Make It

What can we learn from maps?

English Language ArtsGeographySciencesSocial Studies


What is a map? A map is not just a picture—it’s a visual representation of a geographic area. Maps are designed to show information about the world around us as well as places we’ve never visited. They illustrate the geographical relationships—and distances—between peoples and places. Maps are highly stylized renderings that rely on specific visual and symbolic vocabularies to convey meaning. Yet maps are inherently distortions of reality, since it is not possible to accurately depict the 3D world on a 2D plane. Maps generalize, simplify, and symbolize complex information and relationships.

No one knows when the first maps were made, but written records indicate a long history of mapmaking (or “cartography”) in China—one going back at least two thousand years. The first map shown above is one of a set of maps depicting eleven prefectural cities in Zhejiang province. It belongs to a more traditional, pictorial style of cartography, as opposed to a style focused on geographical accuracy. Maps depicting landscape features and territories were important for political, military, and navigational purposes.

Before GPS and satellite images and drones, maps were made by compiling pieces of known information from different sources. Mapmakers relied on travelers’ stories and drawings, ancient literature, early surveying tools (to determine distances), and trigonometry (to calculate the curve of the earth). Depending on the maker’s priorities and biases, maps would include or exclude certain information and details.

Think about the kinds of maps you have been taught from and exposed to in your life. Which maps do you have in your classroom or school? Most of us are probably familiar with the Mercator projection map, invented by Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator in 1569. (A “projection” is a way to flatten a globe’s surface into a plane in order to make a map.) While this map was essential for sailors to navigate the open seas, the projection distorts the shapes and sizes of the continents (it inflates objects away from the equator) and has been criticized for reinforcing imperialist notions of Western superiority. For example, Mercator projections depict Africa as comparable in size to Greenland, even though it is actually fourteen times larger—in fact, it’s larger than the United States, China, and Australia combined. Mercator maps create a false perception of the world by giving Europe a prominence that does not match reality. Studying different types of maps provides an opportunity to learn about bias.

Maps as Art

While some maps are used solely to understand the world, other maps are used as tools for artistic expression. Maya Lin is a renowned Chinese American artist and architect. Known for her design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. (1982), she has since created numerous public and site-specific works that reflect her interests in social and environmental issues. Her work often reflects themes of environmental loss and our relationship to the natural world. In 1999 she made a series of monoprints in which she inked sheets of glass, placed them on the bed of a roller press, shattered the glass, selectively removed broken pieces, and made a print with the remaining pieces. The resulting prints resemble county maps covered by a network of waterways. While they may not represent real places that one can immediately recognize, they use the language of mapmaking to express Lin’s concerns about changing landscapes and habitat loss.

Maps don’t just get us from point A to point B or represent places real or imagined—they also tell stories. The possibilities for storytelling have grown due to advancements in digital mapping capabilities. For example, GIS (geographic information system) is a computer system for capturing, storing, checking, and displaying data related to positions on the earth’s surface. GIS can help us better understand spatial patterns and relationships among people, places, landforms, and natural resources. Tiffany Chung’s Reconstructing an exodus history: Flight routes from camps and of ODP cases documents the displacement of South Vietnamese refugees from their homes as a result of the Vietnam War. Her work blurs the lines among mapmaking, data collection, storytelling, and visual art.

Video: Make It activity: maps

Arts of Asia: Make It - Maps

May 23, 2022 | 1:37

Try It!

  • Practice spatial thinking and visualize, interpret, and explore your relationship to spaces and places by making some simple 2D maps. First, use pencils, colored pencils, or crayons to map a single room, like your classroom, or you can map a building, like your school, or a larger space, like one of the galleries at Mia! Then, sketch your path throughout an entire day; from the moment you wake in the morning till the time you go to sleep, show the places you go and the paths you travel.

    Share your map with the class and see if your places overlap or intersect with theirs. Can they be overlaid to create a bigger, collaborative network?

    If you are looking for a way to try digital mapmaking, check out “Cat in the Hat Can Map This and That” from PBS Kids.

    Make a 3D map of your local community or neighborhood. On a large sheet of paper, lightly sketch an aerial view of the important places your classmates visit—or places that are recognizable and meaningful to you—showing their relative locations and distances from each other. For each location, build a 3D representation that can be placed on the map. These 3D models can be simple paper cutouts or more elaborate structures made from Legos, clay, wooden craft sticks, etc. After the individual buildings have been constructed and decorated, place them in their corresponding locations and explore!

    Time: 30 min. or up to 2 class periods

    Materials: Paper, drawing and coloring utensils, modeling and sculpting materials

    Guiding Questions:
    How does making maps encourage spatial thinking skills?

    What are the different spaces and places we inhabit in our everyday lives?

Do It!

  • Try a printmaking experience with your class. If you have access to specialized printmaking tools or a printing press in your class or school, that’s great! But if not, try reaching out to local printing studios, arts schools and colleges, or art museums to see if they can host your class in their space or come to you.

    You can still make simple prints without fancy tools. Monotypes may be easiest in that they don’t require any etching or engraving into a plate. Monotyping is a form of printmaking that can be made by inking a smooth surface with paint, and then using tools such as cotton swabs, brushes, or rags to remove ink to create an image, and then transferring the image by pressing it onto paper. Monotyping produces single, unique prints because most of the ink is removed in the first pressing. However, like Maya Lin, you can create subsequent pressings from the original plate which are then known as “ghost prints.”

    Start with acrylic sheets, recycled Styrofoam, or cardboard plates, and apply a thin layer of paint (mini paint rollers work well here). Next use a cotton swab to draw your desired design. Then, press a sheet of blank paper onto the painted surface, remove carefully, and let dry. The transferred image is your monotype print! Be aware that your print will be a mirror image of the design on your plate; if you plan to incorporate written text into your design, be sure to write in reverse script so the writing appears correctly on the print. Students can rework the paint left behind on the plate from the first pressing to make a ghost print, or the plate can be wiped clean and students can create an entirely new image.

    You and your students can use this technique to make maps of your city, county, state, or other geographic region. Like Maya Lin’s artworks, these printed maps made by students can provide opportunities to discuss topics including topography, geography, and cartography as a class.

    Time: 1 to 3 class periods

    Materials: Plexiglass, acrylic, cardboard, or Styrofoam plates/sheets; paint; paint brushes, mini paint rollers; cotton swabs; blank paper

    Guiding Questions:
    What is monotype printing and how can we make our own unique monotype prints?

    How can we print our own maps?

Make It Yours!

  • Design Challenge

    Community resource mapping, or asset mapping, is a process of locating valuable resources in one’s own community, identifying gaps in access, and developing a strategic approach to promote interconnectedness and collaboration among groups. In teams, make community resource maps that address a challenge facing your community and depict the relationships among the people, places, businesses, grassroots or nonprofit organizations, and social or community services in your neighborhood that can help solve it. Follow the design-thinking process below as outlined in this lesson, “What is the connection between design-thinking and art?

    Time: 3 or more class periods

Design-Thinking Process

  1. 1

    Empathize: Discuss why the artists and mapmakers we’ve discussed chose which features to include in their maps. What are the different purposes of each of the maps? What were the artists trying to communicate? Do some research on the artists and mapmakers to gain more insight into their artistic practice and how they made their maps. Also consider the users/viewers of these maps. What is the viewing experience like? What information is the viewer getting? Is there an expectation for the viewer to see/think/do something after viewing the map? What purpose or function is the map serving for the viewer?

  2. 2

    Connect: Have the class split into teams. Each team will brainstorm the different challenges that confront their local community. Ask teams to define the geographic area their maps will encompass. Have them identify how they will categorize the different types of assets or resources that could work to solve the problem they will focus on, for example: sports and recreation, arts and culture, food, health care, education, religion, etc. Consider the intended audience for your community resource map. Which community groups will you involve in your design challenge? How will your map connect them?

  3. 3

    Ideate: After selecting the community problem and assets/resources you want to focus on, determine how you will collect and visually represent your data. What is the best method for creating and sharing your map? Will you go the hand-drawn route or use a tool like Wikimaps, Siftr, Google Maps, or other open-source mapping software? How will you use your community resource map as a tool for community-based problem solving?

  4. 4

    Prototype: Work through various prototypes and iterations of what your map can look like to find the best format.

  5. 5

    Test: Share your community resource maps and explain the community challenge you were trying to address, and which relationships and assets you focused on. If possible, gather community members and share students’ ideas and maps directly with their intended audience. At the end, reflect on the question, “If you were to do this again, what would you do differently?” Solicit constructive feedback from peers and community reviewers; from their perspectives, what worked well, what made this idea compelling, and what could have been improved? How can these community resource maps be used to inform improvements in community decision making, policy, and infrastructure?