Urban Mapping Gives a Vintage Printing Technique a High-Tech Revival
Some New Yorkers read on the subway.Others sleep.Ian
White spent his time studying the subway map and hit on an idea that
has become a best-selling tourist map.The map has won four major
design awards and pushed the limits of a 100-year-old publishing
technology.In the process, White has created what he refers to as a
"poor man's GIS."
White, who is 34, launched his subway-conceived company called Urban
Mapping in 2001 and set about marrying elements of GIS with stunning
design.The result is a hand-held map of lower Manhattan, which
contains multiple layers of geographic information and carries a retail
price of about $18.
The product may appear to be a conventional folding map, but it has a
decidedly high-tech design edge.After all, the Manhattan Dynamap
offers travelers a way to use digital quality geographic information
without the need to tote electronic equipment.For many people, it's
their first introduction to GIS.And Dynamap is turning heads in
facilities mapping and homeland protection applications.
"People still want to touch paper," White says, explaining that his
"paper" map is actually built on a thin polymer substrate; plastic
sheeting with advanced optical properties patent pending to Urban
Mapping."This technology straddles the divide between the digital and
the tactile in a way that gives people comfort."
You've seen a cousin of Urban Mapping's technology before.Remember the
"blinky" cards in Cracker Jack or at the bottom of a cereal box? Hold
the card one way and Babe Ruth cocks his baseball bat.Tilt the card
and the Babe swings for the fences.Two separate layers of information
that change depending on how you hold the card.
Now consider Urban Mapping's 21st century riff on this concept.
Each Manhattan tourist map contains 100 plastic coated lenses per inch.
Under each tiny lens lie three separate images containing geographic
data.These data layers are sliced and stacked on top of one another
making each slice just 1/300th of an inch wide.That's small enough for
the Dynamap to play subtle tricks on a viewer's eye.The viewer thinks
she sees multiple layers of information, almost like a hologram.Hold
the map at one angle and New York's subway system emerges.Hold it at
another and the city's neighborhoods appear.Hold it at a third angle
and see the city's street grid.(Try it yourself by mousing over the
One design rule that White insisted on was that the layers shouldn't
abruptly turn "on" and "off" like a traditional blinky card.Instead,
he wanted the layers to fade in and out of view as the map was tilted.
This would let viewers study the subway layer but also see an image of
the street grid or the neighborhood map.
Removing the Extraneous
Although the map measures 9 x 18 inches when open, its three layers can
hold an enormous amount of information.That's where White donned his
Rather than cram the map full of data points and detail, he considered
his market and their information needs, then worked to remove
For example, White assumed that with a retail price near the top end of
the tourist map-market (to further distance the product from
traditional tourist maps), his Manhattan product would appeal to
seasoned, upscale travelers with an eye for design.Such travelers
probably would have booked a hotel room in advance.So White eliminated
the dozens of dots that represent hotels on other maps.
Likewise you won't find many references to on and off ramps leading to
bridges, tunnels and expressways.Highway details would only detract
from more important information.White figured his customers would
arrive by air and get around by foot and subway.
So White didn't scrimp when it came to depicting New York's subway
system.Urban Mapping's designers created a detailed subway map layer
virtually from scratch after they found most New York City subway maps
were stylized representations at best.White wanted to accurately
portray the underground network so his users could pinpoint subway
He also chose not to cover the map with historical landmarks and major
buildings.Instead, the map represents a relative handful of Manhattan
landmarks.These serve as visual reference markers for travelers.A
visitor may come up from a subway station and look around to locate,
say, the Empire State Building.She then uses this visual reference to
orient herself on the map.
White considers subtle differences in what he calls "urban DNA" as he
develops other city maps.
In Washington, DC, for example, taxi fare zones are an important local
feature.Ride in a DC cab and the meter doesn't necessarily run.
Instead, fares are based on travel within a zone or across multiple
zones.Depicting those zones will be an important layer of information
for Urban Mapping's Washington product.
In Seattle, mass transit is a relatively less important tourist
concern.Not so the city's topography with its hills and lakes.Urban
Mapping's Seattle map will depict major landforms on one of its layers.
Urban Mapping's initial market was the tourist industry, but other
applications are in development.
For example, power outages following a storm or disaster can render
laptop-based GIS systems inoperable, at least temporarily.As a backup
system to bridge any loss of power, White envisions Dynamap providing
emergency responders with layers of geographic information such as
critical utility infrastructure, public buildings, hospitals and major
industrial facilities.One tragedy of September 11 was the realization
that first responders lacked a common map of facilities and
infrastructure to coordinate response and rescue.Incorporating
multiple data sets into a single map could create just such a map,
making it easier for emergency responders and utility crews to render
Dynamap* technology also can depict changes over time.This makes it
possible for a utility to depict, say, new service connections and
related infrastructure improvements over time.From an environmental
standpoint, a toxic spill that threatens a municipal water supply
likewise can be mapped; the spill's movement depicted along with water
well locations and population centers.
"People don't always want to sit down with a computer" to look at
geographic information, White says.Urban Mapping's high-tech
adaptation of a century-old novelty card printing technique may provide
*Dynamap is a trademark owned by Geographic Data Technology.