Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘maps’

08 FEBRUARY, 2010

Creative Derivatives of the London Tube Map


Nebulae, web mavens, and what the Kabbalah has to do with 100 years of music history.

In 1931, Harry Beck designed the first diagramatic map of the London Underground. By 1960, the Tube Map had evolved into the icon of minimalist modern design that we know and love today — a meme, even. And as any meme, it has spawned a number of creative derivatives. Today, we look at five such tube-map-inspired gems.


A dreadfully long subway commute can often send you scrambling for ways to bend the space-time continuum. Now, one scientist has done just that — sort of. Samuel Arbesman, a Harvard postdoctoral fellow in computational sociology, has created The Milky Way Transit Authority — a brilliantly simplified map of the Milky Way displaying the complex interconnections of our galaxy in a digestible way.

Beyond the clever visualization concept, we love the fusion of science and philosophy in Arbesman approach:

People ask why I haven’t marked ‘You Are Here’ on the map – but I think it’s more humbling to realize that we aren’t the center of the universe.” ~ Samuel Arbesman

We also find it fascinating to think of the incredible and daunting vastness of the universe in such mundane terms — there’s something eerily soothing about this hop-hop-there-it-is approach to the celestial expanse.


Exactly four years ago, the ambitious folks at The Guardian‘s Culture Vulture blog set out to plot the branches and connections of 100 years of music on a London-Tube-style map. From Ray Charles to Radiohead, the project is an impressive feat of musicology and cultural history.

Each line represents a different genre, with the influential musicians in it as the stops.

We strongly encourage you to explore this priceless and fascinating blueprint to 20th-century music culture — grab a high-res PDF here.


Making sense of religious doctrine can get messy and confusing. This tube-style map of the Kabbalah Tree of Life, first spotted in Alan Moore’s comic book series Promethea, attempts to shed light on the Sephiroth — the ten attributes of God in the Kabbalah.

Despite the seeming simplicity of the map, it plays on many of the Kabbalah’s sacred numbers and relationships. The three columns, for instance, arrange the ten sepiroth according to the three pillars — the Pillar of Mildness, the Pillar of Mercy, and the Pillar of Severity. And the twenty-two lines connecting the sephiroth reflect the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet.

To make things even more elaborate, adding the 10 sepiroth and 22 lines together makes 32, the number of Masonic degrees and the number of Kabbalistic paths to wisdom.


We’re big believers in using something familiar as a metaphor that introduces and piques interest in something new. And the folks at the Somerset Tourism Bureau in the UK tend to agree — so they created this wonderful Heritage Touring Map based on the London Tube Map, featuring seven thoughtfully curated “lines” of tourist attractions and must-sees.

Already a clear box-breaking thinker in tourism communication, the Somerset office even has its very own Vimeo channel, including seven short films, one about each tour “line”.


Every year, Japanese-Swiss design studio Information Architects maps the web’s biggest influencers, subway-style. The project’s latest installment, Web Trend Map 4, is an absolute masterpiece of design, data visualization, and digital anthropology — which, in fact, has enjoyed a level of viralness deeming it worthy of being on the map itself.

Sure, WTM may be based on the Tokyo Metro Map, but that was actually built borrowing heavily from the London Tube Map, so it’s just a matter of degrees of creative separation.

We’ve just ordered a great big glossy poster of it for the Brain Pickings HQ, and we’re jabbing our pin right between TED and BoingBoing — so here’s to putting Brain Pickings on the map. Web Trend Map 5, that is.


We’ve featured it before, to a great response, so it’s worth mentioning the MBTI Personality Map and its psychosocial genius.

Each subway line represents one of the 16 Myers-Briggs personality types, arranged based on the semantic distance between the 39 core word descriptors. The outer circle contains the 161 original word descriptors from the MDS test, grouped into 8 layers based on hierarchical order. Finally, the colors of the words intuitively represent their meaning — so “calm” is in the blue spectrum and “passionate” in the red.

Information design for the social sciences — now that’s something we’d like to see more of.

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29 OCTOBER, 2009

Strange Maps: The Book


What George Orwell has to do with the Amazons of California and Utopia.

Today is the day we’d been waiting for for a long, long time. For today, Strange Maps — an absolute favorite blog of ours, a frequent source of inspiration, and one of the shiniest hidden gems on the Interwebs — is finally gifting the world with its eponymous book.

Strange Maps: An Atlas of Cartographic Curiosities features 138 of the most fascinating, absorbing and remarkable maps from the blog’s 3-year history of culling the world’s forgotten, little-known and niche cartographic treasures.

From the world as depicted in Orwell’s 1984, to a color map of Thomas More’s Utopia, to the 16th-century portrayal of California as an island where people live like the Amazons, the book is brim-full of priceless anecdotes from our collective conception of the world over the centuries.

But what makes all these maps really special is that they somehow capture and reveal a great deal about human psychology and thought — the humor of political parody (Hey there, United States of Canada vs. Jesusuland), the tragicomic bias of a New Yorker’s vantage point, the odd propositions of science gone awry (No, we won’t rename the stars after famous dictators), the inflation of political ego (Sorry, China, you’re not the Middle Kingdom at the center of the world), the absurdity of rampant religious fundamentalism (Really? The final battle between God and Satan in Armageddon will take place exactly at the Megiddo Valley in Israel?), the universal and age-old mistrust of cabbies (Who knew a hexagonal layout of London would prevent passengers from getting ripped off?).

Strange Maps: An Atlas of Cartographic Curiosities is certainly unusual and idiosyncratic — in the most wonderful way possible. At the intersection of history, design, politics and humor, it’s one of those rare beasts that tackle so many facets of culture with utter ease, readability and can’t-put-it-down magnetism.

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16 OCTOBER, 2009

Experimental Cartography: The Map as Art


What tattoo art has to do with fashion, vintage atlases and Nazi concentration camps.

We’ve always been fascinated by maps — through various elements of design, from typography to color theory to data visualization, they brilliantly condense and capture complex notions about space, scale, topography, politics and more. But where things get most interesting is that elusive intersection of the traditional and the experimental, where artists explore the map medium as a conceptual tool of abstract representation. And that’s exactly what The Map of the Art, a fantastic Morning News piece by Katharine Harmon, examines.

Matthew Cusick, 'Fiona’s Wave,' 2005

Cusick's oversized collages are painted with fragments of vintage atlases and school geography books from the golden era of cartography, 1872-1945.

Corriette Schoenaerts, 'Europe,' 2005

Schoenaerts, a conceptual photographer living in Amsterdam, constructs countries and continents out of clothing.

(You may recall Schoenaerts from our Geography, Topography, and Everythingography issue.)

Arie A. Galles, 'Station One: Auschwitz-Birkenau,' 1998

A grim allusion to Nazi concentration camps, these drawings, based on Luftwaffe and Allied aerial reconnaissance film, were made over the course of a decade.

Qin Ga, 'Site 22: Mao Zedong Temple,' 2005

In 2002, China's Long March Project embarked upon a 'Walking Visual Display' along the route of the 1934-1936 historic 6000-mile Long March, and Beijing-based artist Qin kept tracked the group’s route in a tattooed map on his back. Three years later, Qin continued the trek where the original marchers had left off, accompanied by a camera crew and a tattoo artist, who continually updated the map on Qin’s back.

Paula Scher: The World, 1998

Paula Scher: Africa, 2003

These maps come from Harmon’s The Map As Art: Contemporary Artists Explore Cartography — a remarkable collection of 360 colorful, map-related visions of experimental cartography by well-known artists and design thinkers like Olafur Eliasson (remember him?), Maira Kalman (another TEDster), Paula Scher (and yet another), and Julian Schnabel, as well as more underground creatives whose art is greatly inspired by maps. The book also features essays by Gayle Clemans, introducing a richer layer of insight into the work of some of these map artists.

Be sure to read Harmon’s excellent essay below the Morning News images, which offers a fascinating look at the historical relationship between maps and the art movement, both products of the shifting political and aesthetic influences of the time.

via Coudal

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