What's the first thing you do when you see a map of the world, asks British author Simon Garfield?
"You find where you are on it," he says. And then you think about all the places you might go.
Maps have always had those dual powers: They help us understand our place in the world, and they elicit an undeniable sense of adventure, of possibilities.
The more types of maps there are, the more chances we have of claiming not just where but who we are, and what journeys lie ahead and in our pasts. At a time when we are hyper-aware that our identities can be anything we choose – this is who I am on Facebook, this is my Twitter persona, this is who I am on my blog – maps have become the go-to design object to staking one more claim to identity: A way, literally, of putting yourself on the map.
Maps of one kind or another are sold in just about every design store, from independent ones right up through to major chains. Look at design websites on any given week and there are bound to be new maps featured there, whether they are intimate and quirky (a mental map of a writer's anxieties, for instance) or built from the raw materials of big data.
"We seem to be in a golden age of data-driven mapping," says Eric Fischer, an Oakland, Calif.-based digital cartographer who has produced a map of the world that shows where Flickr photos were shot and tweets were sent and another map showing the movements and speed of San Francisco's transit vehicles.
A mash-up culture that revels in taking familiar forms and redesigning them to reflect one's own tastes has also fed the proliferation of cartography, whether it's maps filled with pop culture references or vintage-style maps that feed our nostalgia. And it helps that maps never lose that sense of wonder they carry from our childhoods.
Google seized on that childlike sense of adventure on April Fool's Day by offering a "Treasure Mode" function that showed the world as a pirate map straight out of Treasure Island, complete with hidden treasure chests and X marks the spot. (The company claimed to have discovered the map belonging to the pirate William "Captain" Kidd, which it was sharing with the public in order to find the treasure).
Publishers, too, have read the zeitgeist. In January, Penguin released On the Map: A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks, Garfield's enthralling history of cartography. That same month, Gestalten, the German publisher that specializes in books on art, architecture and design released A Map of the World: The World According to Illustrators & Storytellers. The gorgeous collection – that includes a map of Los Angeles made up entirely of film titles; a typographic map of London; a vintage-style map of Australia in the shape of a boomerang; a beautifully coloured map of cultural events in Helsinki; a whimsical map of Kyushu, Japan that highlights hot spots for tourists; and a map of Munich that depicts the most interesting places to visit, among many others – is proof of how many ways there are to understand the world and each person's place in it.
And now comes Mapping Manhattan, a book by Becky Cooper published last month. Since 2009 Cooper, a Harvard graduate, has been going around Manhattan approaching strangers in the hopes they will participate in her ongoing project.
"Hi, I'm doing a public art project of asking people to map whatever is meaningful to them in Manhattan," is her usual sales pitch, says the 25-year-old.
Everyone gets the same outline of Manhattan and a self-addressed, stamped envelope to return it to her. The book collects everything from a map of all the places the mapmaker has lost gloves to one showing all the landmarks of a romance("This is where I fell in love with him," "This is where we said goodbye.").
"I'm a sucker for maps where the mapmaker lays themselves completely bare and vulnerable," says Cooper, who thinks of cartography as biography because "every map is subjective."
Others are creating even more whimsical maps. The artist Ken Kocses, for instance, is currently on a mission to map Bushwick, a neighbourhood in Brooklyn, in the style of Super Mario World. This being Brooklyn, he's included a few items of hipster iconography, including a skateboard and a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon.
"I've always been looking specifically at the video game-style map, the 1980s birds-eye view, flat perspective. I've just always been interested by how cute and colourful it is," Kocses says.
Dave Murray, an artist and illustrator in Toronto, has been making neighbourhood maps using only words for several years now, a project that grew out of his love for typography. The maps are a staple of design stores in the city, and residents of neighbourhoods still to be done regularly clamour for Murray to map them.
"Toronto is pretty notoriously neighbourhood-centric. People love where they live and they're very proud of it," Murray says.
The same could be said for the popularity of subway maps that has surged in recent years.
"I think it's a backlash against the digitalization of maps," Garfield explains. "You look at a Google map, great as they are, but wherever you are in the world they look the same. They're not really invested with personality."
Google maps and the ubiquity of similar technologies that allow us to zoom in and out of areas at the click of a button have made us incredibly aware of space and have facilitated our narcissism, always placing us at their centre or inviting us to tag our current location.
But that technology also made cartography accessible, says Reif Larsen, the author of The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, which tells the story of a young mapmaker.
"Everyone's sort of an amateur cartographer. In a way we are personalizing cartography in a way that's never been done," he says.
We look at a rendering of the world and want to understand where we are, or as Larsen says, "how we project ourselves and make sense of the world all around us."
Ultimately, it's the metaphors of maps that pull at our imaginations, says Cooper: "The ideas of exploration and adventure, but also the idea of finding your way home and finding your place in the world. Maps are really great at that."