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

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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!

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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."

The 4DmApp is graphically distinct in the way basic the map indicators—streets, avenues, etc.—are integrated into the landscape. Van Dam has accomplished this by merging map and scale-model metaphors to make urban space legible for all audiences. "The 3D buildings are the beacons in this miniature information landscape made up of type, symbols, pictograms, and other graphic abstractions," he explains. "But it's the combination of lighting and shadows cast, camera angles, and movement through space that improves on physical reality to create a magical and typographical miniature world you can actually enter."

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But the big question: Is special effects wizardry really necessary to appreciate a map? "Grabbing someone's attention and keeping them playfully engaged for a significant period of time is very valuable commercially," Van Dam insists. "It's also a great teaching tool. Maps are abstractions of reality. By immersing the user into the map and flying them through 4D cartographic space, we bridge the gap between the abstract and the concrete, which in turn creates an entirely new reality with memorable experiences." This type of engagement, he believes, "is essential for the mobile advertising market, and our analytics prove the great potential for location-based 3D ads within the context of the city."

This, however, leads to a questionable role for maps as propaganda - good and bad. "People ascribe veracity to maps," he notes. "If it's on the map it must be true." This fact makes maps powerful propaganda tools to serve a political agenda and aid in advocacy. By example, in response to the events of 9/11 the RPA (Regional Plan Association) and the Civic Alliance to Rebuild Downtown asked Van Dam to visualize key transportation proposals in a short animated film and focus on why public transportation is a key ingredient in Downtown's revival and essential for a functioning vertical city and economic development. "The resulting 8.5-minute map movie was meant to articulate a vision, stimulate public discussion and serve as a fund raising tool for Congress," Van Dam says. "Scoring the moving maps to Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue proved to be a perfect match to telling a compelling story. Our effort was crowned with success when Congress appropriated $4.5 billion in federal funds to build new critical transportation infrastructure among them Fulton Central Station which we proposed as a glass domed structure on the map. When Nicholas Grimshaw, the station's architect, followed our lead and unveiled a glass domed design, it all became clear."

Van Dam admits that the emotional part of a print piece lies in tactility. However, in the 4DmApp the focus is on the user, and user's perspective and this visceral sensation is at play "when you feel your tummy while zooming through cartographic space. In lieu of the tactile and olfactory pleasures of print, 4DmApp creates its emotion through motion and light." The best part of creating a print product is holding the first copies "hot of the press." But Van Dam says he is now turned on to his current project: "Algorithmic efficiency = designing plus sex appeal /map passion." Who would have thought maps could be sexy?

Images: Courtesy of Stephan Van Dam

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Steven Heller is the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts and co-founder of the MFA Design Criticism program. More

Steven Heller is the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts and co-founder of the MFA Design Criticism program. He writes the "Visuals" column for The New York Times Book Review, "Graphic Content" for T-Style's "The Moment" blog, and The Daily Heller for Print magazine. He is the author or editor of over 140 books on design and popular visual culture.
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