A Silent Buoy

Last month, a friend and I went on a tour of wineries in the Grand Traverse Bay area of Michigan. I don’t drink, but I was happy to act as her driver and companion while enjoying the beautiful scenery of my homeland (though I am from further south in the state). At our hotel in Traverse City there was one of those little guidebooks for tourists listing local attractions. At the back was this map, a great example of how carelessness can prevent a map from reaching its potential:

Copyright 2010 In-House Graphics and Publishing. Obtained at Knights Inn, Traverse City, Michigan.

Now, I’m not expecting design masterpieces from free tourist guides, but it seems like some things are just common sense. Like not cutting off the name of Lake Michigan (upper left corner). There are actually a number of labels all over the map with problems like this — they run off the map edge, they’re covered by other symbols and text boxes, etc. It doesn’t seem like you need formal cartographic training to perceive that this is a problem. We label maps so that people can read the labels and know what things are called (especially if you’re a tourist and unfamiliar with the area). If the label stops being legible, it’s wasting page space and readers’ time. Besides failing in function, it makes the label look sloppy, carelessly placed. It detracts from the reader’s perceptions of quality, and suggests that this map maybe shouldn’t be taken too seriously as a guide to actual geography.

Or maybe I'm mistaken, and Manitou Passage is actually spelled with a buoy in the middle. It's silent.

And what’s going on with that buoy, anyway? There’s no point to it, is there? There are buoys in Lake Michigan, no doubt, but I don’t think the map is attempting to show where they all are. It looks like it’s just thrown on to make things look cute. Now, I’m not against decoration on maps, but I am against ones that make the map harder to read by covering up labels.

While we’re focused on objects in the water, note that there are three colors of lakes on this map. Lake Michigan is a medium blue, then there are some cyan lakes, and finally some dark purple-blue ones. There doesn’t appear to be a difference between the cyan lakes and the purple-blue ones, though some of the former are labeled. And this is the problem here: I had to look for a while to figure out there was no difference. When you make things different colors on a map, most readers will assume that they are different things. Maps, being authored, consist of a series of deliberate choices. If someone deliberately chose to make some lakes one color and some lakes another, it seems like they ought to have a reason. But, alas, none seems apparent. Maybe it means that some lakes are filled with water, others are filled with antifreeze.

There are an awful lot of roads on this map. I think possibly every paved surface in the area was included here. But most of them aren’t marked. You can’t use this map to drive, or to figure out where you are (“I’m at the intersection of unlabeled green road #1 and unlabeled green road #2!”). Most of the lines are printed so small (such as in Traverse City) that you can’t use this map for navigation even if you did know what street you were on.

M-37 is the only labeled road on the map that isn't orange or brown. I'm not sure if that means anything.

All this road network does is get in your way without telling you anything or adding to the aesthetic value. The few roads which are marked aren’t enough to get to a lot of the places shown on this map. I guess tourists have to admire Lake Ann from afar, unable to figure out a path there. The map would be of much greater value if more of the roads were labeled, and 80% of the smallest were eliminated.

I don’t believe the 45th [North] Parallel undulates quite like that. Now, parallels are not always going to appear as straight lines, depending on your map projection. But there’s no projection I know of that will cause a parallel to wobble up and down like that. I’m not sure what software was used to make this map, but it’s usually harder to make a wobbly line than a straight one. Again, I can’t fathom the author’s purpose.

That’s a common theme with this map — there are a lot of details that make you wonder, “Does that mean anything? Were those colors/line styles/paths chosen randomly, or am I just missing something?” Confusing the reader and causing frustration is not usually a major cartographic goal. The map is covered in little mysteries, like these point symbols that probably mean campground or forest entrance or something, though there’s nothing to tell me if I’m guessing right.

Rather than telling you what to think, this map frees you to use your imagination.

The sloppiness of this map is tragic, because it has a lot of potential. The overall aesthetic is decent, before you get down into the details. It’s got colors that are pleasant and fun but not overwhelming; the artist seems to understand subtlety. I appreciate how the unlabeled roads are darker green, and the Lake Michigan water feature labels are a light blue — each keeps a similar hue to its background, rather than contrasting strongly with it. Details like this show some care and thought, but then the artist inexplicably turns around and covers up labels, randomly colors lakes, and leaves arrows pointing to nowhere:

"The road actually goes over here, but we liked how it looked where we drew it."

It’s possible that more than one artist put this together, one careful and one less so. The influence of the latter seems to reach its worst in the unlabeled settlements near the bottom of the map. Maybe the village councils didn’t kick in enough money to be included.

"Nothing to see here, move along."

There are a few other minor amusing gems and mysteries on this map, but you’ll just have to go visit the Traverse City area yourself to see them. Bring your own map.

One Nice Thing: Again, I like the way many of the colors work together. It lacks the gaudiness and high contrast of many tourist maps, some of which can make your eyes bleed.


12 Responses to “A Silent Buoy”

  1. 1 Erik
    19th September, 2010 at 1:54 pm

    I have guesses that would explain (though not necessarily excuse) some of the problems with this map. As far as the labels being cut off at the edges of the map, this is probably a portion of a larger map. Though why certain towns would be marked but not labeled remains a mystery.

    And I’d bet that the differently-colored lakes come from different layers in the mapping software used. For example, the light blue lakes may be part of a state or county layer, and the purple lakes may be part of a separate “water areas” layer. Not matching the colors is still sloppy, though.

    I offer bonus points, though, if the lighthouses depictions are indicative of the actual lighthouses’ appearance.

    • 2 Daniel Huffman
      21st September, 2010 at 3:46 pm

      Sadly, it looks like the lighthouses are just generic drawings — I just looked up a photo of the Old Mission Point lighthouse, and it doesn’t resemble the one on the map at all.

      I quite agree with you about this being part of a larger map. It looks like it’s vector artwork, though, and I’m wondering why they didn’t move labels around or remove them, given that it was possible. They must have been on a pretty tight deadline/budget to let this sort of stuff slip through.

  2. 21st September, 2010 at 3:25 pm

    I’ll go one step further than Erik and suggest that the cut off labels may not actually be the cartographers fault at all… it may be the designer or editor tasked with putting this together simply re-scaled the map they acquired to fit their page layout. Having some experience in print cartography I know that terrible things can happen to your map once it leaves your hands.

    The unlabeled arrows make me wonder if the map originally had other label layers that were turned off for this project, layers that may have contained lower class street names. Again this could be at the hands of an editor or designer, not the original creator.

    The silly little light house, buoy and other useless graphics could have been added later as well.

    Looking at the base layer construction and design I’m going to say there is a distinct possibility this map was designed for another purpose and has been by someone other than the original cartographer. Although that wobbly p45th parallel concerns me… a designer would not have bothered to add that and a real cartographer would have known it was wrong.

  3. 22nd September, 2010 at 2:36 pm

    I don’t know whether to curse or praise you, Daniel, because now I’m going to study every tourist map I see for half an hour instead of glancing at it and forgetting about it. It satisfies the cartography drive but makes me worry about all those maps I’ve ignored in the past.

    I’m mostly here to respectfully disagree about the inclusion of every tiny road. I dig that kind of thing and appreciate what it shows of the lay of the land. You can’t use it to navigate, but to me it has aesthetic value and does contribute to my understanding of the landscape.

    • 5 Daniel Huffman
      23rd September, 2010 at 4:10 am

      I will accept both curses and praise. I think most tourist maps in my experience have been simple enough affairs that they usually won’t merit half an hour of your time.

      On reflection, I’m starting to lean a bit favorably toward the roads. When I see a network like that, I tend to use it to assess things like population densities. I guess I always thought of that as more of a personal thing and not something that many other people would find use for. Perhaps I am wrong.

      • 11th November, 2012 at 6:54 pm

        I agree about the small roads. Without them, the map would be dramatically less useful, if useful at all. I’m actually glad to see a couple other people commented to say the inclusion was a good thing! Like you, I assumed the appreciation for that level of detail was unique to me.(I’m an urban planner)

        I actually often make maps with as much minute detail as possible, including things like buildings and sidewalks, but in very subtle colors. It allows for reading densities and forms at a glance. Suburbs are of a very different shape and character from cities with close gridded streets! Once you’re familiar with the patterns, you can learn a whole lot about an area by looking at the shape of it’s streets and their relation to buildings-including how to navigate them. Not by “turn here then there” type directions, but more intuitively.

        Just found this blog btw. I love it! Great name.

  4. 7 Dug
    29th September, 2010 at 9:22 am

    I think the unmarked roads are OK because of the scale but is this supposed to be a map of farmers markets? Where are they?

    • 8 Daniel Huffman
      2nd October, 2010 at 3:04 pm

      I believe that the map is a general tourist map, and they happened to place a box listing farmer’s markets nearby because it seemed like a good place for it. You are quite right, though, it that it might be nice to mark them on the map — though that brings up the roads issue again. Addresses are listed for the markets, but you couldn’t use this map to navigate to them.

  5. 9 Kelly Bowden
    28th January, 2011 at 9:37 pm

    This makes me want to send you a copy of the Seattle tourist map we have to give everyone at our hotel. The colors are ridiculously garish.

    • 10 Daniel Huffman
      30th January, 2011 at 4:09 pm

      An all too common occurrence, sadly. If you’re ever inclined to send one alone, I can be reached by post at:
      Department of Geography
      550 N Park St.
      Madison, WI 53706

  6. 11 Nomen Nescio
    17th February, 2011 at 10:24 pm

    the more northerly of the unlabeled towns is Kingsley. i’ve driven through there; the words of your image legend — “nothing to see here, move along” — seem a fair description.

    the more southerly one is Buckley. i might have gone there, but if so i can’t recall it.

  7. 12 Sean G
    18th February, 2014 at 2:01 pm

    I guarantee that this was another map, produced by a skilled and knowledgeable cartographer (despite some problems), which was then given to a graphic designer to “make it better”. As in, make it better with little cartoons. And by removing all of those extraneous road labels. This has happened to me many times – not saying my maps are great, but sometimes it’s really sad to see how they’re being put to use later.

    I grew up in the general vicinity as well, and I am pretty sure the same designer (not the cartographer) put on the 45th parallel. Its something of a tourist attraction – somehow people get all mystic about being half way between the equator and the north pole. The cartographer knows it doesn’t matter for a map like this.

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