When I was younger, I played a lot of Dungeons and Dragons. I wish I had more time to continue a weekly session of Dungeons and Dragons. I’m trying to make that shit happen. More Dungeons and Dragons…more roleplaying games in general. That shit is awesome. If you haven’t played a pen and paper roleplaying game…no video game or MMORPG is going to quite equate the experience. The best part of playing roleplaying games is the maps.
I love drawing maps. I love drawing the terrain. I love being able to put down on paper a visual representation of the world the characters are immersed in. This love of maps and world design started from an early age. When I was fourth grade, I started getting pretty good at drawing things from my head. Even back then, I had an appreciate for the realistic interpretations of things rather than cartoony amalgamations. I went to Catholic elementary school in the 90’s and it was tough in the regards that the environment was still pretty oppressive in regards to self-expression. In my religion class, we had to draw what we though Jerusalem looked like. Most of the kids in class drew something that was very cartoony and from a typical side view, not really understanding perspective. I’m not hating on my old classmates from then, but I had my shit together in this respective. Watching enough Bob Ross episodes, I understood perspective. I watched my Dad draw up architectural plans for home additions and he showed me orthographic drawing techniques. I would pour over my grandfathers National Geographic magazines and look at all of the archeological digs and renderings of Nineveh, Babylon, and Troy. I was a nerdy kid, but it I found this stuff fascinating.
I turned in a drawing of Jerusalem that was from the point of view of someone in a marketplace looking from the square towards several alleyways with the Temple of David in the background. My teacher took and showed it around to several other teachers and a few of the nuns. I got a lot of praise for my work and it was hung up in the principal’s office afterwards. While I thought it was cool to get that praise, I just wanted to draw more. Later that year, I discovered a great illustrated map of the city of Rome during the time of Augustus in a National Geographic magazine. This map was an isometric illustration, with a key and legend of the various sites and architectural wonders. This map influenced me in my drawing of maps in such a profound way. I recreated the map of Rome, drawing in a forced isometric technique. I would get my dad to buy me large poster board paper and I would draw to my hearts content. At first, everything I did was historically based; Rome, Athens, Paris. It wasn’t until 5th grade when I read my first Dungeons and Dragons book…Homeland by R.A. Salvatore, first in the Dark Elf Trilogy. The vivid imagery in my head from Salvatore’s writing filled me with wonder and was akin to adding jet fuel to a fire. My imagination exploded.
My maps started to take on a more fantastical approach. Medieval European castles and churches, dark spider temples in the woods, massive ports with brothels and watchtowers, and eerie crystalline towers standing tall on mountain peaks. Reading Dungeons and Dragons was strictly forbidden at Catholic school, but lucky for me after the 6th grade, I was heading for Hell…I mean, public school. During my first science class in public school, I was busy drawing submarines in the style of Seaquest DSV and the guy next to me was all sorts of interested in it. He was drawing on graph paper next to, top down view of a castle with gun turrets. I didn’t even know what a gun turret was, but I thought castles and guns?! This is awesome! The two of us became fast friends and we still are to this day. He was one of my first friends to play D&D with me. We would spend hours discussing world dynamics, gods and monsters, races and holy days, magic and treasure. My focus on all of this always came back to me drawing a map and showing the landscape all around what was in my head.
What I like about maps is that you can get lost in the possibilities of what a map shows you. It’s a visual medium that can show you choice. A good map with well known areas show you exactly how to get from point A to point B. It can show you towns, highways, forests parks, tolls, etc. It can detail everything you need to know on how to get somewhere. My favorite maps are the kind that don’t show much information. Ancient seafaring maps from the Phoenicians, the Vikings, the Chinese, and the Turks show coastlines, river systems and major cities, but a lot is still up for discovery. Even land-based maps, such as the early colonial maps or Newport, Massachusetts, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Jamestown, Virginia show what they basically knew around the land they settled…and a vast area unmapped, unexplored and untouched. Maps are enigmatic, they are part of our identity as humans; regardless of culture and heritage. Maps are one of the few artifacts that all cultures and peoples share in; we all want to find our way.
I’ll be honest, my days of drawing maps and little landscapes stopped right after high school as I focused on other things such as music and technology. The idea of drawing those maps I did when I was younger seemed childish to me and I thought of at least ten different ways I could digitally produced a map of much higher quality. It wasn’t until recently where I began to fully appreciate an recent rediscovered interested in typography that I began to miss the drawing of the little landscapes that dotted my maps. One day, during lunch, I went back up to my office and realized the only paper I had was my stack of post-it notes in front of me. With a more than heavy handed Sharpie marker, I began to sketch little pine trees and deciduous trees along a ridge line. I drew a tiny cabin with a chimney in the deep woods with a small footpath cutting through the forest towards a clearing with a small plot of corn growing. The marker saturated my post-it note and the clean lines I was hoping for bled out further than anticipated but there is was…my first little landscape in almost 10 years. It’s definitely not perfect and even now my demand for realistic perfection is gnawing at me a bit. But what I realized with this little drawing was that even something that brings you joy and is a creative outlet has resonance with others. I see the recent explosion of calligraphy and hand drawn typography as a herald of that call to craft and expression.
Now, it’s a welcome part of my day, these little landscapes. They tell stories all of their own, inside of a post-it note. I’m pretty sure I couldn’t get away with a large poster board size paper in my office, but the little landscapes are building up on my cork board by my desk. Over time they will get better, more sophisticated and more intriguing. As a designer, the exercise of the little landscapes is helping me stoke the fires of creativity. It’s giving me thoughts on how to approach storytelling in my work; how the viewer can make an decision of which path to take. The correlation between steering the audience to understanding something; product, brand, person, etc and the steering a group of adventurers through an situation is similar. It’s the how the story is being told. A good map gives you direction, but also allows you to forge your own path.