The Geography of the Creative Thinking [UPDATED]

Image Source: Kevin Van Aelst

Maps are becoming more than what people have traditionally referred to as maps. They are becoming personal, creative, unique representations of the seen and unseen world. Here are some examples.

Recently it has been brought to my attention that when people think about maps, they think about the old Rand McNally road maps or they think about topo maps, or maybe they think about MapQuest and how they used to print out MapQuest directions to get somewhere. Possibly they may ask if I can make a wedding map, or if they are a smartphone user, they may bring up the recent Apple Maps and Google Maps discussion. Many people simply come out and say “I love maps” and then they talk about historic maps, or someone in their family who got them interested in maps. Often people mention that their parent or grandparent loved maps, and that is why they, too, now love maps. But, regardless of where people are starting with their map experiences, it always seems to be a little bit of a stretch to discuss the many opportunities and creative ways that people are using maps, data, and visualization today. So, in this post, I aim to help to describe some of the more creative ways people have used maps in the last ten years. The hope is that is sharing these examples helps to illuminate some unique applications of maps and to inspire your imagination to the power of location and visualization.

Here are my top 7 creative uses of maps and geography from the last 10 years (in no particular order). These have all inspired me in some way.

A Narrative Atlas By Denis Wood

You may have heard about this on “This American Life” the episode “Mapping.” You can listen to the original episode. What we are talking about is unique narrative maps of a neighborhood that cover everything that you could imagine, and more. They definitely stretch the creative imagination and intersect the lines of cartography, art, and narrative. A famous map is the the jack o’ lantern map, pictured here. The original cartography was converted into a book in 2010 called “Everything Sings” by Denis Wood and it is mentioned on the This American Life blog, and available for purchase online. You can read more about Denis’ work.

GPS Drawing

Have you ever considered a GPS as a tool for creative expression? Most hiking GPS units have a feature called tracking, akin to Hansel and Gretel and their breadcrumbs, which records your digital location as a series of points as you walk around. This points can be connected to form lines. Now, your GPS can be considered to be a digital pen used for writing on the earth! One of the earliest online examples of this was at Jeremy Wood’s website, GPS Drawing. You can see many examples of this work in his gallery. You can find Jeremy Wood online on Twitter. Hmm…Denis Wood and Jeremy Wood, I wonder if there is a relation… (I confirmed this, there is no known relation) We have used some of his “drawings” as mystery maps in the past.

San Francisco Emotion Map

In this map, folks walked around San Francisco with galvanic skin sensors, which was developed by Christian Nold for “bio – mapping.” What it did was it measured the subjects physiological response to their environment. This data was then visualized in a series of “Emotion Maps.” This was originally done in 2007 while Christian was visiting an artist residence in San Francisco called Southern Exposure. You can view the original maps, online in high resolution. Christian has done other cities using emotion mapping, and also has created a free downloadable ebook called “Emotional Cartography” available online.


Worldmapper takes data about different countries and maps it by representing the quantity by size with the shape of the country. These are a creative way to give a quick snapshot of global information. See the worldmapper “cartogram” collection. This map is of number of children in the world.

Wind Map

I am still stunned by the beauty of this map. It is a great example of the power of visualization and at the same time a use of bigdata and sensor networks, as it brings real time wind speed and direction to a simple geographic display. The black and white usage in this map give it an added artistic element, and and final display is one of the most beautiful creative maps that I have encountered. It also can act as an inspiration – what other types of data might we someday be able to display using vast sensor networks? See the original wind map here.

NPR Story Linking Plankton to Politics

Voting Patterns in the South

This is a story told through maps that is inspired by some interesting patterns in presidential voting patterns. I really like that the pattern can be seen in different types of unrelated maps going back through time, all the way to an unlikely source. I think this example can show the power of maps to explain patterns, and it shows that using the visual elements in real data can help us have greater understanding of otherwise unexplainable geographic patterns. Enjoy this trip through the geography of the SouthEast United States. View my post and the original NPR story.

27 Storms: Arlene to Zeta

This is one of the most amazing visualizations I have ever seen. It is a combination of sea surface temperature data, cloud cover, and hurricane tracks in the 2007 hurricane season. It is quite an amazing display of temporal and geographic data, and you are able to see relationships between storms and oceans that you couldn’t really communicate in any other way as effectively. Notice what happens to the sea surface temperature after a hurricane goes over it. Here is the link to the video on youtube, or you can download different formats of the visualization.

Here at Skidmore College many of these maps have inspired the GIS Center for Interdisciplinary Research‘s Mystery Maps, which you can view online and try to guess. So what did I miss? If there is a great creative map example that I missed please let me know! Thanks to everyone who’s spends time creating work like this, it helps to push the limits of the imagination and inspires the creative cartographic representations of the future.

Thanks to Ben Harwood and Brien Mueller for their suggested updates.

Post by Alex Chaucer

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