Mapping the City: A Stranger's Guide

Maps and Art

In recent decades, the art world has seen an explosion of works applying maps and the mapmaking process. Maps and art share many characteristics in their ability to affect the way humans experience and perceive different subjects. Yet, despite these similarities, maps generally serve as visual representations and guides with the expectation that a viewer will gain knowledge of spatial relationships. Because they share certain qualities, artful maps throughout history have proved more functional and user-friendly than less ornate maps. Artful representation of a geographic area can influence how readers perceive the area. In essence, aesthetically pleasing maps increase their functionality, adding life as a narrative and enabling them to carry deeper messages and meanings.

How Do Maps and Art Intersect?

Decorative maps have made their mark on cartographic practices, though their decorative and artful aspects usually fell secondary to their other more practical uses, such as navigation, which created a distinction between art and cartography. Over the centuries, artists and cartographers adhered to the implied separation between knowledge and decoration offered by maps and art, respectively. Some scholars, such as Arthur Robinson in The Look of Maps, argue that ornamentation and visual stimuli do not add to the function of maps, and, in fact, unnecessary decoration detracts from the knowledge afforded by the map. However, many also argue the opposite; because maps and art both appeal to the visual, it follows that art aids the functionality of maps. The line between art and cartography was blurry to begin with, but it continues to fade as the nature of maps and art increasingly overlap with time. Scholarship on the subject of art and maps and the relationship between the two has proved muddled with interpretations varying on all sides of the spectrum. To provide a concrete example, landscape paintings in particular show the difficulties of articulating the separation between maps and art. Both landscape paintings and maps employ descriptive techniques to convey the lay of the land. Landscape paintings even convey certain aspects of a geography better and more accurately than a map. Furthermore, many great Renaissance artists have also successfully tried their hands at mapmaking such as Leonardo da Vinci, Albrecht Dürer, Jacopo de’ Barbari, and Cristoforo Sorte.

Many facets of art and maps overlap, in terms of function and their ability to convey messages - the language of maps is artistic, visual, and graphic in its nature. Unsurprisingly, the use of maps as art and the use of map in art have pervaded European societies at least since medieval times. More recently, however, artist have used maps more frequently in works, and more art exhibitions involving maps have shown in the past twenty years than ever before. In our post-modern world where everything is questionable, the assumptions, claims, and concepts present  in maps lend them well to rule-breaking artists ready to expressively and creatively reinterpret cartography. Essentially, when used together maps and art complement each other.

Can color render a map more “useful”?

Whether in black and white, or in color, a map’s function is to serve as a guide, a navigational tool of sorts, which gives the viewers an opportunity to discover the unknown. Yet mapmakers more often than not play on hues and color tones in order to make maps more aesthetically pleasing. By focusing on decoration, cartography has moved from the realm of science to that of art, allowing the conceptualizers to expressively and often imaginatively represent a space.

The decorative aspects of maps can give them more value in the market, but color, shading, and the like also serve to communicate the objective of the mapmaker: the quickest way to arrive to a destination, the easiest way to understand the map, and so on. From the viewer’s perspective, color offers intimacy and familiarity as a number of tones have become the visual embodiment of certain features on a map: colors that are chosen usually have a relationship to the object or space that is being mapped. Blue, for example, is traditionally used to illustrate oceans and seas, whereas green represents landmass.  As a result, the viewer can mentally visualize division by the first glance as well as retain key aspects of the map. The use of color clarifies elements on the map such as clusters of lines, which then facilitates communication between the mapmaker and the map viewer. Instead of seeing lines, dots, and symbols in the same indistinguishable shade, the mapmaker making the map more alive and vibrant. He adds subjectivity to his creation, encouraging a more welcoming and less intimidating environment; their work becomes more readable and story-like, rather than a geographical data set ready for analysis.

Do symbols serve a greater purpose than decorating a map?

In the Middle Ages, cartographers did not possess the knowledge to create geographically accurate maps, and instead represented an area by blending imagination, artistry, and geography. Indeed, for centuries, cartography and landscape paintings were indistinguishable, as the same person executed both activities. The main problem for these artists was to represent clearly phenomena and objects on a plane surface: mountain ranges, ships and sea creatures became occasions to exhibit artistic talent. Through all this artistic effort, it is evident that cartographers invested soul in their maps: they expressed their thoughts, communicated their political and cultural opinions as well as their questions about the world through symbols and drawings. More than a simple guide, the map became a narrative, tinted with dreams of travels and highlighting the unknown and the curious nature of explorers and artists alike: a way to convey experiences.

However, the introduction of new cartographic techniques and instruments placed a higher emphasis on producing spatially accurate maps; cartographers used artistry and creativity less freely and less frequently. Symbols were unable to convey mapmakers’ intentions as well as the scientific process into which mapmaking had evolved. Yet the boundary between art and mapmaking was, and to this day is, unclear. Though no longer needed to describe an area, symbols, cartouches, marginalia, and other decorative interventions have become a part of the mapmaking culture, a method to express nostalgia and create appeal of both historical and contemporary maps alike.

An All Encompassing Example

The diagrammatic map of London’s subway system, better known as the “Tube,” serves a prime example of a that utilized modernist stylistics to improve function. The designer, Harry Beck, adopted qualities of contemporary art of the 1920s and ‘30s to create a more radical representation of the map that purposefully understated the geographical accuracy that earlier representations emphasized. As downtown London encompassed more subway stations than areas on the outskirts of London, Beck distorted the geographical proportions in the center of the map to enhance readability. Though inaccurate geographically, the map’s design was more malleable and versatile than its predecessors” that followed a less stylized, yet geographically accurate design. In fact, when the transport administration wanted to encourage travel on the lines outside the city center the lack of geography aided their efforts. The administration made advertisements for the country aided by Beck’s map that presented them as closer to the city center and easy to access.

Beck’s adoption of an angular style lent a more direct quality to the Tube. Instead of seeing lines wind and twist around the city, Beck’s design presented lines running only in vertically, horizontally, and at 45 degree angles. Influenced by modern art, the angles as well as the distinct, bold colors of each line gave the map the directness and clarity necessary in the absence of geographical accuracy. Because of its easily readable and navigable nature, London transportation authorities, though they have changed over the years, have used Beck’s general design since 1933.

An instant hit, the map has now taken on an iconic role. Since its inception, Beck’s map has influenced numerous works of art including a series of alternative Tube maps. The Great Bear created by Simon Patterson in 1992, shows an exact replication of the modern Tube map with the exception that he replaced all line and station names with names of modern and historical famous persons. Similarly, Transportation for London published The Underground Film Map, a Tube map that replaced all station names with the title of a film or television show featuring the station or a nearby location. Many other adaptations of the Tube map have recently appeared in galleries and museums around the world, showing the sustained popularity of Beck’s design and its impact on contemporary art.


Dobbin, Claire. London Underground Maps. Farnham, UK: Lund Humphries, 2011.

Harmon, Katharine. The Map as Art: Contemporary Artists Explore Cartography. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2009.

“London Underground Map.” Design Classics. British Broadcasting Corporation 4. August 2, 2008. Television.

Rees, Ronald. Historical Links between Cartography and Art. Geographical Review,70.1 (Jan.,1980): 60-78.

Robinson, Arthur. The Look of Maps: An Examination of Cartographic Design. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1966.

Transport for London. “Design classics.” Transport for London.

Unger, Richard W. Ships On Maps: Pictures of Power in Renaissance Europe. London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2010.Woodward, David. Art and Cartography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Information about Maps Shown in Links

Radical representation: Beck, Harry. “Underground Map.” Map. Transport for London. Underground Electric Railways of London, 1933. 

Predecessors: Gill, MacDonald. “Map of Electric Railways in London” Map. University of Brighton. Underground Electric Railways of London, 1924. 

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