The Greatest Paper Map of the United States You’ll Ever See
January 3, 2012 7:49 AM   Subscribe

"American mapmaking’s most prestigious honor is the “Best of Show” award at the annual competition of the Cartography and Geographic Information Society. The five most recent winners were all maps designed by large, well-known institutions: National Geographic (three times), the Central Intelligence Agency Cartography Center, and the U.S. Census Bureau. But earlier this year, the 38th annual Best of Show award went to a map created by Imus Geographics—which is basically one dude named David Imus working in a farmhouse outside Eugene, Ore." Slate profile on the map and award. Interview with David Imus on Book about the map (43MB PDF) YouTube interview with David Imus.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow (26 comments total) 58 users marked this as a favorite
MMmm, maps.

Imus' map was a big hit at the NACIS (North American Cartographic Information Society) annual meeting last fall.
posted by desjardins at 8:07 AM on January 3, 2012

Looking at the Slate profile link, it compares Imus with NatGeo around Cincinnati - honestly, NatGeo is the better map. It shows more information more accurately. Look at the area around Frankfort and Lexington, or the towns along the river south of the city. If I was using the map for navigation, I'd prefer the NatGeo in that case.
posted by stbalbach at 8:07 AM on January 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

desjardins posted a link to this map over at G+ and I've been drooling over it since then. (Well, since I could actually get into the guy's site. He got Slated.) I'll definitely be ordering one of these and putting it up in my daughter's room so she can pore over it when she gets older.
posted by NoMich at 8:12 AM on January 3, 2012

stbalbach, you'd probably never use a map of this scale for pure navigation. As noted in the slate article, this map gives a much more accurate impression of the geography and places of note in the states. You'll learn more about the states from this map, more quickly, than you would from the Rand. I'll be ordering a copy.
posted by maxwelton at 8:18 AM on January 3, 2012

I have to say that I reacted exactly like stbalbach when I saw the Slate piece earlier. I decided that I wasn't able to judge properly because I'm relying on someone else's snipping choices and I thought the actual image quality was a bit "off" in some ways. In other words, while I'm simply a lay enthusiast and would likely be swayed by persuasive expert arguments, I'd want to see these maps in full side by side to be able to see for myself how/why the Imus map is collecting the accolades. Because I don't see it at the moment.
posted by peacay at 8:24 AM on January 3, 2012 [5 favorites]

Maps are cool in general, but the National Geographic examples seem more readable (though it sort of looks like Slate used better quality images for that map). Plus, Imus's inclusion of O'Hare airport while omitting Midway rubs me the wrong way.
posted by exogenous at 8:27 AM on January 3, 2012

I'd like to see a close up of an area I'm more familiar with - just looking at a listing of his town selections in Vermont (by alt-F'ing "VT" in the PDF index), some of the choices were a bit odd, but mostly good. I love poring over a good map though, I may order one of these.
posted by maryr at 8:33 AM on January 3, 2012

Yes, I was torn. The Cincinnati example was unpersuasive to me, but I'm also color blind, so I have trouble reading color coding. The Nat Geo map looked better to me because of the professional white background. I'm more than willing to take the experts at their word.

I was more struck by the kind of dedication it took, and I wonder what the business plan was. But maybe the other links will help with that when I can get to them.
posted by OmieWise at 8:42 AM on January 3, 2012

Well, that part of the keynote at NACIS now makes a lot more sense. Don't forget, there was a Mefi delegation to NACIS. :)
posted by graxe at 9:24 AM on January 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

Mapmaker, mapmaker,
Make me a map.
Draw me some lines,
Shade them in hatch.
Mapmaker, mapmaker,
Project it just right,
And make me a perfect map.
posted by benito.strauss at 9:26 AM on January 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

The Imus map is 10x more readable to me than the Nat Geo samples. The font is better and the labels are all straight just for starters. Like maxwelton said, he may be omitting more details but navigation is pretty irrelevant with a wall map.
posted by Roman Graves at 10:21 AM on January 3, 2012

This is beautiful. Now if he only lives another 100 years, he could make a map for each state with the same thought and care. (Actually, now that he has made all those decisions about fonts, elevation, etc, it might be comparatively rapid to crank out a series.)
posted by Forktine at 10:47 AM on January 3, 2012

graxe: Portland!
posted by migurski at 10:51 AM on January 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

stbalbach: Looking at the Slate profile link, it compares Imus with NatGeo around Cincinnati - honestly, NatGeo is the better map.

That's because, as others have said, the snippets shown were chosen by someone who saw the whole map and said "that makes sense to me." For a broader example, see Pennsylvania on Imus' site. Compare then to the National Geographic map and zoom into Pennsylvania. You get a slightly better comparison, as those thumbnails of details are really lacking context, but would still be best compared on a large-scale basis.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:06 AM on January 3, 2012

>never use a map of this scale for pure navigation

Well, it's a road map of the old fashioned sort you'd buy in a gas station with emphasis on the roads and site seeing locations. With one big difference: it's 4x3'. So it's more like a loving monument to the old road maps, which are sort of becoming less relevant with GPS devices. This map and the attention it's getting may be a sign of something.
posted by stbalbach at 11:08 AM on January 3, 2012

Remember that maps (like books, like computers, like any other tool) are made for a purpose. You might not like this map because you couldn't use it in the car, but that wasn't its purpose. You can't critique a tool for not fulfilling a purpose for which it wasn't designed, and it's not fair to say "NatGeo is the better map" and leave it at that--the better map for *what*?

What is its purpose? I think that's where the Slate article falls down. The author seems to think of it as a last-gasp final person-made version of a map of the US, and that's the only purpose he sees for it. For all I know, that's the only purpose Imus had in creating it. But it does seem obvious to me that the map would be more appropriate for putting on the wall and mulling over, rather than tucking into a glove compartment.

"The NatGeo map looked better because of the professional white background"--maybe to you, but the Imus map's "unprofessional" murky background is actually elevation shading, not poor-quality paper or some kind of weird computer noise. Removing it and making it all white would remove a layer of information from the map.
posted by gillyflower at 11:11 AM on January 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm no cartographic or infographic expert, but the Imus map strikes me as being a far more useful learning tool than the NatGeo map. Not because it has strictly more information, but because the information it does have is presented in a way that is more organized and easily comprehensible.

Looking at the Pennsylvania examples (Imus, NatGeo), both show state boundaries, major and minor cities, highways, and rough terrain. But on the NatGeo map, all that information is just jumbled together: all I see is a dizzying mass of labels, with no real sense of what Pennsylvania is like except for its outline. On the Imus map, on the other hand, I can see immediately that the largest city is Philadelphia to the southeast, and that the city is roughly contiguous with a strip of urban area reaching across New Jersey. I can see the other major cities and their relative sizes immediately, thanks to the yellow city shapes. Because the actual size and dimensions of the cities are shown, I can see that most of them have rivers going through them. I also have some sense of which parts of Pennsylvania are not urban: there's the big, empty stretch to the north and west, with no major cities and and fewer highways, and look, it's shaded green which means it's forested. Meanwhile on the NatGeo map, that space is almost as crammed with labels as the rest of Pennsylvania, in keeping with their general principal of filling every space. Looking at Imus, I come away with a sense of what Pennsylvania actually is like, it's layout and population centers and their relationship to its physical geography. I also get a little local color from his landmarks-- hey look, there's a little league world series held near Williamsport, and that's where Three Mile Island is, I never knew.

Well, it's a road map of the old fashioned sort you'd buy in a gas station with emphasis on the roads and site seeing locations.

I think this may be part of why you prefer the other map. Imus's map is not a road map, although it does show roads. In fact, he seems to be leaving out some information about roads (compare how clearly marked the interstates vs the state highways are on NatGeo to Imus) in order to concentrate on other features of geography. Which makes sense, because road maps are all over the place, and driving directions are increasingly easy to come by thanks to google maps and GPS. What people need more help with is understanding the other elements of our physical geography, which is where this map shines. Think of it more of an educational map, something to hang on the wall of a classroom.
posted by bookish at 12:08 PM on January 3, 2012 [8 favorites]

the Imus map's "unprofessional" murky background is actually elevation shading,

Actually, the Slate article specifically says that it's not elevation shading: "Instead of hypsometric tinting (darker colors for lower elevations, lighter colors for higher altitudes), Imus uses relief shading for a more natural portrait of U.S. terrain." It might not be immediately apparent, but it means that the color brown used in the foothills of the Rockies isn't necessarily the same elevation as the exact same color in the Appalachians. It's relative to the surrounding area.

posted by desjardins at 12:11 PM on January 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Me want oh so bad but don't have the extra money right now. Will be bookmarking site though.
posted by govtdrone at 1:16 PM on January 3, 2012

The Slate article says
Other mapmakers I spoke with marveled at the handcrafted beauty of the thing. (One guy reminisced about a Soviet map from the 1970s that used different colors for freshwater and saltwater lakes. He said Imus’ map achieves that level of specificity.)

But it's interesting to note that whatever Soviet map he's talking about was most likely deliberately falsified. I don't think Imus did that.
posted by twoleftfeet at 2:04 PM on January 3, 2012

The samples on Imus's site look a lot better than those in the Slate article. I bet Slate scanned or photographed the Imus map but had a nice digital source for the National Geographic map.
posted by exogenous at 4:06 PM on January 3, 2012

My main question, as it often is when I see nice maps like this, is what software was used? My job is mostly GIS work (for analysis rather than pretty map making), and I know damn well no standard GIS software I've ever used can produce maps that look this good, in terms of precise label placement, fine adjustments. Or maybe it can, it just takes 6,000 hours to get it right...
posted by Jimbob at 4:46 PM on January 3, 2012

Imus FTW!

Lovely map and quite readable.
posted by BlueHorse at 7:32 PM on January 3, 2012

I bought Imus's Oregon map shortly after I moved here about 10 years ago and had it professionally mounted. It is a thing of beauty. It was at home for a few years and is now at my office. Over the last 10 years, I've used it more or less daily. Daily. USA map on order.

P.S I'd like to see Imus and Tufte go at it, best 2 out of 3 falls.
posted by neuron at 9:19 PM on January 3, 2012

Jimbob, I'm going to guess Illustrator if he had to do it by hand.* Like you said, default GIS software would not get the label placement correct.

At NACIS, Hans van der Maarel from Red Geographics demonstrated an algorithm that automatically calculated placement of street names (apparently they are long and complicated in Dutch). It was far better than the default placement, but still imperfect.

*I can't even begin to imagine the file size and loading time involved. I hope he had a supercomputer.
posted by desjardins at 7:26 AM on January 4, 2012

Just ran into this Slate article and came over to Metafilter to see if it was posted. It's worth it to read through the comments there as David Imus responds to some of the complaints that people have about the choices he made.
posted by Roger Dodger at 10:19 AM on January 6, 2012

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