The imagination is contagious and, sometimes, when it is not immediately spread, it is frankly enviable. Who wouldn’t like to create a fantastical map, a terra incognita like those drawn up by the awe-inspiring 17th century cartographer Ptolemy, who, while drawing the lines on his maps, no doubt lived within them. The map is in itself a work of the imagination (drawing an accurate map of the earth is basically impossible), so if we use purposeful logic as our base, drawing a fantastical map could eliminate the fictitious element: a double falsity would generate a truth.

But leaving truth to one side, the simple fact of looking at a map –fictitious or official– fires up the imagination; let’s remember how many monsters and chimeras lived in the (then imagined) Africa when the continent, on maps, was nothing more than a black spot. Based on these seven points anybody can create their own fantastical map and in doing so understand first-hand the overwhelming infatuation we have as a species for cartography.

1. Understand how your map tells a story

As with all views of the world, maps have always been influenced by the political systems of the moment, religious and social ideologies, etc. If your map is, let’s say, of Atlantis, you will be telling the story if its myths of creation and disappearance (Plato), including what you have read and imagined. A map explains the way in which the members of a culture see the world. A map is always a visual narrative.

2. Take the observer into account

You will want the observer of your map to understand what you want to tell and, first of all, you will want the observer to look at your map. Mike Schley, who draws maps for the Dungeons and Dragons games, explains: “In order to be successful, the image needs to satisfy the principal requirements of utility, clarity, and beauty. If any of those elements are lacking, the resulting image will be useless, illegible or ugly.”

3. Study real geography

If you understand, first of all, the way in which geographic elements work in the real world, your map will be even more attractive. Look at the mountain ranges, the branches of rivers… The mountains, for example, capture the rain and the rivers flow down to the sea. Always. If your fantastical map is governed by rules different to those of this planet, in order to design them you need to know these one’s first. It’s useful to remember that your map does not necessarily have to be rectangular like most are, neither does it have to be a map of the world; you can portray a city, a town, a firmament…

4. Look at the work of real cartographers

As we said at the beginning, maps fire up the imagination. These five cartography books can help you to find inspiration, a palette of colors, contexts and cartographer colleagues.

5. Think about ornament (but don’t overload your map with it)

Maps offer the opportunity to express something behind the merely cartographic. The area outside the map is as important as that within it. And that is perhaps the most enjoyable part. There are many ways of doing this (the best thing to do is look at how Ptolemy achieved it, for example): you can include heraldic symbols, animals disproportionate to their context, a rose of the winds, a Boreas spitting wind, allegories, representations of events. But although it is necessary to give a map a personal touch, you should be careful to respect Schley’s three principles: usefulness, clarity and beauty.

6. Seek feedback

There are many wonderful communities of mapmakers on line, sites where you can share your process, receive criticism and see a whole range of maps of this world that people are making from their region. One of them is Cartographers Guild; another is Reddit, which has communities such as r/mapmaking and r/worldbuilding.

 

7. Don’t hurry; a map needs all the time you can give it

Like this man, who took seven years to draw a maze, you can take as long as is necessary to draw a world. The best mapmakers, such as this artisan who make the world’s most beautiful globes, first imagine, then produce, and then revise, and then begin the cycle again.

The imagination is contagious and, sometimes, when it is not immediately spread, it is frankly enviable. Who wouldn’t like to create a fantastical map, a terra incognita like those drawn up by the awe-inspiring 17th century cartographer Ptolemy, who, while drawing the lines on his maps, no doubt lived within them. The map is in itself a work of the imagination (drawing an accurate map of the earth is basically impossible), so if we use purposeful logic as our base, drawing a fantastical map could eliminate the fictitious element: a double falsity would generate a truth.

But leaving truth to one side, the simple fact of looking at a map –fictitious or official– fires up the imagination; let’s remember how many monsters and chimeras lived in the (then imagined) Africa when the continent, on maps, was nothing more than a black spot. Based on these seven points anybody can create their own fantastical map and in doing so understand first-hand the overwhelming infatuation we have as a species for cartography.

1. Understand how your map tells a story

As with all views of the world, maps have always been influenced by the political systems of the moment, religious and social ideologies, etc. If your map is, let’s say, of Atlantis, you will be telling the story if its myths of creation and disappearance (Plato), including what you have read and imagined. A map explains the way in which the members of a culture see the world. A map is always a visual narrative.

2. Take the observer into account

You will want the observer of your map to understand what you want to tell and, first of all, you will want the observer to look at your map. Mike Schley, who draws maps for the Dungeons and Dragons games, explains: “In order to be successful, the image needs to satisfy the principal requirements of utility, clarity, and beauty. If any of those elements are lacking, the resulting image will be useless, illegible or ugly.”

3. Study real geography

If you understand, first of all, the way in which geographic elements work in the real world, your map will be even more attractive. Look at the mountain ranges, the branches of rivers… The mountains, for example, capture the rain and the rivers flow down to the sea. Always. If your fantastical map is governed by rules different to those of this planet, in order to design them you need to know these one’s first. It’s useful to remember that your map does not necessarily have to be rectangular like most are, neither does it have to be a map of the world; you can portray a city, a town, a firmament…

4. Look at the work of real cartographers

As we said at the beginning, maps fire up the imagination. These five cartography books can help you to find inspiration, a palette of colors, contexts and cartographer colleagues.

5. Think about ornament (but don’t overload your map with it)

Maps offer the opportunity to express something behind the merely cartographic. The area outside the map is as important as that within it. And that is perhaps the most enjoyable part. There are many ways of doing this (the best thing to do is look at how Ptolemy achieved it, for example): you can include heraldic symbols, animals disproportionate to their context, a rose of the winds, a Boreas spitting wind, allegories, representations of events. But although it is necessary to give a map a personal touch, you should be careful to respect Schley’s three principles: usefulness, clarity and beauty.

6. Seek feedback

There are many wonderful communities of mapmakers on line, sites where you can share your process, receive criticism and see a whole range of maps of this world that people are making from their region. One of them is Cartographers Guild; another is Reddit, which has communities such as r/mapmaking and r/worldbuilding.

 

7. Don’t hurry; a map needs all the time you can give it

Like this man, who took seven years to draw a maze, you can take as long as is necessary to draw a world. The best mapmakers, such as this artisan who make the world’s most beautiful globes, first imagine, then produce, and then revise, and then begin the cycle again.

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