The Art of Illustrated Maps: A Book Review

Note: I received an advance copy of this book for free from the publisher. I offered that I would review the book if I liked it.*

I was first introduced to HOW books through Jim Krause’s excellent, and snazzily “flexibound,” Color Index 2. This publisher knows how to design books for designers. They’re also pretty well known for producing HOW magazine.

So when they asked me to take a look at the brand-new book, The Art of Illustrated Maps by John Roman, it was not far fetched to think it’d live up to a high standard and, happily, it does so and more. It includes a multitude of illustrated maps, both historic and contemporary, from a variety of mapmakers. This would be enough to make the purchase worthwhile, but the text goes beyond that with a healthy dose of history, how-to material, and explanatory text about the showcased pieces.

Art of Illustrated Maps

Roman covers a lot. He indicates that anxiety at the onset of a project is normal and an incubation period is needed to counteract that anxiety, whether or not the intricacies of the project are pondered consciously. This is absolutely in accordance with how my own creative process works and with what I’ve previously preached on this blog.

If you are a person who likes to approach map design with a clear methodology, you’ll be interested to read about the hierarchy of design, which Roman explains as the listing of A-B-C items where A items are uppermost on the hierarchy, B items are one step lower, and C are the lowest. Because of the sheer density of information in a typical illustrated map, Roman cautions that these can be subtle when you start to look for them. The concept is valuable nevertheless, and I’m reminded of some egregiously bad maps I’ve seen recently with regard to hierarchy (hint: a transparency slider should not be in the prime visual space of your interactive, public-facing, map).

The contemporary illustrated maps in the last section of the book are perhaps the most useful from my perspective. It’s fascinating and instructive to see how different artists approach things and is a great reminder that there are no hard-and-fast rules in cartography and that we need to be supportive of the rich and varied nature that the form can take.

bookpic2Is it lavishly illustrated enough for the coffee table? Yes. Does it provide plenty of design ideas such as color palettes, layout concepts and typeface inspiration? Yes. Does it have a well-written chapter on the history of illustrated maps? Yes!

“Unlike technical cartography…the structure of illustrated maps, like jazz and creative nonfiction, grants the artist permission to improvise with facts without setting limits on the styles or techniques employed to relate a visual story–a true story.” ~page 3

John Roman graciously answered a few questions expressly for the readers of this blog:

  • What was the impetus behind writing the book?

    Having been an illustrator who specializes in “illustrated” maps, I longed for a book, any book, on the subject of my unique specialty. None existed, however…so I felt there was a need for a book on this form of conceptual mapping. The field has grown enormously over the past ten years or so, and I believed the time for an in-depth look into the history and psychology of this branch of cartography had arrived.

  • What is one of your favorite historical facts about illustrated maps?

    Two facts, actually: 1) That maps of the “mind” were the very first type of map and that “geographic cartography” as we know it today, grew out of that original, conceptual form of mapping…and

    2) That “illustrated” maps actually had a name about two thousand years ago. In 150AD, Claudeus Ptolemy gave illustrated maps the name “Chorography”…a name that has been lost over the centuries. (In fact, at the same time, the name “Cartography” was also born.)

  • In your opinion, what should my readers—who are primarily cartographers—do when they are feeling discouraged about a project?

    To keep in mind that historians refer to mapmaking as the oldest form of art. With this thought, all of us working in the mapping trade can feel assured that our need in society has always been there…and always will!



*And speaking of disclosures, the book links here are affiliate links, which really just means that if you were to buy something through one of the links, I would be able to purchase about 1/10 of an exorbitantly priced healthy smoothie that I really should just make at home for much cheaper.

  1. #1 by Osaheni Arthur on October 23, 2015 - 1:03 pm

    Thanks to Ms Gretchen Peterson for sharing(and revealing)insights into, what i love, about everything to do with Map Making.
    No doubt this publication will soon,find a pride of place on my reading list/Library.
    Inspiration is the fuel that powers creativity.

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