The Uncanny Valley of Color

Hello, everyone. Apologies for my absence — I was challenging John Krygier for the “most dormant map blog” award, before surrendering to his superior non-updating skill. Actually, I’ve just been occupied with my classes and work at UW-Madison, as I prepare for them to evict me from the security of graduate school and into the world of “unemployment.”

I found a copy of today’s map sitting in an office in the UW Geography Department. It’s a world wall map, about 36″ x 20″, and is marked as being produced by Portal Publications, Ltd, of Novarto, CA. They appear to have folded in 2008, after renaming themselves in 2007 to Innovative Art.

Published by Portal Publications, date unknown

Mercator. On a world reference map. I’ve said this before, but I will repeat: Mercator is great if you’re a navigator, especially one in 16th century Europe. Its usefulness pretty much stops there. This map is not intended to be used for sailing from Japan to Taiwan, so I’m pretty sure another projection is called for.

The colors. Oh, the colors. You see, a lot of world maps have what you call hypsometric tinting — colors that indicate elevations. You’re probably familiar with the classic scheme of green lowlands, transitioning to yellows and oranges and browns as elevation rises, and finishing off with white for the mountaintops. On the other hand, I am wholly uncertain as to what is going on with the colors on the map above. The lightest areas are in northeast Russia, which is certainly not the tallest place in the world. So, perhaps instead of elevation, the colors are depicting land cover, and showing a snowy Russia? But then, why is northern Canada marked with verdant plains (in an area labeled on the map as “barrengrounds”)? And why is Europe completely free of green areas? It’s certainly got areas as lush as the east coast of the USA, which is marked green on this map, and it certainly has lowlands at the same elevation as other places which are marked green. I cannot make heads or tails of the color scheme, and there’s no key included. It’s like the uncanny valley of hypsometric or land-cover tinting — it’s close enough that it looks normal when you walk by without thinking, but then when you actually have a look at it, it starts weirding you out. I was going to tag this map as being unkind to those with color vision deficiencies, but I think it’s also unkind to people with normal color vision, so I’ll skip it.

While we’re on the subject of elevation, have a closer look at Asia:

Asia detail

Tibet, over in the lower right corner of the image, has some of the world’s tallest mountains, included Mt. Everest. You may have heard of it. However, on this map, it looks relatively flat compared to the giant peaks of west and central Russia, which are apparently about 30 miles high if you are comparing with Tibet. This may be because of the tinting again, and/or because of the hillshading, but I would not rely on the terrain representation to have much connection to reality. Unless you need a guide to a parallel Earth where most of Turkey is higher than Tibet.

That being said, I do kind of like the highly generalized, faceted appearance the terrain has. It’s not unnecessarily detailed, and lends a sort of “crystalline” aesthetic — almost like the map was carved out of rock, and then smoothed out a bit. Kind of like the actual Earth. I think it’s well generalized for the purpose.

Before I move away from this image, notice the Aral sea, in the center. It’s a different shade of blue than every other body of water on the map. A much brighter blue. The only thing I can think of is that perhaps the artist had some outdated data on the Aral Sea (which has changed in size and shape considerably over the past few decades), and had to replace it at the last minute and somehow they couldn’t match the colors. It has an almost pasted-in appearance.

On to labels…

Europe detail

The labeling here is a vast mess of black ink.

On the image above, I count seven types of labels: Countries, capital cities, other cities, islands, individual mountains, mountain ranges, rivers, and seas. These very different things are being represented by very similar looking labels. It’s hard to see the label for Spain and the label for Serbia as being the same type of thing, and as being separate from whatever is represented by the label for “Rome,” for example. The label styles aren’t creating a hierarchy or establishing distinctions. Now, I know a little about Europe, so I know that Croatia and Italy are both countries. But if I knew nothing of Europe, this map would be pretty confusing, and I imagine I would be left wondering, in some cases, whether a label represented a country or a city. Look at Serbia and Belgrade — it looks to me like Belgrade is the country and Serbia the city. Using multiple colors for the labels would help, as would using something like small caps for the countries, or even another typeface. Admittedly, the terrain colors limit the options for label colors, which is perhaps another strike against them.

Speaking of countries, where are the borders for Poland? Or Switzerland? They’re pretty hard to see, both on the scan and in the print. The map labels all the countries of the world (which helps date it to the early 1990s, as well), but the borders rarely show up clearly. If it’s worth putting on the map, it’s worth putting on the map in a way that people can actually see.

The labeling would also be less confusing if it were not so dense, which means that it’s hard to associate a label with a specific feature, or place them very clearly and cleanly. I’m not sure why there are so many cities on this map. It’s nice to have them for a general reference map, but I imagine it would still look fine on your wall if it was missing Arad, Romania. Time to cut some out place out — simplify, to make things easier to read. You reach a point where adding more information simply obscures information already on the map, having a net effect of making your map less and less useful as you pile more data onto it.

Can you find the label that says “Alps”? I spent quite a time figuring out what the letter “A” was doing by itself in France, before I realized that it was part of a word that was so spread out that my brain stopped processing it as one word. While tracking out labels to mimic the area of a feature is a useful practice, it can be taken too far. Especially, again, if you’re trying to educate people who are unfamiliar with the relevant geography. If I didn’t know where the Alps were, or what they were called, I don’t think this map would tell me.

I’ll also briefly mention that I looked at a few cities in the USA, and their city dots are way off in their placement, so I wouldn’t necessarily trust it to point out where some of these places actually are.

One Nice Thing: I like their use of Tanaka’s illuminated contours:

Arguably, you can criticize it for its stair-stepped appearance, but I find the aesthetic interesting and attractive. It’s still requires painstaking manual effort, so it’s still rare, unfortunately. It’s rarer, still, in my experience, to see it on something other than a greyscale background. I think it does a nice job of bringing out the continental shelf.

Also, don’t know what’s going on with the little white trapezoids in the north. I think they represent the frozen nature of the north pole.

Special thanks to Jaime Stoltenberg at the Arthur Robinson Map Library for running this through the large-format scanner for me.


12 Responses to “The Uncanny Valley of Color”

  1. 1 Mackensen
    24th February, 2010 at 5:57 am

    The labeling jumped out at me too–as much as I adore the Orkney Islands, they aren’t a more prominent feature than, say, Edinburgh. This seems an odd mix of political and topographical–what’s the feeling in map-making circles about that? I would think the contours interfere with the boundaries and designations.

    • 2 Daniel Huffman
      25th February, 2010 at 5:43 pm

      You do usually see separate physical and political maps, but there’s really nothing stopping them from being combined, if you can design in such a way that you do a decent job on each part. Certainly, it’s more efficient, though probably not as thorough as doing them separately.

      I would say there’s not an overriding feeling among cartographers about it. Like anything, we’d just view it as putting more data onto a map — if you can add data in a way that is clear and useful, then go for it. Actually, most cartographers will never make a map like this. There’s not a lot of competition in the market for world reference maps, so there are just a few places, like NatGeo, that put in the time and effort to make them.

  2. 3 Tina
    24th February, 2010 at 8:41 am

    I didn’t notice the floating A in France, but I did notice that Liechtenstein doesn’t even get a full label. It’s now known simply as “Liech.” And that it seems like all the city/country labels for the smaller European nations are logically reversed in size.

    I do like the contouring, though. It made me want to touch the map.

  3. 4 msb
    24th February, 2010 at 10:07 am

    I think I’ll be spending quite some time trying to figure out the color scheme…

    (assuming there was any actual color selection going on) I’m currently leaning toward a multi-axial or layered color selection process: elevation, climate, land smoothness, general opinion.

    General opinion establishes the primary starting color scheme. So the rockies, alps, chile, himalayas would start out focused on elevation (high) (see norway vs finland); The sahara, most of africa and mediterranean on climate (arid); central america & mexico on climate (hot); brazil, indus valley, congo & eastern US on vegetation; norway & siberia on climate (cold); etc. Then, that color scheme is either scaled based on intensity (e.g. elevation -> more purple) or modified by some other general opinion characteristic (e.g. cold but mountainous vs elevated but generally arid – leading to the difference in Alaska vs Tibet; brazil’s interior is modified by elevation & climate; siberia is modified by elevation)

    I still have a hard time figuring out the scheme for the central plains of north america, why far northern canada is green, why new zealand is a continuation of australia, why the hudson bay area is yellow-brown…

  4. 6 fergal
    25th February, 2010 at 7:40 pm

    There is also some language confusion in labelling…
    All labels seem to be in english but there is some exceptions.

    Atlantic French islands (Île d’Oléron, Île de Ré, Belle-Île, etc.) are in french (except they forgot the ‘^’). But following this idea, Corsica should be labelled Corse…

  5. 7 Jens
    6th March, 2010 at 8:19 am

    Even some European places are a little off the real locations. The most obvious mistake, the city of Hanover. The map puts it adjacent to the river Weser. Hanover should have been placed in the “E” of Germany. Essen is placed roughly, next to the city of Münster. Düsseldorf is placed at the location of Wesel. Leipzig lies directly adjacent to the River Elbe.

  6. 8 Melanna
    18th March, 2011 at 3:30 pm

    Is it possible that this is a geologic map?

    • 9 Daniel Huffman
      19th March, 2011 at 11:00 am

      An excellent question. I don’t know a lot about geology, but my inclination is to say it is not — the patterns don’t seem to align to other geologic maps I can find online.

      Moreover, if it is indeed a geologic map, they should probably indicate that somewhere on the map and provide a key to the colors.

  7. 10 sujay
    4th December, 2012 at 2:38 am

    I searched TinEye and found that this is most likely a “Montiscolor” map. You’ll find more similar if you do a Google Image Search for “montiscolor”, but somehow none of the results have a visible legend. One offers a brief caption: “The Gabelli Montiscolor World Map has a unique style that some people choose because it is quite different from all the other choices. Their term “Montiscolor” refers to a depiction of relief on both land and oceans.”

  8. 11 Qwynegold
    9th February, 2014 at 3:31 pm

    I’d like to point out that at least Norrköping, Öland, and Zaragoza are misspelled (as Noorköping, Oland, and Saragoza) on that map.

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