Stephan Van Dam is an award-winning cartographer, graphic designer and information architect. He is the president, principal and creative director of New York-based VanDam Inc. His immersive 4DmApps to New York City are available for iPhone, iPod touch and iPad.
I was given an atlas as a little boy and I realized later that I had dreamt in the imagery of that atlas for many many years. It really sort of shaped the way that I looked at the world, through cartographic means.
I went wild and I came to New York.
I came up with this invention where a piece of paper would re-fold by it self. And that sort of craved cartographic uses. Suddenly I found myself chasing down European map-makers to show me the ropes. Maps are these miniature landscapes, and we essentially use the same tools as a painter does. We use line, point, perspective, projection, scale. But it’s really the typography that gives maps their personality or character. The judicious use of typography is essential in revealing the bones of the message of the map, and in revealing the rhythm of the city. Knowing how to deal with the type and what to leave out. Knowing how to create a symphonic whole out of these disparate pieces of information. Knowing what not to show is what makes a successful map that you can read and immerse yourself in.
Less is more. I’m very much influenced by the aesthetic and the philosophy of the Bauhaus. Knowing what not to show, which is the art of ellipses, is the greatest gift you can bring to a project. It applies whether you’re a painter or a poet, or you make maps or you tell stories. Letting people read between the lines is the art.
Exploring the dimensions and the sex appeals of maps has always been my model. The playfulness of information is what I’ve been trying to explore.
Maps are great propaganda tools, through playful means. Maps are visual arguments. But their power rests in their ability to hide that they are visual proposals. People ascribe veracity to the maps: “If it is on the map, it must be true.” The map is an incredibly effective way of ‘manufacturing consent’ if you will, or serving somebody’s political interest or telling a story that other people will ascribe veracity and reality to.
The map gives us God’s perspective. They give us the feeling that we know how things hang together, what their relationships are. That’s a very powerful tool to tell stories, to create commercially sticky realities and it’s also a great teaching tool. Once we can engage the spatial dimension and the sex appeal in that equation, we’ve got an incredibly powerful platform.
We look at print as an object, rather than just a tool to disseminate information. People buy our print products more now than in previous years because of their beauty and tactility.
In a world of infinite distractions, the packaging of information is critical to draw people in. You have to grab the attention right away.
The mambo has had a huge influence on my life. How does the mambo influence me in terms of how I rhythmically execute my work? I think it helps if you dance around the office late at night, trying to cook up ideas; the music’s got the beat.
The co-creator of TED, Richard Saul Wurman was an anti-inspiration for me. He was once a professor of mine. I went to visit him in 1981 to get his advice and encouragement for the folding maps that I wanted to make. He told me I shouldn’t waste my time, only to later congratulate me with a phone call, when my maps were distributed. We’ve had an interesting relationship ever since. By not following his advice, I’ve been able to sell over 30 million copies of my Pop-up and Unfolds maps, 26 of which have been included in the MOMA’s permanent collection. Sometimes its better not to follow received wisdom, but to instead follow your bliss.
And play with your work. Getting lost is the fun part. Letting your imagination run wild.