Focus: Mapping out a future

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January 2, 2012
By: Dylan Thomas
Dylan Thomas

Southwest grad launches Carticulate cartography business

Even in the age of dashboard navigation systems and Google Maps, when smart phones can conjure up satellite images of your neighborhood or another continent, there’s still a place for a talented cartographer or two.

Here’s an example: This fall, Matt Forrest and Kate Chanba, the two design-minded map-makers who recently launched a small business called Carticulate, caused a small stir in some of the local corners of the Internet when they released their version of a Minneapolis skyway map. Their innovation was to re-imagine the meandering skyway network as seven interconnected, color-coded “lines” — like a subway system — with “stops” at Downtown landmarks and “transfers” where the skyways merged.

“During that three-day span, we had like 700 hits on our website, which was pretty wild,” Forrest recalled.

Forrest is a Southwest High School graduate who grew up in Southwest and met Chanba, another Twin Cities native, in the well-regarded cartography program at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. With a few paying projects under their belts, including a similar redesign of the Asheville, N.C., transit maps, they’re moving Carticulate to New York City in the new year.

The pair are optimistic about the future of cartography, even though the industry, they say, is going through a bit of soul-searching. Technology has democratized cartography, giving anyone with an Internet connection access to highly accurate maps. Social media like Twitter and Foursquare are making where we are at any given moment part of who we are.

“The thing people ask you is: So you’re a cartographer; isn’t cartography dead?” Chanba said. “… Maybe just because we’re young and have access to these new tools, we’re really excited about the future of it.”

Youthful curiosity

Forrest traced his interest in maps and cartography, the science of map-making, to his youth in Minneapolis. As a third-grader at Fulton Elementary School (now Lake Harriet Community School) he won an atlas in a class contest, and he remembered being fascinated by its oversized pages.

“My parents will tell you the same thing: I was always looking at maps and atlases,” he said. When the family went on a road trip, the map rested in the young Forrest’s lap.

The interest resurfaced in high school when Forrest developed a precocious interest in local electoral politics and joined former School Board Member Chris Stewart’s successful 2006 campaign. Forrest studied past election returns and developed a series of maps Stewart used to target likely voters.

“I had no knowledge of mapping at all,” Forrest recalled. “I think I broke a lot of the rules I know now.”

UW–Madison offers one of the premier cartography programs in the country, but Forrest arrived at the school undecided about a major. After an advisor told him to walk through the school’s science building and check out the options, he signed up for a geography class almost on a whim. Pretty soon, he felt at home.

Chanba, too, almost fell into cartography. An artistically inclined journalism major who probably would have preferred art school, she chose a cartography class to fulfill a science credit in her senior year. She ended up staying in school an extra semester to take more cartography courses and met Forrest when the two partnered on a final project.

After graduation, they reconnected over coffee in Minneapolis and decided to combine their skills in a professional partnership. Chanba is the talented illustrator and graphic designer with a background in maps, and Forrest is the cartographer with a designer’s eye.

“We wanted our maps to be clean and articulate design-wise, so that’s where the name came from,” Chanba explained.

An eye-catching revision
When they formed Carticulate, Forrest was out of college and back in Minneapolis, living in a Loring Park apartment and walking to work at Thrivent Financial for Lutheran’s office on 4th Avenue between 6th and 7th streets, where Stewart helped him land an entry-level job. In the mornings, he walked four blocks to the skyway entrance at the Minneapolis Convention Center, then walked another eight blocks or so through the skyways to his office.

“The skyways are a pain to learn; I think anyone would tell you that,” he said.

He spent a lot of time looking at the backlit skyway maps scattered throughout the system — and decided they were all wrong. The maps overlaid green streets on a dark blue, almost purple, background — a serious problem for the colorblind — and Nicollet Mall was depicted as a distracting, bright yellow snake slithering through Downtown.

Forrest’s revision was inspired by Harry Beck’s 1933 London Underground map, a famous early example of a cartogram, a type of map that distorts actual geography to more clearly convey information. Kristen Montag, who works for Meet Minneapolis, the city’s visitor and convention bureau, was one of the hundreds who took notice when the map went online.

“It reminded my of going to New York City and following the red line, or something,” Montag recalled.

It was on the strength of the skyway map that Carticulate won the Asheville, N.C., job, and both Forrest and Chanba see transit system work as a major part of their young firm’s future.

Tom Hedberg, a cartographer and founder of Minneapolis-based Hedberg Maps, who Forrest sought out for some post-college advice, also took notice.

“It’s exciting to see more cartographers taking a fresh look at the world in which we live,” Hedberg wrote in an email. “Matt and Kate have a great future.”

Reach Dylan Thomas at dthomas@mnpubs.com.

* To see the map for yourself go to: carticulatemaps.com/portfolio-view/minneapolis-skyway-map