-up of the map of China, by Paula Scher, with the densely packed names of the cities and towns (often written in a filled-in-outline style) making up the bulk of the painting

Detail from ‘China’ 2006

The World

‘The World’




There’s a great interview with Scher here in the Huffington Post, in whish she discusses this series. You can also hear more about Scher’s excitingly diverse career in her 2008 TEDTalk, where she looks back on her career so far and emphasises the importance of play in creativity –

Yanko Tsvetkov

Helpfully more commonly known as alphadesigner, the proudly uncatagorised artist Yanko Tsvetkov claims that he is only limited by his imagination, a trait which, similar to all the other creatives in this post, allows for a diverse portfolio brimming ingenuity and a respectable moral attitude.

“I love honesty. If you try to mislead your clients or your public, you’ll have to do it on your own. Projects for social causes and charity get a special treatment. In contrast to my artistic philosophy, I think design is the perfect tool for making the world a better place. And yes, that’s a moral quest.” Alphadesigner

“Mapping Stereotypes: The Ultimate Bigot’s Calendar of Europe” is a brave project which represents Europe through the eyes of, among others, the USA, Great Britain, Germany, France, Russia, the Vatican and Bulgaria, as well as other factors such as penis size and dictatorships. As you can imagine, these maps are brutally opinionated, often rather insulting, always intriguing, but ultimately hilarious. I defy you not to laugh.

World According to the United States of America

‘The World According to Americans’

‘European Penis size’

‘Europe According to Germans’

‘Europe According to the Vatican’

‘Europe According to Gay Men’

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The Beauty of Chaos – Fractal Geometry and the Science behind Jackson Pollock

Nature is incredible- it’s patterns and structures are the building blocks for the earth around us and inspire intelligent human design. The influence of nature can be seen in design everywhere, however discreetly or intentionally, and it works because it has evolved, it’s adaptable, it’s clever and it’s beautiful.

Naturally we have an eye for structure, rhythm, and pattern as it’s predictability comforts and reassures us. However sometimes structure isn’t immediately obvious- take tree branches for example- at first look growth appears haphazard and sporadic, yet this apparent randomness is repeated at different magnifications within the tree’s trunk, branches, shoots, and even the skeletons of its leaves. Chaos Theory, and its offspring fractal geometry is a branch of mathematics which provides evidence that this growth isn’t random, but is in fact controlled by a repeated geometric pattern  in a set of very specific conditions. This geometric repetition, which links to the Fibonacci sequence, creates a design in which patterns are repeated at various levels of magnification, and this can be seen in all kinds of nature’s formations – tree branches, blood vessels, flower petals and evencabbages! It’s not the sexiest of videos but stick with this one; it provides an easily digestible insight into a very complex topic!

Since he first splattered them out, Jackson Pollock’s ‘Drip Paintings’ have been a common face in the “But is it really art?” debate, many people questing his technical ability and criticising the work as childish, messy and pointless. But after careful analysis, physicist Richard Taylor has proved that Pollock’s controversial works are in fact made up of a fractal design, containing a repeated structure of patterns which have been formed by Pollock’s natural swinging motion that he performed whilst dripping paint. His continued research lead Taylor to create a ‘Pollockizer”- an instrument designed to mirror Pollock’s working swing and essentially replicate his paintings.

The precision, beauty, and functionality of fractal geometry provide perfect inspiration for modern design. In his TED talk, Designer Ross Lovegrove’stalks about how his work is inspired by  forms within nature to create organic design which is as functional as it is beautiful.

It seems that whether we realise it or not, the fractal geometry surrounds us in it’s natural state, in inspired human design, and also in accidental artistic expression caused by our inbuilt natural rhythm. So keep an eye out for it, it might just inspire something incredible.

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A Whistle-stop Tour through the Basics of Typography

“Words have meaning and type has spirit, and the combination of both is spectacular”

Paula Scher –  Designer and Typographer

For me, the quote above from the wonderful designer and typographer Paula Scher sums up the essence of what typography is all about. For a long time, the art of typography has fascinated me, the illustration of language creating design that has meaning on both a visual and linguistic level . So this 3 week brief based around typography has been the perfect opportunity to find out a bit more about the anatomy and mechanics of typography, in order to appreciate typography for both its aesthetic qualities and its science, as after all, it is this combination that defines design.

The Formation of Type – Letter Anatomy Key Terms

Base Line – The line upon which the letters sit. A crucial element for text and or image alignment.

Cap Height – The distance between the base line and the top of a capital letter.

X Height – The height of the main body of a lower case letter x, excluding ascenders and descenders.

Stem – Often referred to as ‘the main body of a letter’, the Stem is the main vertical (or diagonal in ‘V’) stroke of a letter.

Bowl – a circular line that encloses an interior space.

Serif – A flare at the end of a letter terminal, originating from the naturally wider strokes that occur at the end of a brush stroke.

Descender – The lelement of a letter that extends below the base line.

Ascender – The element of a letter that extends above the cap height.

Ligature – A ligature is the term used to describe the crafting of two letters into a single letter form , or ‘glyph’, e.g.  ff, fl, fi, ffi and ffl.

Finial – The tapered or curved end of a letter.

Spine – The central curved stroke of a letter.

Cross Bar – The horizontal lines within a letter.

Counter – The space enclosed by the bowl.

Positioning Text

Of course it’s not just the formation of individual letters (or ‘glyphs’) that has to be considered when designing type, the way that characters sit in relation to each other and line spacing also has to be carefully designed so that batches of text looks clean and even. This is governed by kerning, tracking and leading.

Kerning  is the adjustment of space between letters. There are several different methods of kerning- metric, which uses the kerning built into the type by the designer; optical, involving automatic adjustment by a page layout program which considers the shapes of all characters, and additionally manual kerning by the designer.

Tracking is the overall spacing across a word, line or column of text (don’t confuse with kerning which deals with individual pairs of letters) Like kerning, tracking can be manipulated automatically or manually in order to achieve the desired effect. Positively tracked text has much more empty space between characters (loose tracking) making it appear confident and free standing feel, whereas negatively tracked text brings text closer together, adding a sense of urgency. Positive tracking is used much more frequently than negative.

So, I understand that this post has barely touched the surface of the complexities of type design, however, in order to understand the detail you have to cover the basics. There are some fantastic resources online to help you to find out more about typography, here are the ones that I’ve found particularly useful-

  • “Thinking with Type” – The essential online companion to the popular book Thinking with Type: A Critical Guide for Designers, Writers, Editors, & Students, by Ellen Lupton (both links are very similar however each use different graphics and information, useful to see both)

http://papress.com/thinkingwithtype/text/tracking.htm http://www.thinkingwithtype.com/contents/text/#Project:_Space_and_Meaning

  • ILoveTypography.com – One of the most comprehensive of online typography resourses from a real type fanatic. Here you’ll find everything from the history type, to designer interviews, to debates over typefaces. Get your geek on.


  • Karen Kavett’s YouTube channel – A graphic designer/nerdfighter/photographer/video blogger whose YouTube channel is full of really handy tutorials on typography and other areas of graphic design. Concise and to the point with that essential design geek twist, thanks Karen!


I’m learning pretty quickly that you either get typography or you don’t, as for me, I’m hooked.

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Rob Ryan takes over Coutts for Christmas

As I was coming out of Charing Cross station just before Christmas, I spotted that the front of Coutts bank had been adorned with the beautiful work of papercut artist Rob Ryan. I have a huge soft spot for Rob painstakingly crafted, whimsical and simply gorgeous paper cuts with their heartfelt messages, so to just stumble upon this really made my day!

The window display has been created to raise money for the Kid’s Trust, with the toy elephant, rocking horse and dolls house being auctioned for charity (although, I’d rather have one of Rob’s bells…) You can also donate to the cause by texting KIDSHELP to 70700 to give £5.

I’m used to seeing Rob’s work applied on a much smaller scale- delightful book illustrations, mug designs, bunting, lasercuts and much more  (check his delectable Etsy shop and Amazon for a collection of books) Rob’s ability to create designs that work just as well on such a large scale, as well as small is something that some artists/designers can never seem to master, but Rob manages to skilfully create delicate work which can tug the heartstrings and delight the eye whatever the shape or size of the surface.

Etsy have made a really lovely video about the life and work of Rob Ryan as part of their ‘Handmade Portraits’ series, it’s well worth a watch.

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