Why and how did you get into the map business?
I fell into it by inventing the UNFOLDS concept. At the time I was intrigued by the folded metal sculptures of Merle Steir, a sculptor friend of mine. So I started playing with folding sheets of paper and chanced upon a sheet folding method that refolded automatically. It was aching for maps and other cartographic uses.
Through an attorney friend I was able to secure a family of patent rights on the fold, the method of folding it and the machine that folds it which I built with a German engineering friend. Now, I needed cartographic expertise which in the early eighties still meant old style cartographers scribing negatives on huge film overlays. A group of European map makers took me under their wings and showed me the ropes.
Did you realize that this would, in fact, become a profit making business?
It had to be. I was out there raising venture capital to get the company off the ground. VCs were looking to get three times their money back in three years. The VCs finally agreed to fund the venture based on my ability to secure a major distributor for the line. So, I signed an agreement with American Express, my first customer, to offer UNFOLDS to its card members.
I presume that to provide maps to the public you have to both be very confident in your ability to be accurate and convince your customers of this fact. How easy or difficult was it for you to build this confidence?
This goes to the heart of the nature of maps which are at the intersection of art and science. We generally ascribe truth to maps because they are assumed to represent fact. Graphic design plays a key role in convincing users of this accuracy. The actual process of insuring accuracy, however, is really more of an engineering, and an editing process. For locational maps we generally start with government vector data sets in various shapefile formats (Tiger, USGS, Census etc.) which we visually process and re-project to suite our base mapping needs. We then export these files to a Mac graphics environment adding up to 75 layers of illustrations, symbols and text elements. Cartographic design clarifies these added realities. The editing process and on location verification are annual rites.
Design plays an important part in the work you do. What training did you have?
I studied architecture and environmental design in Europe and at Parsons here in NYC. But I am really a bricoleur, a professional jack of all trades who acquires skills as they are needed. From origami to information design, cartography to web based GIS, from setting up large production runs to licensing intellectual properties, from doing 3-D magazine covers to visualizing history and representing ideas through maps, I make it up as I go. What all these activities have in common is that they are based on good ideas which are the basis for good design.
What did you have to learn in order to become a viable business. Where there any models on which you base yourself?
Refine your product. Hone your skills. Make your clients happy. I know it sounds cliched and sort of mundane. I learned this and a few other things from Richard Wurman. From Nigel Holmes (former graphics director of TIME) I learned about character. The central role typography plays in making cartography accessible. John Grimwade taught me the art of ellipsis: What to leave out of a map.
How big is your operation? Do you design everything or do you trust others with your properties?
We try to keep staff below ten people, so I can both manage and design. We are lean, mean and fast-usually working on 3-4 projects simultaneously. I layout the direction, conceptualize content and format, then delegate. But I am also the final editor. While I try to remove myself from detail, it is a challenge to be detached and so closely involved at the same time.
What is the most creative part of what you do?
Coming up with the next thing. Conceptualizing new products and experiences. I like the playfulness and challenge of the process. It's like doing the mambo. For the wireless web and TV we are inventing the next generation of dynamic, location-based way finding. We are making people part of the map which then plays as interactive movies on the fly. The big challenge is to create an open information architecture bringing together interactive authoring, 3-D animation, wireless way finding, clear interface design, deep data that dance, and web GIS and to shape them into an immersive, and memorable experience. The fun part is to bridge the gap between user and map by making the user part of the map. It's where the map and the model merge to create powerful new realities. On the print side it's been about representing ideas dealing with where and how history/politics and nature/culture intersect. In the RAINFOREST UNFOLDS we mixed politics and nature by combining maps and poetry in engaging ways.
NY@tlas is about looking at the metropolis in two ways: First, how to get from here to there: 344 pages of the best street level data to NYC. Second, how we got here from there: Ten haiku histories showing how, at crucial moments in each of the ten decades of the 20th Century, New Yorkers changed the way we look at ourselves as Americans and how that process of change has shaped global contemporary culture.
How much time is devoted to new product?
At least 50% of my time. You are only as good as your next new thing. Reinventing previously published stuff isn't half the fun. But with a backlist of over 80 titles, it's half the reality.
As a designer, do you feel your design acumen has progressed or stayed the same in the process of making product?
Making product and building a brand heightens your awareness that good design makes all the difference. I think that I've become sharper in this area. I am also convinced that making the complete product (from concept to delivery of finished goods) allows us to quality control every aspect of what we do. There are no excuses.
Your business has obviously found a niche market. Do you know who this market is?
Ultimately we design for the end user. To reach as many users as possible, however, we are dealing with clients in three distinct markets: Institutional: we produce maps and atlases for federal, state and city governments, not-for profits, bids, chambers of commerce etc. (just signed a five year deal with AAA, and have done map identities for Nat' Park Service, NYCVB, LACVB, Heritage Trails, the Met, the UN and the NYC Economic Development Corp. to name a few.
Custom Publishing: we introduced the concept that guide book publishers should have a companion map series to build their brand and increase their presence in stores. We convinced St. Martin's Press of this with the Let's Go map guides eight years ago. The format, with over 4.5 million copies in print, has become the industry standard for people traveling on a budget with most major publishers following our lead...Langenscheidt and Bertelsmann are licensees of our cartographic products in the US and Europe which greatly expands our reach and distribution. VanDam Publishing: under our own imprint we publish maps and books to cities around the world in three unique formats: UNFOLDS, Streetsmart and @tlas.
Given your niche do you plan to produce other products?
This is the time to invent new location-sensitive applications for the web and TV. They fill a real need, promise a viable economic model, and allow us to truly map the culture of congestion.
What haven't you done with your business which you'd like to do?
Create interactive museum exhibits which let users choose their level of interest. Get our map movies to play on TVs and in goggles around the globe and in the process change people's mental maps people of their cities.
Is design still a determining factor in your work?
Yes, it's why I do what I do.