Beautiful, mind-bending digital map designs

If you read through interviews with famous graphic designers, you may come across an interesting commonality: many of them profess to loving maps since childhood. Perhaps it isn’t so surprising that maps would possess a special allure for the more spatially conscious among us.

In consequence, the world has no shortage of gorgeous, artistic maps created by graphic designers in their down time. Like this one:

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A beautiful aerial rendering of San Diego, by Jan Kallwejt

But maps are usually more than just pictures with manipulable aesthetic characteristics. Rather, they are highly conceptually loaded material. They don’t just show you a place; they show you how to look at a place. And it is ultimately up to the designer to decide what sort of instructions a map gives in this regard. For an extreme example, take a look at this map of New York City facing uptown from Cooper Union:

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Part of BERG’s “Here and There” Project; looking uptown from 3rd and 7th (in Manhattan)

Designed by BERG, this map upends the convention that a map should present a bird’s-eye view, instead creating a warp that allows both an aerial and street-level perspective at once.

Take a look

Here are a few other examples of awesome, mind-bending map designs, some of which alter fundamental mapping principles like the above, others of which make small but nevertheless significant changes.

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Lake Huron, by Below the Boat

Usually maps are flat, and if they aren’t, they depict land-based topographies like hills and mountains. This topographic map does the opposite, keeping the land flat while charting the depths of Lake Huron.

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A typographic map of Chicago by axismaps

Typographic maps are quite a trend these days. Usually they’re more decorative posters than actually functional maps. This one, however, nevertheless demonstrates an interesting tenet: instead of placing street names within the boundaries of the street, using the line of text in a street name to represent the street itself!

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An aerial view of Munich, in the eyes of Lu Xinjian

No, that isn’t alien code. It’s a painting by artist Lu Xinjian, inspired by Google Earth aerial views of Munich, Germany. The abstract lines may not correspond to Munich’s streets and alleys in an exact or even literal manner, but the overall aesthetic logic of maps is certainly here.

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A city map by Jazzberry Blue

This digital artist approaches Milan from a somewhat similar angle, adding a funky color scheme.

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A different kind of topographic map

Usually maps prize elements like roads and highways over topographic features like elevation. This map reverses this relationship.

deconstructed map

Taking aerial maps apart

Maps — deconstructed! This artist took a series of maps, abstracted them into blocks of land divided by streets, and then linearly reordered those blocks according to shape and size, giving a very different sense of a city’s space.

Top of the field

Stamen Design, a San Francisco-based design and research group, certainly has some of the best map geeks out there. They’re constantly developing innovative, unusual maps to visualize information from the locations of Pinterest Pins to the vulnerability of coastal areas under flood conditions:

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Stamen is big on changing not only the way we use maps, but how maps aesthetically look. On this page, you can view any location in the world, toggling between a “toner” rendering, watercolor or “terrain”:

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They’ve even developed a tool called Map Stack, that allows users to design their own maps by stacking different layers and filters. No design software or coding required; it’s the Instagram of map design!

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Play around

Finally, allow us to leave you with this utterly addicting geography quiz game, geoguessr.com. It effectively drops you in a randomly selected place on earth that has been charted by Google maps, and asks you to guess your location by dropping a pin on a map.

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In order to do succeed, you have to scan the environment for clues, like the type of terrain, the style of architecture, the language used on signage, etc. Essentially, you have to treat your surroundings as an information-loaded map of sorts — a map that is supremely detailed, yet not all that helpful. Of course, that’s the fun.

Have you designed any maps? Share them with us below!

The author

Alex Bigman
Alex Bigman

Alex contributes from New York City on topics ranging from branding and typography to the history of design.

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