Paula Scher’s Colorful Maps Show the Whimsy in Geography


Paula Scher is one of the most famous designers in the world. If you’ve ever seen Tiffany’s blue boxes or the Citi logo, you know her work. However, cartography is one of her lesser-known passions.

When Scher was a child, her father, a civil engineer, worked in mapping and surveying for the U.S. Geological Survey. In the 1990s, she began painting maps as an exercise in visualizing complex piles of data, exploring how the information could create narrative about the world. Some of her latest map paintings—now on public display at a New York gallery—are an exercise in displaying information in an accessible way. But the hand-painted maps are very much Scher's personal view of the world—as Slate notes, she occasionally misspells names and lops off whole states.

If you look closely, the large-scale (as high as 7 feet tall) maps are thickly layered with color-coded data. In the climate map, for instance, Scher manages to fit in every state name and capital along with geographical features large and small, regional weather patterns like the warm Chinook winds of the Northwest or the tornado seasons of the Plains. Her map of driving times includes inter-city journeys between towns you may not have even known existed.

The bright colors and the style, however, make the meticulous detail approachable rather than off-putting. Indeed, the errors are part of the fun. Every map is distorted in some way, because the Earth is not two-dimensional. Some of Scher's states, drawn free-hand, look like perfect puzzle pieces, while others are lopsided and twisted, betraying how geographies become warped in our minds. Her paintings make it clear that no matter how detailed a map, there is always at least a little distortion introduced by the cartographer's choices and biases.

"U.S.A." is on display at the Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery in New York City until March 26.

[h/t Slate]

All images courtesy the Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery