The Language of Maps

March 25 2022 – Jeff

The Language of Maps

The Language of Maps

Swirls of Earth maps are available as a black and white, "photographic" style, but with the new map editor, they can be customized with a variety of colorful palettes.  These colors reflect the grades of elevation on a map, bringing additional contrast to the landscape and enhancing our perception of its form.

Such maps are known as hypsometric maps.  The word hypsometry is from ancient Greek, and means the measurement of elevation and depth on the surface of the earth, relative to sea level.

Hypsometric Map of the Moon

One fascinating thing about maps is how dependent they are on expectations, which are constructed in our minds by what we have grown accustomed to.  For example, most of us expect the top of a map to reflect north.  If someone gives me a map of California where the top points south, I am immediately flustered and will have a more difficult time comprehending the map, being overly accustomed to the arbitrary convention of north pointing maps.

When it comes to terrain, a more subtle example regards the direction of shadows on the landscape.  A widely used convention is that the sunlight should appear to be coming from the northwest (upper left), casting shadows to the south and east of ridges.  This subtle convention is so widespread that shadows cast in other directions may be similarly confounding, throwing our expectations and perceptions out of whack.

Breaking such conventions is both a pitfall and a blessing — a road map that is meant to be referenced quickly and easily best pay heed to these conventions, or it will quickly frustrate the reader.  On the other hand, maps that have the aim of expressing something artistic or profound might be made to break a convention or two, presenting the user with a new way of viewing the world.

Coming back to hypsometry, some of the styles available in the editor are classic spectrums of color.  They have been widely used throughout history and so have been situated as conventional and meaningful in the language of maps.

Humid Style in Michigan

"Humid" is perhaps the most common hypsometric style, reflecting real-life colors of temperate climates.  These are typically green and yellow in the low to midlands, transitioning to reddish browns in the highlands and snow colors at the peaks.

Another example is the "bathymetric" style, which is a palette customarily used on maps that show terrain both above ground and underwater.  As you might expect, the low elevations (typically below sea level) are represented by oceanic shades of blue, before rising up into a traditional above-ground palette somewhat similar to humid.

I think the traditional bathymetric shadings are beautiful, and so I have used the whole palette with this style, showing above ground terrain at low elevations in swirls of blue.

These styles are classic for a reason.  They are artful and they tend to make sense to the map reader.

Other styles I’ve prepared are more daring — these are geared towards those who like to look at the world a little differently, or who simply want to choose an accent in non-traditional colors.

Mauritania with Swirls style

Swirls Style in Mauritania

There are a variety of duotone palettes, where lowlands and highlands contrast greatly.  On the other hand, the "swirls" style exposes a wide range of mixing, sharp hues that look beautiful on some maps, and awful on others.

I am always working to improve these palettes, so if you have any great ideas, please leave a comment below!

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