Telling Your Social Impact Story Through Maps

Have you ever used a map in your materials? Perhaps you wanted to? They can be an effective way to get complex data across to the audience. They can be employed for issues as diverse as health, environment, politics, or social justice.

Like a graph or written narrative, a map is never neutral. By its very nature it cannot include all information that’s possible. You decide what that information is and edit everything else out. This doesn’t mean you should misrepresent information, but that you are making the information that’s important to the reader and to your narrative, clear and easily accessible.

What Do You Want to Say?

So when you decide to include a map, ask yourself: What is the story I wish to tell? Do you want to show change over time, for example showing urban sprawl encroaching upon green space, or the story of diminishing abortion rights in each state. Both can be presented as a series of maps or an animation. Or perhaps you want to present a captured point in time, or a reference map focusing the reader on a particular locality or region. Once you have decided on the story you want to tell, it’s easy to determine what kind of map(s) to create.

If the map is a standalone piece you should also determine the target audience. If it’s part of a larger communication then the target audience is the same as the whole piece. 

Next step is to determine the least amount of information needed to tell that story. What level of information does the reader need? How much is too much? What information should be emphasized & what should be played down? Too much information on the map could make it impenetrable. Even if your map is inherently complex like some reference maps, you should view it from the reader’s (target audience’s) point of view. For example, though there would be overlap, a map of an area for hikers would include very different information than a map for drivers.

And like any design or story, a map should have a hierarchy. Simpler maps would be succinct and a quick read. More elaborate maps should make sense right from the start but reveal more the longer the viewer is engaged.

Maps can be powerful tools for communication. Just remember, they should tell your story and be relevant to your target audience.

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