San Diego recreation map. "Most of the maps in America are not readable."
  • San Diego recreation map. "Most of the maps in America are not readable."
  • Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

The Half Dome map is labeled in English, German, French, Spanish, and Japanese.

CALL UP THE POPULAR MAPQUEST WEBSITE ON YOUR COMPUTER AND SEARCH FOR THE TOWN OF ELVIRA, CALIFORNIA. THE MAP ON YOUR SCREEN WILL SHOW IT AT THE INTERSECTION OF 1-5 AND HIGHWAY 52, JUST EAST OF LA JOLLA. IF YOU’RE FAMILIAR WITH THE AREA, YOU KNOW THAT’S ACTUALLY THE WEST END OF TECOLOTE PARK. NO TOWN THERE, ELVIRA OR OTHERWISE.

As it happens, "Elvira” is the name given decades ago to a railroad spur line that ran east from the main Santa Fe tracks at Tecolote Canyon. On Santa Fe maps, spur-line names were significant hits of information for engineers and signalmen. For today’s traveler who relies on a road map to plan a trip or to locate landmarks, Elvira is a cartographic red herring.

Hans and Maxine Hesse: "The useful life for a map of North County is about one year, with all the building and growth. The same for areas in south county like EastLake and Chula Vista."

According to MapQuest’s creators in Pennsylvania, railroad maps were among the eight databases used to assemble their product. That’s how Elvira found lier way into California. “We do our best to eliminate problems like that, but sometimes they do creep in,” MapQuest explains.

To cartographer Hans Hesse and his wife, Maxine, owners of Global Graphics in Oceanside, this tells them something about the mapmakers’ methods. “That’s a very good example of how you make a cartographic decision,” says Maxine. “In this case, they didn’t They took a database, and they just used what’s in the database and didn’t do enough research. Is it accurate? No. Is it going to get you to where you want to go? Maybe. Is it going to throw you off because you’re looking for the town of Elvira? Yeah.

San Francisco ‘toon map

“We’ve seen maps of San Diego,” Maxine continues, “where we knew they were using an old database because they have streets down by Harbor Drive that were changed ten years ago, but they still have it the old way. So you know what they’re doing and where they got their data. However, the consumer doesn’t know.”

The Hesses have been mapmakers in California for 13 years, the last 3 in Oceanside. Hans was born in Germany and received a degree in civil engineering in Berlin in preparation for a career as a cartographer. “When I finished my studies, I went to work for a map company in Switzerland to complete my skills, I thought, for 2 years. But I stayed in Zurich for 18 years.” Switzerland is considered the world center of quality mapmaking, with a 400-year history in the art and science of cartography.

European cartographers can receive a degree in engineering with a specialty in cartography, but the Hesses aren’t aware of an equivalent program in the United States. “That’s one of the things Hans felt we could improve upon by making our own business here. The quality of American-made maps isn’t as good, generally speaking, compared to what he was doing in Europe. So we decided, we can build a better mousetrap, be self-employed, and live in this climate.” Maxine was born and raised in Southern California.

So what makes a superior map? “Accuracy,” first and foremost, Hans says. “Accuracy and legibility. Most of the maps in America are not readable. The writing is so small. Thomas Brothers is on the better side, but Rand McNally, for example, the printing is just too small.”

“And the symbology,” Maxine adds, “the way color is used. Some products are very poor. They’re using four-color, but they’re not using it well.”

Hans unfolds a commercial road map of the sprawling city of Houston and environs as an example. It’s done in garish shades of green, yellow, peach, and gray. Street names are reduced to minuscule lines of type and virtually disappear in the areas colored a too-dark, too-saturated green. The lack of contrast between the type and the color makes them difficult to read.

This is one more of the editorial and planning decisions that goes into the making of a good map, says Maxine. “Scale is one of the most important considerations for legibility. They’re using too small a scale for the size of the end product. You have a huge amount of land area covered on a sheet 28-by-36. Some of our maps are relatively small scale, similar perhaps to Rand McNally, but there are things we can do with colors and symbols and type to make them more readable.”

With the population aging, our collective eyesight dimming, legibility is an increasing problem. “We have a map of San Francisco we’ve purposely done in larger scale, but to do that you have to go onto a larger sheet, and that’s a marketing problem.”

Global Graphics currently has 30 maps and guidebooks available, most intended for tourists and visitors. They produce a California road map and maps of the state’s major cities and recreation areas, including a tourist guidebook to the San Diego/Tijuana area, plus tourist maps of Boston and New York City. Each represents at least a three- to four-month investment of time in development, says Hans. The compilation, checking, and preparation costs for a clean, accurate, legible map can cost from $5000 or $10,000 to $100,000.

To create a map from scratch. Global Graphics, like other map-makers, makes a series of editorial decisions. “First, what is the market for the map?” Maxine explains. “This determines the area covered, and you can set your borders.” Next comes historical data. “The layout of the earth, the geodetic base, that’s provided by USGS [United States Geological Survey]. Basically, the land has been photographed at some point or another, either way back by USGS in the 70s and ’80s, or before that it’s been flown over by airplane. So that’s your base. That’s public information, but it’s way out of date.

“The main streets, the old, established streets are available. What becomes the problem is getting the accuracy to reflect the current situation. Someone’s carving in a new street — now how do I know where the street’s going to go, and what’s the name of it? That’s the hard part.

“We work primarily with cities and the county and various official bodies to get our data. You go to, say, the City of Carlsbad engineering department or planning, fire departments, parks and recreation, water districts. You get freeway information from Caltrans. You assemble maps and photographs and other data, then you can start.”

  • Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

Comments

Sign in to comment

Win a $25 Gift Card to
The Broken Yolk Cafe

Join our newsletter list

Each newsletter subscription means another chance to win!

Close