Compare New York City’s wayfinding signage to this hand-drawn map of the city’s buildings and landmarks. One is certainly a more faithful depiction of the street grid; both are steeped in editorial commentary. But which tells you more about the city? Which is more truthful?
When Pentagram partner Paula Scher—the graphic designer behind the branding of Shake Shack, the New School, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art—paints a map, she’s not interested in making a carbon copy of reality. “I’m not mapping for accuracy,” she says. “I’m mapping in a way that’s about expression and emotion.”
Last month, an exhibition of Scher’s map paintings of the United States opened at the Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery. The series presents the country as she sees it: an amalgam of different connections between people and place. “It’s really anti design,” she says. For each piece, she analyzes upwards of 50 different sources: airline flight patterns, climate, the Interstate system, driving times and mileage between cities, median real estate prices, and ZIP codes versus area codes, for example. Patterns begin to emerge in her mind and she renders them onto the canvas as a frenetic collage of prismatic labels and pathways.
Scher became fascinated with maps at an early age. Her father was a civil engineer with the U.S. Geological Survey and invented a tool that corrected distortions in aerial photography. Learning about complex representation and how mapmakers skewed information stoked a lifelong interest in organizing information. “All Maps Lie” is the title of the intro essay to her 2011 book called Maps.
“With the plethora of available information, people make assumptions about things they read as literal fact or they go to the Internet and they research something and assume they actually have correct information when they don’t,” Scher says of the contemporary infographic phenomenon. “A huge difference in the way we view charts, graphs, diagrams, and maps now as opposed to 20 years ago is that in the past they usually accompanied some editorial point of view. Now that actually isn’t the case. These things exist independently. What’s problematic about looking at and reading information is that we don’t realize that there are editorial decisions in it. Data doesn’t just exist; it’s selected or not selected.”
The show only features paintings of the United States, she explains, “largely because it is an election year. We’re so focused on what people think and feel, so the maps are inadvertently—if you really studied them—quite political.” The county’s division into north and south, east and west, coast versus heartland is especially intriguing to Scher because the state divisions don’t necessarily reflect the reality of how the country is divided and how to best understand a place.
“You think of Illinois as the ‘North,’ but the bottom of Illinois is the South,” Scher says. “If you’re trying to think about how people feel, why people vote a specific way, or what makes up their loyalties, you can look at little connections of, say, three-state areas—especially in the middle of the country—and they’re very revealing in terms of what you already know about America—you start to think about it differently.”
In the end, the aim is for the pieces to be recognized as artworks, not infographics. “They’re paintings,” Scher says. “They just happen to be maps.”