Review: Atlas of Design, Vol. 6

Late last year I received, as a review copy, the sixth volume of the Atlas of Design. Things being what they are around here, there has been somewhat of a gap between receiving it, reading it, and saying something about it. But it’s worth saying something about that volume now, and the Atlas of Design in general, for at least one small reason I’ll get to in a moment.

I’ve mentioned the Atlas of Design series before, but it’s worth introducing it properly. Published every two years since 2012 by the North American Cartographic Information Society, the Atlas of Design is powered by volunteer editors and contributor submissions. Nobody’s getting paid for working on or appearing in these volumes—though it must be said that many of these maps are commercial ventures (posters available for sale at the mapper’s website) or works for hire (National Geographic and the Washington Post are represented in volume six), so the mapmakers aren’t doing this just for the exposure.

All the same, the production values are, if volume six is any indication, pretty close to first-rate.1 Which is to be expected when this much graphic design firepower is brought together in one place. The maps—322 of them in volume six—are reproduced marvellously. Many of the maps are large and detailed, so closeups showing that detail often accompany a reduced-size full look at the map; this is absolutely necessary in some cases, such as Jug Cerovic’s transport map of Takamatsu, Eric Knight’s panoramic map of the Alps, or Alex McPhee’s map of Alberta.

More than a few of these maps are familiar, having been shared widely online, and some of them have even been featured on this website. Not for the first time have I found in print form something that I see as a kindred spirit to what I’m trying to do here on The Map Room. Indeed, what I appreciate most about the Atlas of Design is its commitment—one that I share—to covering the full diversity of what constitutes maps and mapmaking.

What I mean about that is this. I’ve often noticed that when people are passionate about a thing, what they really are is passionate about a subset of that thing—without really being aware of it. Ask someone if they’re into music, generally, and they’ll say yes, generally, even if there are entire genres they have no interest in: for example, most of the guys who are really into vinyl records (and yes they’re generally guys) seem to be mainly into classic rock or electronica. The same is true of other cultural fields: avid readers rarely read every genre avidly. The rest of the field is kind of a blind spot.

Is this also true of maps? You’d expect some siloing of interests to occur: people who collect 16th-century maps aren’t necessarily interested in the latest turns of the geospatial industry. And yet I’ve found that people who are interested in maps are interested in all kinds of maps, at least to some extent. (The Map Room wouldn’t still be a going concern after 20 years if they weren’t.)

And the Atlas of Design provides some evidence in support of that point, because if there’s one thing you can’t say about the maps contained therein, it’s that they’re all the same. This is by design; as the editors wrote last year during the submission period, “There are no restrictions on subject matter, geography, or language. And if you want to send us a map of planet Qo’noS written entirely in Klingon, we’d love to see that, too.”3 There are maps that are hand-drawn and maps that are data-driven, maps that are deeply personal (including a couple of lockdown maps and a map of a canoe trip) and maps that show a single data layer. There are transit maps and panoramic pictorials and fantasy maps, population maps, and there’s Kenneth Field’s iconic map of the 2020 U.S. presidential election, done in screws and butcher block.

Atlas of Design opened up, showing some interior pages

But there are some caveats to this diversity and (in the secular sense) catholicity. One, obviously, is that these are recent maps made by working (or at least living) cartographers and artists who took the time to submit them for consideration. Another is that regardless of whether they were produced digitally or with pen and ink (or butcher block and screws), these are static maps. They’re being reproduced in the pages of a book. So you’re not going to get screencaps of an ArcGIS story map or dashboard, or any other sort of interactive map. But honestly, the point of most interactive maps is the data rather than the presentation; the point of these maps is very much their presentation. This is, after all, a showcase of map design: look, it’s right there in the title! And it’s fascinating to see just how much range there is out there in mapmaking land.

It’s just as true if you look back at the sample maps from previous issues: see volumes one, two, three, four and five. And it’s just gotten a lot easier to own the complete set. It was announced last week that the first four volumes of the Atlas of Design are being reprinted; there’s a discount for a couple of the volumes if you pre-order before May 15 (that’s Monday!), as well as if you’re a NACIS member. Which is to say that all six volumes are (back) in print and available for order. That might be something to consider.

From last November: MapLab on volume six of the Atlas of Design.

Previously: David Nuttall’s Maps of Fictional Places; Atlas of Design, Volume 3.


  1. Here’s their post on the printing process.
  2. Or 33, depending on whether you count the Washington Post maps as one contribution or two maps.
  3. On that note: there are no Klingon maps in volume six, but a few are in French, one is in Romanian, one is in Spanish, and one is bilingual Japanese/English. Most are English.