TEXTURE MAPPING / 40-page research publication - 2015

TEXTURE MAPPING / publication - 2015

Cranbrook MFA thesis header

World Building and Cartography in Graphic Design

I recently took a short break from client work and other ongoing projects to focus on a body of work related to overlaps between graphic design and cartography, including analyzing design work through cartographic impulses and examining the practice of creating fictional textural landscapes. I compiled my initial research and diagrams into a 40-page publication called Texture Mapping, which I printed and assembled using some old-fashioned photocopier and stapler methods. Five copies are available for sale from the Streeting Design shop.

Part 1 - Design as Map

In its simplest terms, design is about creating a physical manifestation of an idea, conveyed through the combination of images and words (and what are words, if not yet more symbolic manifestations of ideas?). As designers, we creating worlds through this act of physical manifestation, whether it is the actual world of a building, the representational world of a schematic or diagram, or the theoretical world of communication embodied by a book, a poster, or a website, a world which may not be physically traversable but which contains its own system of internal logic and signposts for navigation. These examples move steadily from the concrete to the abstract, illustrating how design shifts from a “real” thing or place towards a mediated representation of that thing or place. In this way, design comes to model ideas in much the same way as maps model location.

As a graphic designer, I’ve often used the term “world-building” to describe my own design work, both in terms of this sense of representational modeling and in terms of paying close attention to the laws and rules governing the visual composition of the work itself. In order to be as effective as possible, each piece of design work needs to have a sense of internal continuity, whether that applies to purely visual concerns like color palettes and how to handle the edge of the page, or whether it applies to symbolic rules that help viewers understand the message conveyed by the design. For example, in the simplest terms, an icon that symbolizes “help” must always symbolize help, so that a viewer or user knows how to get help. The designer sets up these rules as a way to maintain internal order – this is the basic theory behind creating brand guidelines, or behind setting up the page flow of a book or the navigational structure of a website. Of course, the designer can easily break these self-imposed sets of internal rules, in order to throw the viewer off balance, create intentional confusion, set up pacing and tension, subvert an idea, and so on, but this rule-breaking only works if a set of internal logic exists in the first place.

This idea of internal logic forms the foundation of my design practice. If you “zoom in” on one of my posters, for example, it reveals a finite sense of visual coherence, through the way in which different visual elements work together, creating a cohesive space that serves to represent an idea. A model, in other words. But literally zooming in on a poster also has another outcome — devoid of the context provided by the overall view of the work, the zoomed-in view takes on the appearance of a textured landscape, an abstract surface, a satellite photo – a navigable and traversable space. The design, then, starts to actually become a map, through both theoretical and visually representational means. The poster “maps” an idea and it looks like an actual map, and, in a theoretical sense, the visual appearance of the design reinforces the purpose of the design itself.

Cranbrook MFA thesis typography and painting

Graphic design is inherently connected to this idea of appearance reinforcing purpose — we can think of this in terms of representational aesthetics, or semiotics, or the concept of design being a 1:1 scale model of an idea. In my work, I tend to lean heavily on acts of representation and duplication, in some cases more theoretically and in some cases through a purely visual approach. This ranges from photocopies to traced images, from sequences of film frames to dubbed cassette tapes, and from the creation of icons to the construction of geometric typography. These are all quite different techniques, but they all revolve around the idea of transferring meaning from one thing to the next. An icon, for example, serves as a signifier for an idea, removing the physical presence of the original idea and replacing it with a mediated stand-in. The photocopier mirrors this process on paper, as the photocopying process passes the “aura” of the original image onto a duplicate, adding a false (or representational) patina of history to the mediated copy for added measure.

These acts of design through representation are rooted in the idea of model building and mapmaking, ideas which, in essence, remove the “true” originals and replace them with “false” facsimiles. These facsimiles are often easy to understand, but by their very nature they present a mediated and inescapably subjective point of view, once which is often simplified, politicized, or romanticized. In essence, the mapmaker decides which features of the landscape are most important, for a variety of reasons, while downplaying or ignoring other features. This process is paralleled by the graphic designer, who decides which elements of a message are most important while sidelining the rest. The result is that the viewer ultimately interacts only with the mediated version of reality presented by the designer or mapmaker, coming to trust that this version accurately represents what the designer claims.

We’ve seen this phenomenon occurring faster and faster with the rise of satellite photography and computational mapping technology, made clear by our increasing reliance on Google Earth, sat nav systems, and GPS-enabled smartphones. This omnipresent digital mapping practice is inextricably tied up with graphic design, as the version of the world we see within this software has been “designed” through color coding, user interfaces, line weight, iconography, and so on. These maps have slowly influenced our perception of actual reality as we come to inherently rely on them, to the point where we no longer feel the need to create or remember our own maps. Google Earth is the ultimate manifestation of this idea, because, since it is generated by satellites and machines, it seems infallible to the viewer, and it seems complete. It easily, and dangerously, becomes the “real” version of our entire planet. In an interview with Jonathan Solomon, Graham Burnett points out that “we could sit here for a bit and think how often it is you start out with a model as an analogy … and you wind up having decided that the thing you set out to model is nothing more or less than the thing you’ve just built as a model.”1 The example he uses is clockwork models that “explained” the motion of the solar system and, in turn, influenced the way in which Renaissance philosophers thought the actual solar system functioned, but the same principle is true of an over-reliance on GPS technology.

Cranbrook MFA thesis post-apocalyptic model motorcycle photograph

As Baudrillard writes in Simulacra and Simulation, this simulated “real” becomes more than just a simple stand-in; it “is” our world. “It is no longer a question of imitation, nor of reduplication, nor even of parody. It is rather a question of substituting signs of the real for the real itself. ... Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor survives it. Henceforth, it is the map that precedes the territory.”2 In this way the mediated or modelled object, takes over the real, paralleled both by an increasing preference for digital non space and by the representational or semiotic work of graphic designers. “What we are witnessing is a shift in the traditional relationship between reality and representation,” writes Olafur Eliasson.3 “We no longer progress from model to reality, but from model to model while acknowledging that both models are, in fact, real. As a result we may work in a very productive manner with reality experienced as a conglomeration of models. Rather than seeing model and reality as polarized modes, they now function on the same level. Models have become coproducers of reality.”4 If design is a 1:1 model of an idea, then the designed environment replaces any “actual” world, and a curated experience becomes what we believe to be true.

This can be seen on a daily basis in our interactions with Google Earth and Google Maps. Putting aside the political ramifications of allowing one Western corporation to effectively present its mediated version of the globe as reality, the world we encounter through Google Earth is visually homogenized through consistent color choices and specific UI, ensuring every person with Internet access encounters the world in exactly the same way. Google Earth flattens the globe, essentially turning it into the in-game map portion of a video game’s heads-up-display interface, curating it, presenting it as yet one more component of a fully mediated and brand-compliant user experience, alongside web browsers, email interfaces, text documents, icons, and navigation systems, all of which follow a set of internal rules and logic developed by the system’s designers.

Through its use of iconography, menus, and homogenous navigational logic (all a part of Google’s “Material” design philosophy), the Google UI, of which Google Earth is just a part, bears more than a passing resemblance to video game UI and navigational menus. In fact, video game UI is one of the areas in which we see the idea of internal logic within graphic design at its most complete. While video game UI shares a lot of visual similarities with internet browsers and other everyday computer interfaces, they’re usually designed with a much more specialized and fictional worldview in mind. Video game designers are concerned with the idea of believable world-building, and the visual design of the navigation and UI systems are just as much a part of that world-building as the characters, locations, and plot points that make up game’s narrative itself, right down to color pallettes, font choices, and iconographic styling. This is how we end up with the potentially absurd phenomenon of clickable buttons styled to look like medieval scrolls, for example, or dirt-smeared paper interfaces in a war game. It’s crucial to note that these UI systems often include maps alongside things like weapon inventory, character status, and quest logs. The maps in these games are perhaps one of the most important storytelling elements, since they instruct players where to go and when, providing clues to the story and details about the environment, influencing and facilitating the timing and progression of the player’s experience. As Henry Jenkins writes in his paper Narrative Spaces, “organizing the plot becomes a matter of designing the geography of imaginary worlds so that obstacles thwart and affordances facilitate the protagonist’s forward movement towards resolution. Over the past several decades, game designers have become more and more adept at setting and varying the rhythm of gameplay through features of the gamespace.”5 He continues, “however a game’s narrative is expressed, it is always influenced by the way the game creators designed and organized the gamespaces. ... In each case, it makes sense to think of game designers less as storytellers and more as narrative architects.”6 Video games, then, provide a perfect combination of narrative, logic, and visuals, where the design of the maps involved is just as crucial to creating an immersive environment and telling an effective story as the actual “landscapes” that those maps describe.

This approach to design, embodied by the extremely stylized internal logic of video game UI (and even board games and the maps inside fantasy novels), exists at the far end of a visual spectrum that begins with the seemingly earthbound design of everyday online experiences like Google, Facebook, Twitter, and so on. The difference might be that these everyday online experiences don’t come with handy maps — the users are left to navigate and map these visual spaces for themselves, potentially because they represent a less curated, but no less designed, environment than the relatively insular world of a video game. This might be why the Google UI is seemingly designed to be less visually obtrusive and to fade into the background, yet the choices of the designer in terms of representational aesthetics are present throughout, layering a mediated experience onto our everyday lives through iconography, composition, navigational structure, visual hierarchy, and so on — in other words, through the blended language of cartography and graphic design. So why not make that language overt?

Part 2 - Cartographic Design

As graphic design at its most fundamental level is based on the organization of visual elements, it might be useful to examine the philosophical foundation of that act of organization. There are obviously a variety of schools of thought regarding the specificities of visual composition, but, having established the similarities between graphic design and cartography, it could be an interesting exercise to apply mapping techniques to design work.

Borden B. Dent’s Cartography: Thematic Map Design serves as a useful primer on the visual theories behind effective mapmaking. Many of the points in his book could equally describe the process of graphic design itself, but it’s helpful to see those points applied directly to such a specific discipline. “It is useful at the outset to imagine the thematic map as composed of different planes or levels,” Dent writes.7 It’s interesting that Dent uses the vocabulary of landscape to describe the general form of a map, using words like “plane” or “level” to situate the very form of the map itself as an abstracted location, already one step removed from reality. “Each component of the map belongs to a specific level,” he continues.8 “More than one map element can be placed on a particular level, but a single element should never be assigned to more than one level. .. The arrangement of the map’s elements takes place at each level and between levels. The arrangement at a given level may be called planar organization and the between level may be called hierarchical organization.”9 While Dent is explaining specifically how to convey cartographic information, these principles of “elements” and “levels” organized in a hierarchy can be applied to graphic design in general, helping the designer combine disparate on a page or screen.

Dent believes strongly in the idea of directing the viewer’s attention from one area of the map to the next, creating points of emphasis in sequence. “The optical center of an image area is a point just above the geometric center, he writes. “This attracts the viewer’s eye, unless other visual stimuli in the field distract attention. The reader’s eye normally follows a path from upper left to lower right in the visual field and passes through the optical center.”10 Dent goes on to mention the power of contrast as one method in directing the viewer’s attention from one areas of importance to another. “A lack of visual contrast detracts from the interest of the image and makes it difficult to distinguish important from unimportant parts of the communication,” he writes.11 This is of key importance in mapmaking, where effective design means helping the viewer traverse a landscape, but it’s also applicable to graphic design, where the “landscape” is the design itself. Directing focus from one point to the next is crucial in understanding typographic hierarchy, page composition, navigation systems, user interfaces, and so on.

Cranbrook MFA thesis post-apocalyptic model motorcycle photograph

With all this in mind, I’ve analyzed three of my posters based on some of Dent’s ideas, deconstructing them and creating four separate hierarchical layers. In a sense, I’ve mapped the posters based on four different sets of criteria, and then I’ve compared the results. The initial idea with each of these posters was to convey didactic information through text and instinctual information through a combination of words, images, and compositional techniques, while directing the viewers’ attention through an almost instantaneous series of emotional interactions across the page. By mapping the posters in terms of content, composition, brightness/contrast, and intended areas of focus, we can see how effectively they worked. Most importantly, we can see that the general composition of each poster is similar from one map to the next, hopefully proving that form and content are inextricably linked.

Part 3 - The Zone / The Road

The language used to describe location is often as evocative of psychological states as it is of physical places. A flickering occurs between the internal and the external, and words like “abyss,” “zone,” and “road” come laden with psychogeographic baggage — they represent locations in transition, symbolic locations, stand-ins for emotions, for points of view. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, for example, is a literal place, as well as a metaphoric description of the endless act of wandering, lost, searching for a sense of truth and self after an apocalypse.

Cranbrook MFA thesis post-apocalyptic model motorcycle photograph

“The Zone” in Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s 1972 novel Roadside Picnic, filmed by Andrei Tarkovsky as Stalker in 1979, is an area of Soviet Russia once visited by alien explorers and now sealed off, marked by the ruins of its natural topography and its visitors’ artifacts. Here, the Zone becomes a metaphor for the ruins of industrialization; a way of life crystallized as an actual, traversible (if dangerous) landscape. In Militant Modernism, Owen Hatherley writes, “the Zone is a dangerous melancholy place, an industrial district where the chimneys no longer give off smoke, visited by strange climactic phenomena, with a stretched sense of time. ... Tarkovsky’s Zone is in some ways specific to the former USSR, yet practically every industrial, or once industrial country, has something resembling the Zone within it.”12

Cranbrook MFA thesis post-apocalyptic model motorcycle photograph

Hatherley’s description of the Zone could easily apply to Detroit, if we read the ruined objects as the detritus of failed post-industrial capitalism. In Stalking Detroit, Charles Waldheim and Marili Santos-Munne write that the Zone “represents the overlay of a primordial and abundant natural environment, an aging and abandoned industrial infrastructure, and an increasingly opportunistic set of mutating ecological conditions. The Zone’s cessation of Fordist/Taylorist imperatives in lieu of a postmodern conflation of infrastructure and ecology recommends it as an image of Detroit’s not too distant future.”13 Detroit is literally becoming the Zone, in other words, but it’s also becoming replaced and layered with a psychogeographic Zone, in which Detroit becomes “Detroit,” a stand-in, or model, for a preview way of life, an outdated point-of-view, or a political point.

Cranbrook MFA thesis post-apocalyptic model motorcycle photograph

In Electric Eden, Rob Young writes about the quintessential British journey as represented by British folk music. As opposed to the American cultural space of the open road, the British sense of “the road” leads inward. “The culture of British travel,” he writes, “is more commonly linked to the sense of quest, a journey undertaken for purposes of knowledge or self-restoration. In that sense, the British road is a road to the interior ... Britain’s literature brims with accounts of journeys in which movement combines with the unlocking of memory to create a sensation of inward/vertical rather than forward/lateral travel.”14

Part 4 - Layering

Cartographer Borden B. Dent used the idea of levels, or layers, as a device to describe the way maps convey information, writing, “the arrangement of the map’s elements takes place at each level and between levels.”15 He even talked about the surface of a map as representing a top-down view of information, not just of a landscape, describing the most important information as “figures” raised above the less important “ground.” “Figures become objects of attention in perception, standing out from the background. Figures have ‘thing’ qualities; grounds are formless.”16 In the following diagrams, I’m exploring this concept in literal terms, visually separating the “figures” from their “grounds” through the use of exploded axonometric renderings, giving a set of two-dimensional images a third dimension in order to reveal what appears “beneath” each layer in each image. In this way, the visual hierarchy within each piece is given depth, revealing hidden information and detailing how compositional choices relate to each other.

Cranbrook MFA thesis post-apocalyptic model motorcycle photograph

The extreme versatility and popularity of Photoshop means that every designer is familiar with the idea of working with layers, to the point that it’s practically become a subconscious method of creating compositions. As Ellen Lupton and Jennifer Cole Phillips write in Graphic Design: The New Basics, “the image file becomes an archaeology of its own making, a stack of elements seen simultaneously in the main window, but represented as a vertical list in the layers palette.”17 Photoshop’s layers allow designers to organize visual information in a third dimension, with certain elements situated “above” or “below” others, while the finished “flat” Photoshop file takes on the appearance of a top-down view of a 3D structure or landscape. A map, in other words. Some elements are obscured or hidden by others, while the interaction between different layers through opacity and blending modes creates the potential for more nuanced and rearrangeable design. As Lupton and Phillips write, “Layers allow the designer to treat the image as a collection of assets, a database of possibilities.”18

Cranbrook MFA thesis post-apocalyptic model motorcycle photograph

Layering in design goes beyond just its usage in software – the principles of semiotics mean that designers are “layering” symbols on top of ideas, allowing those symbols to stand in for, or signify, those concepts. Designers also layer their own interpretations on top of clients’ expectations, based on experience, education, personality, and so on. The layering of “client” and “designer” is mirrored by the layering of message and form, or of a compositional foundation being covered by a textural patina. All of these layers add nuance and detail, building up over time, interacting, telling a story. What happens between one layer and the next?


1. Graham D. Burnett & Jonathan D. Solomon. “Masters of the Universe.” Models. Eds. Emily Abruzzo, Eric Ellingsen & Jonathan D. Solomon. 306090 Books, volume 11. January 2008.
2. Jean Baudrillard. Simulacra and Simulation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995.
3. Olafur Eliasson. “Models are Real.” Models. Eds. Emily Abruzzo, Eric Ellingsen & Jonathan D. Solomon. 306090 Books, volume 11. January 2008.
4. Ibid.
5. Henry Jenkins. “Narrative Spaces.” Space Time Play – Computer Games, Architecture and Urbanism: The Next Level. Eds. Von Borries, Walz & Böttger. Birkhäuser, Basel: 2007.
6. Ibid. 7. Borden D. Dent. Cartography: Thematic Map Design. William C. Brown Publishers, Dubuque: 1998.
8. Ibid.
9. Ibid.
10. Ibid.
11. Ibid.
12. Owen Hatherley. Militant Modernism. Zero Books, Hampshire: 2010.
13. Charles Waldheim and Marili Santos-Munne. “Decamping Detroit.” Stalking Detroit. Eds. Georgia Daskalakis, Charles Waldheim & Jason Young. Actar, Barcelona: 2001.
14. Rob Young. Electic Eden: Unearthing Britain's Visionary Music. Faber and Faber, London: 2010.
15. Borden D. Dent. Cartography: Thematic Map Design. William C. Brown Publishers, Dubuque: 1998.
16. Ibid.
17. Ellen Lupton & Jennifer Cole Phillips. Graphic Design: The New Basics. Princeton Architectural Press, New York: 2008.
18. Ibid.