22, A Map

I made this tileset for Rob Roth’s Graphic Design in Cartography class. The assignment: deconstruct an aesthetic style and build a map based on that style using Mapbox — a widely used platform for designing custom basemaps.

Jump to the interactive map at the bottom.

Some background: Print cartography has long influenced and been influenced by the arts.

However, the maps we most often interact with today are comparatively bland. Web maps often place utility above aesthetics to make it easier to use them for shopping and navigation.

The goal of this assignment was the put the art back into web cartography.

I took inspiration from Dylan Moriarty’s Covers atlas and chose a style I’ve long obsessed over: the aesthetic materials surrounding Bon Iver’s 2016 album 22, A Million.

Designed by artist Eric Timothy Carlson, the style is defined by a collage of pictographic glyphs. A flaming shepherd’s cane against pillars of smoke; a bird-rabbit Rorschach test; a planet with butterfly wings hanging above a highway flanked by crucified men stretching into the horizon; lots of sheep. The ideas are as varied as the sounds and concepts explored in the album itself.

Minneapolis, Minnesota
The Isthmus of Madison, Wisconsin
Downtown Tucson, Arizona

I achieved this effect by converting 38 of the symbols from the album into SVGs. It was a time-intensive process that relied on Illustrator’s Image Trace algorithm.

I plugged the glyphs into various point of interest and transportation categories throughout the Mapbox database.

For example, the snake stands in for parks and other natural features, leading scarcily populated places such as southern Utah to appear appropriately snake-ridden.

Urban areas such as Iowa City are more varied. Mapbox's algorithm ranks points of interest unequally, so each zoom level can reveal previously unseen glyphs.

All this I did while listening to the album on repeat deep into the night, an experience I recommend replicating only if you want to truly tap into the existential angst that animates the music.

Deconstructing 22, A Million

Carlson’s form is simple and irregular, as if scribbled in the corner of a notebook. The roads of 22, A Map mimic the style of his linework. They're also the only lines included on the map. This ties the map further to the music and politics of Justin Vernon, who frequently evokes themes of a shared humanity. Roads connect us to each other, much as music does. There are no borders in 22, A Map.

The suburbia of Phoenix, Arizona

The 22, A Million aesthetic is defined by its limited color palette. The off-white against a black background allows the colorful yin-yang emblem that stands in for the album’s title to rise to figure.

The 22, A Million promotional materials include dazzling colorful iterations on the glyphs. But, to keep things simple, I limited the palette for 22, A Map to just the colors and symbols found on the album packaging itself.

I made an exception for this explainer page. It mimics the style of the liner notes from the 22, A Million LP.

Place names are rendered in Optima, a humanist typeface Carlson used for every instance of the band’s name. The album cover is also littered with handwritten text. I found a suitable match for Carlson’s script in DK Lemon Yellow Sun, a free font from dafont.com, which I used for water features. This page mimics the liner notes’ use of Courier.

22, A Million is notable for numbered song titles that mirror the nontraditional song structures and glitchy textures of its sonic palette: “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⊠ ⊠”, “21 M♢♢N WATER”, “____45_____”, to name a few.

Each song has an associated glyph. These glyphs recur throughout the 22, A Million universe, scattered accross the album and promotional materials. My first brush with the album’s aesthetic was one of these symbols. I encountered it on the side of a building while walking around Uptown Minneapolis late one night in the summer of 2016 – a full month before the album’s release.

It stuck out to me, and without knowing what it was or why it was there, I snapped this picture. The intrigue that gripped me that night compelled me all these years later to delve into this album’s visual code for this project.

The glyphs appear in my map as road icons, where they stand in for highway shields. If it wasn’t clear already, I don’t expect anyone to navigate by this map.

The Twin Ports of Duluth, MN and Superior, WI.

I filled in the water features on the map with a texture inspired by the dots that appear throughout the album cover. It reminds me of the spacey soundscape of songs like “666 ʇ”.

Juneau, Alaska
The Boundary Waters

I spent countless hours on this project, which is entirely reliant on the Mapbox service. The explainer you’re reading was added to the assignment as a way of preserving the work. Projects from past classes were erased by a platform update, leaving their creators with nothing to show for their time and effort.

Working late into the night, I began to wonder, am I putting in too much time for a final product that will ultimately vanish from the internet? Proof of all my hard work lost and no way to get it back. Why put in the time with a service over which I have no real control or ownership?

I found an answer in the music.

Toward the end of “8 (circle)”, Justin Vernon cries out “I’m an astuary king.” It’s a cathartic moment that encapsulates his journey through the album. Like many of his lyrics, astuary is a made-up word. It combines “aster”, the Greek root for star (think asteroid), with estuary, a place where salt and freshwater meet. I understand an astuary to be a cosmic space between things. It’s somewhere on the edge of river and ocean, past and future, life and death, yin and yang. Throughout the album, Justin is trapped in this in-between space. He oscillates between trying to hold on to what was and reaching out to what could be. The anxiety and indecision overwhelm and nearly destroy him. Who among us can’t relate to his experience? I certainly did when he shared 22, A Million with the world, having just transferred colleges and ended a relationship.

By declaring himself an “astuary king” near the end of the album, Justin offers a thematic conclusion to this dilemma: an acceptance of self, a peace with uncertainty, a relinquishing of control and an embrace of the present moment.

I found incredible joy and meaning while working on this project. I’m grateful I get to now share it with others. It will inevitably break one day, as all things do. Nothing lasts forever. Enjoy what you’ve got, while you can. Embrace the ephemeral. The first voice we hear on 22, A Million says it better than I ever could:

It might be over soon.

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