'Sexy' iPad Maps: A Designer's Interactive New York Streetscapes

Stephan Van Dam's 3D maps are already in the MoMA—and his new app boldly goes where no mapmaker has gone before

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"Exploring the dimensions and sex appeal of maps has always been my motto," states Stephan Van Dam, the inventor of the UNFOLDS® pop-up map and most recently, the 4DmApp iPad map app. For over 20 years Van Dam has made accessible city maps with that je ne sais quoi. Well actually, he knows very well what he's doing. He's making functional maps that owing to paper technologies add levels of interactivity to an otherwise flat experience. Currently he is using gaming software to make city maps that totally involve the user in the interface—and that is, well, truly sexy.

It all started when he was studying environmental design at Parsons, New York, "and was intrigued by the folding metal sculptures of a sculptor friend, that I started playing with folding sheets of paper and chanced upon a sheet folding method that refolded automatically," he said in a recent interview.

He recalls his method had "cartographic written all over it," but he needed to learn more about map making. So Van Dam found a group of European cartographers to take him under their wings. "I was able to secure a family of patent rights on the fold, the method of folding, and the machine which folds it, which I built with an engineer," he recalls. "The folded package turned the maps into a sexy accessory." Last year MoMA announced adding 26 of the UNFOLDS pop-up maps into the museum's collection. Sexy indeed!

Great maps are based on clear ideas. To make complex cities accessible and understandable, as UNFOLDS do so well, it is critical to establish a visual hierarchy that enables the eye to rest and absorb the cartographic data in stages. "The map shows you everything at once," Van Dam says. "The database and the interface are one, especially in print. So, color, line, point, scale, and perspective are key players in this, but it is really the typography that gives the map its legibility, character, and personality. The appropriate type and placement on the map sets up the rhythm and reveals the bones of a city."

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This year Van Dam has taken maps into the fourth dimension his 4DmApp, which does more than get people from here to there. "In a world of ubiquitous gaming play, value is king," Van Dam explains. "The playfulness of maps stems from being miniatures. As miniatures, maps show us realities we couldn't otherwise see. They put us in charge and present the world from God's perspective." The 4DmApp takes this one step further and empowers the user to choose a personal perspective. "You can hover above the top of 1 World Trade Center, tilt the phone (which engages the accelerometer) to shift the ground under your virtual feet, then fly through cartographic space to land at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge Anchorage with lightening speed—and you feel it in your tummy. It's entertainment, discovery and play in the service of getting from here to there."

Van Dam is also including "geo-social layers" to allow "transactions that can be recorded and shared live on the map." The goal is to create "sticky points of engagement" within this miniature landscape to deliver what he calls "live, measurable interactions by the user in both the virtual and physical worlds."

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Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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