Paula Scher’s Paintings of Distortions

Map making is not just about creating visual representations of physical spaces, but can also be about documenting impressions and emotions. Paula Scher, a partner at Pentagram and one of the most influential graphic designers of her generation, has a new book, MAPS, that conveys the rich, complex feelings she has for the process of map making itself. As she writes in the introduction, “I began painting maps to invent my own complicated narrative about the way I see and feel about the world. I wanted to list what I know about a place from memory, from impressions, from media, and from general information overload. They are paintings of distortions.”

For Scher, there’s a deep connection with map-making: Her father, who became the coordinator of mapping for the U.S., invented stereo templates, which are now critical to removing the distortion of perspective in aerial photography. She says technologies her father helped develop were necessary for advances like Google Maps, which increase accuracy beyond any man-made attempts at map-making.  

Still, Scher thinks “distortions always exist, and you can always find them in places you know well: the mistaken curve, and odd foreshortening, something disappearing in a shadow. Someone has decided what information should be put in or left out.” As her father said, “all maps are distorted, they are not literal fact.”

Graphic design, Scher says, is closely related to map making in that both involve organizing and laying-out information. Just as in map making, graphic designers inadvertantly distort: “Articles are cut to fit into specific formats, and sometimes the cuts alter meaning. Hierarchies are created to help readers navigate texts, sometime distorting the emphasis of specific content. Pull quotes (those sexy excerpts from an article that are blown out of scale to entice readers) can mislead by making the article appear to be about something different. Info graphics make an opionated article appear scientific, and are more and more appearing as unbiased stand-alone data, often disguising the dogmatic intent of an author. To make matters worse, the blogosphere completely democratizes such distortions. Anyone can make them, and they do.”

For Simon Winchester, who writes the foreward to the book, Scher’s “useless and essential” maps (some of which can span 20-feet) are both “detracted from reality and yet and the same time become an entirely new reality.” Obsessively made and “deliciously satiric,” Scher’s maps are the antithesis of the “cold blinking GPS.” These maps are a last effort to stave off the total transition to maps made up of “ones and zeroes, algorithms and screens, […] with siren-like voices.”

For anyone into maps and map making, this book is worth exploring.

Also, see full (uncropped) versions of the four images above: 1, 2, 3, 4.

Image credit: Paula Scher / Princeton Architectural Press

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