Hand-drawn maps from firefighters, club-hoppers, Boy Scout dads, grandmothers, and Alexander Calder.

How they tell us where to go.
April 28 2010 11:47 AM

"She Does a Better Job Than Map Quest!"

Wonderful hand-drawn maps from firefighters, club-hoppers, Boy Scout dads, grandmothers, and Alexander Calder.

Last month, I asked Slate readers to send me their hand-drawn maps. The request was part of my series on signs, the tools that professionals use to orient us and direct us from point A to point B. But official signs aren't the only things that help us get around. Since early man first drew on his cave wall—including marks that some scholars argue were maps of local rivers and settlements—we've been sketching out routes to guide one another to the market and to the mountain top.

These humble maps can be beautiful. They can also be messy, indecipherable, inaccurate, and unattractive. Slate readers sent in nearly 200 maps, and they ranged from hasty scribbles on scrap paper to elaborate, multicolored renderings. No matter what it looks like, a handmade map offers several advantages over a road atlas or the directions you get from Google. Read on to see some of your most interesting hand-drawn maps—and to discover why homemade maps are often superior to the ones designed by the pros.

Julia Turner Julia Turner

Julia Turner is the editor in chief of Slate and a regular on Slate's Culture Gabfest podcast.

The crucial advantage of the handmade map is that it is designed for a particular person confronting a particular task. The map below, for example, was drawn for a reader named Marya by her grandmother. It depicts the back of her computer "and how to connect it to things." Although Marya could probably have gathered the information conveyed here by consulting user manuals, she would have had to flip through pages of useless gobbledygook, some of it in Korean and Portuguese. This map offers only the details Marya needs. "Every time I moved," Marya writes, "I went back to this map to find my way from one apparatus to another."

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A proper atlas must include every street name, not just the names of the streets you're looking for. By comparison, the map below—drawn by Slate reader Saral Kaushik to direct a friend to a club in Soho, London—edits ruthlessly. There's not much here, but the minimal amount of information makes for a map that's easier to use than one that's cluttered with detail. The small Saturn shape at right evokes the London Underground roundel and signifies a station; "TCR" stands for Tottenham Court Road, the name of the stop. Two relevant streets—Oxford, where the underground exits, and Greek, where the club is—are named. The others are unnamed, or left off entirely.

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Homemade maps also play with scale in fascinating ways. Paul Stiff, a professor of information design who's been collecting hand-drawn maps for decades, reviewed all the submitted maps for Slate, and he was intrigued by the one below, which was drawn by an Australian architect to direct his daughter from Brisbane to his farm. Stiff notes: "If you compare this with a topographical map, you'll see that he's compressed the scale astonishingly." There's less detail closer to home, where roads are familiar, Stiff says, "but the scale expands the nearer we get to the destination because we need more information in places that are new to us." Indeed, the distance from Brisbane, at the top of the map, to the Murwillumbah turnoff, depicted just below it, is more than 40 miles; the rest of the journey, which takes up most of the page, is only 20 miles or so.

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Alexander Calder used the same trick in 1949 when directing his friend Ben Shahn from New York City to the artist's home in Roxbury, Conn. Calder omits much of the journey, assuming that Shahn can find his way to the Merritt Parkway, where the map below begins. And Calder devotes almost one-third of this map to the final five miles of the trip, the part where Shahn must navigate unfamiliar local roads. The map, submitted to Slate by an archivist at the Smithsonian, is striking in part because it uses Calder's familiar bold lines and primary hues. But it also conveys information with elegant simplicity. Note how Calder uses arrows from the address stamp in the upper right-hand corner of the page: A blue one runs from the name of his road to his drawing of the road on the map; a yellow one runs from his own name to his home. The arrows eliminate additional labeling, Stiff notes, making the map more legible.

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You don't have to be an internationally renowned artist to draw a map that's more useful than a road atlas. Consider this map of Fort Wayne, Ind., submitted by reader Hollie Briggs. It was drawn hastily by her father-in-law—in pink crayon—to show the way from his home (the circle at the top of the map) back to the interstate. The map worked so well when it was made six years ago that Briggs has kept it and used it ever since. Like Calder's map, it eliminates unnecessary information: There are a number of side streets between Union Chapel Road and Dupont, for example, but Briggs' father-in-law left them off because they're irrelevant to the route.

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Good hand-drawn maps do more than edit out useless details. They often ignore the mapmaking convention that puts north at the top. That's what Slate reader Don Davis has done in the next map, a well-ordered guide to an area near St. Louis. The drawing is for a traveler coming south on I-55, and it puts south—not north—at the top of the page. Information designer Paul Stiff notes that Davis' approach is common among nonprofessionals because it makes maps easier to use: "If you're following a map from the bottom of the page to the top, it means you don't have to switch left and right." You also don't have to flip the map upside down to line it up with the road unfurling ahead of you.

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Handmade maps also tend toward straight lines and right angles, a phenomenon spatial psychologists refer to as "rectilinear normalization." The world is full of squiggly roads that intersect at oblique angles. When we envision space, though, we tend to reduce such complexities to relatively simple geometric forms. Consider this next map, of Seeley Lake, Mont., drawn by Slate reader Bonnie Wasson. "If you look at these roads on a map of the world according to Google," Stiff notes, "it's like a bag of snakes. Writhing and tortuous and twisted. But it would be crazy to reproduce that, every twist and turn, for your friends." So Wasson simplifies reality, imposing a nonexistent grid on her town. The map succeeded in impressing its users, with one guest reporting: "She does a better job than Map Quest!"

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Another advantage of personal cartography: Homemade maps often include error indicators, signs that you've taken a wrong turn or gone too far. Steve Kortenkamp produced the map below—of Safford Peak in Arizona—for the young hikers in his son's Boy Scout troop. You can discern his concern for their well-being in the many warnings he includes: the "barbed wire" you'll hit if you take a wrong turn for the horse ranch, the "cave where you end up if you miss the turn" for the summit, and the "Bridge of Death," where hikers encounter a "sheer drop on both sides!" The map uses charming drawings to orient hikers, highlighting a saguaro grove and memorable rock outcroppings. Kortenkamp explains that he took such care because the trails are poorly marked, and stranded hikers sometimes "end up calling 911, clinging overnight to the sheer rock face, and finally being plucked by helicopter in the morning." Using this map, his son's Boy Scout troop fared much better.

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Hand-drawn maps are often most useful in places like Safford Peak, where the terrain is wild and the routes uncertain. Slate reader Ruben Flores was part of an emergency medical team working in a remote part of Kashmir after the Pakistan earthquake in 2005. "Our team was supposed to work out of an established field hospital," Flores reports. "Our helicopter, however, dropped us off about an hour's walk through impassable terrain. Oops. A Pakistan Army Colonel received us and helped us get our bearings. … With the help of this map, we were able to plan mobile clinics to reach those who had been without any access to healthcare." Stiff observes that it's clear how much the "emergency map" pictured below was needed and used: "It shows all the signs of wear and age. It's been torn and damaged and folded countless times. It looks kept as a token, a memorial to that experience of being there."

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Hand-drawn maps can be a boon for first responders, who must travel swiftly and can't afford to get lost. Washington, D.C., firefighter Oleg Pelekhaty submitted the map below, drawn on a stationhouse blackboard by his "wagon driver" Tony Kelleher. "To get his job, Tony studied for a year: hundred blocks, alleys, addresses and hydrants. That's right, he even knows where every hydrant in the surrounding area is, and just about every address, even the oddball ones. Every day, Tony draws a map on the blackboard, from memory, to help us 'back step' guys learn the area." This map, which shows an eight-block stretch of 14th Street Northwest, doesn't highlight a specific route, but it shows potential destinations with more detail than a standard road map. That morning's exercise for Pelekhaty's crew: "[G]ive the address of each numbered building."

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Although Google is in the process of mapping some interior spaces, it will be a long time before the world's interiors are comprehensively charted by the pros. Consequently, hand-drawn maps are an essential tool for travelers who need to navigate complex areas indoors. Slate reader Maryanne Mutch sent us a guide to the Jordanian border terminal at the Alenbi Bridge crossing between Israel and Jordan. She designed the map below to help the recipient locate the cheapest transportation options, group taxis and buses that are easier to find from the Palestinian (and nontourist-oriented) side of the terminal. "Of course, if it is your first time through," she says, you may "have no idea that the Palestinian side even exists." Her map conveys both the peculiarities of the space and thrifty advice only an experienced traveler could provide.

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Paul Stiff is confident that personalized route planners like Google Maps won't render hand-drawn maps like the ones collected here obsolete any time soon. As we saw in the submissions from Slate readers, homemade maps can be better than professional ones at eliminating extraneous detail, playing with scale, simplifying complex forms, and mapping remote terrain or interiors. Indeed, some computer scientists have examined whether professional route-mapping algorithms could produce maps more like the ones we draw. MacArthur grant winner Maneesh Agrawala developed software called Line Drive that works along these lines, making computer maps more legible by distorting scale and straightening out bendy roads. Like Paul Stiff, Agrawala studies information display, and he became interested in Web-based driving directions when he noticed the limitations of their maps: "They almost never produce a map that I can actually use to get to the destination," Agrawala told me. "Really the text directions are what I end up using." When he rolled out Line Drive, users responded positively to the maps in surveys, and Microsoft bought the technology in the early '00s. Although it hasn't been incorporated into Bing Maps, Microsoft's current mapping platform, you can still find and use Line Drive maps at mappoint.msn.com, if you use a browser other than Explorer and click on the radio button that says "Line Drive." Asked to plot a drive from the Empire State Building to Old North Church in Boston, Line Drive produces the following image:

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Even if all computerized route maps eventually learn to mimic the most useful aspects of our homemade creations, we'll keep drawing maps for one another and for ourselves. We'll do it because we'll come up with new things to chart and convey, and because we like to share our spatial understanding of the world. In the late '90s, Justin M. Spivey drew the map below to help his friends avoid the Delaware Turnpike toll ($1.25 when the map was drawn; $4 today). He says it worked better as a "conversation piece" than as a map, even at the time; it was a way to reveal his clever solution. Today, of course, Google will give you the same route if you click the "avoid tolls" option. But the resulting directions won't have the mischievous verve of the instructions below.

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And it's unlikely that any software would produce the following map, drawn for a Slate reader by a friend: It's a guide to the neighborhoods of Paris, put in terms a young New Yorker can understand. Although the map is simplistic and juvenile, the effort to match Parisian arrondissements with demographically corresponding areas in Brooklyn is a conceptually interesting way to present information about an unfamiliar town.

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Above all, we'll keep making maps because we're fond of them. In 2008, artist and graphic designer Kris Harzinski founded the Web site handmaps.org, which hosts a collection of beautiful specimens. Harzinski started the site after he found a map in which a North Dakotan sketched the United States, jumbling much of the East Coast. He believes we'll keep making maps: "The Google Map is sort of generic, whereas you can add so much of your own interpretation of the place, you can add your own personality to the place" when you draw it. "What's most interesting to me about the maps is the stories behind them. Each map is a particular record of something that happened in time."

I was similarly moved by the maps readers sent in, each of which told a story—of a research trip, a tractor ride, a summer vacation, a year abroad, a romance. Readers sent maps from their childhood and maps from their children. This one, drawn in 1998 by Nathan English, charts rivers and campsites in Nepal, and the locations of some geochemical samples his team was gathering there. It's a map, a guide, a to-do list, and a memento, and it tells a story more eloquent than any street sign.

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More from this series: Why signs are better now than they've ever been; why the signs in Penn Station are so confusing; how smarter signs could make London easier to navigate; the international war over the exit sign; how GPS could kill the sign. Plus: See more road signs in this Magnum Photos gallery.


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