In Praise of Paper Maps

Old maps of London

When was the last time you held a paper map? I don’t just mean a map printed on paper, I mean one that was designed to be viewed on paper in the first place. The London A to Z would count, so would those in a printed atlas or obtained from a tourist office to navigate an unfamiliar city. Of the hundreds of maps I see each year, I would guess that less than 10% have been designed for printing. This to me is a great shame for a few reasons. Firstly, paper is just better in many circumstances. It is by far the most reliable means of storing navigation information: it doesn’t need batteries or an internet connection (you could say the maps are pre-cached) and you can drop it in a puddle and it will still work. It also offers a nice sized and efficient visual interface- street corners seem to be increasingly populated with those squinting into their phone. If you spot someone with an A-Z they tend to have a quick look at the map and then start looking around to get their bearings.

One of my favourites: “Bacon’s Picture Map of London” from 1908

The impact of a larger visual interface is further enhanced by the fact that a paper map offers something much more tangible. You can hold it (and smell it if it is old and musty), lean over it, write on it and fold it whatever way you wish. In the context of data visualisation, paper maps offer something much more engaging, with people tending to look and think about them for much longer than their on-screen counterparts. 18 months or so ago I produced both online and printed versions of a surname map for London. Each visitor to the online version has spent on average less than a minute (according to Google Analytics) looking at it, whilst my fairly unscientific observations from lurking at the backs of various rooms where the map has been displayed suggest that people spent two or three times that looking at the paper version (even though the online version actually contains 15 maps). If I had to guess who found the map most memorable I bet it would be the people who saw the paper version. It is for these reasons that community mapping projects often use printed maps rather than electronic equivalents to engage with those they are working with.

Comparative summer/ winter temperature maps for the British Isles (now on my office wall)

The final thing I would say in praise of paper maps is the fact they make the cartographer work much harder. Paper does not enable easy zooming so labels and symbols need to be clear and uncluttered and the use of colour (or black and white) becomes even more important. Every map I have produced for print has required some kind of manual input from me to shift a few labels around or re-position features. In these cases I have to think about the interpretability of the map much more and frequently spot errors that would go unnoticed if I was making the map in an automated way. People appreciate these changes, which is why the likes of David Ismus’ map of North America has proved so popular. I just hope that they don’t go overlooked as electronic maps become more prevalent and people begin to view maps as simple “infographics” portraying a single headline dataset or relationship.

Swiss Topo map of Grindelwald from the 1930s

That said, I know that digital maps are better for many things too (not least easy dissemination) and so this is not meant to be some kind of nostalgic technophobic rant. Many of the maps I produce look much better on screen and, frankly, I wouldn’t have this blog without recent advances in mapping technology and an abundance of data to showcase it. It just strikes me that paper is still better for many things and so we shouldn’t be afraid to use it, even if (or precisely because) it requires a little more thought to get our message across.
For more thoughts on good maps see here and for a post about some paper maps I rescued see here.