Sarah Slobin is a visual journalist. She worked on information graphics at the New York Times for 15 years, running the Business graphics team from 2003 to 2006. Between 2006 and 2008 she was the graphics director for Fortune Magazine.
This post is part of an ongoing series that invites critical reflection on data visualization and urban cartography – past, present and future. To see all entries on this topic, click here.
Sarah Slobin: Tell me about yourself, how did you get your start in maps? What drew you to cartography?
Joe Lertola: I was hired by Time in the early 1980s. Time has a set of scrap books that contain a clipping of every map and graphic ever printed in the magazine. I was impressed by the design and craftsmanship of many of the older maps from the 40s, 50s and 60s. They had a way of painting airbrushed mountain ranges that was striking. That inspired me to work on adding dimension and depth to the maps I worked on.
SS: What was it like working for Time magazine? It’s published weekly, so how much time did you have to produce your work?
JL: Working at Time could be hectic, tense and exciting. Depending on when breaking news happened we might have any where from one to four days to produce the graphics for the magazine. The bulk of the work was always done during the last two days before the close. Thursdays and Fridays were typically 12 to 15 hour work days.
SS: How do you choose the best way to visualize data?
JL: I haven’t found any formula for visualizing data. The main thing I try to do is present the graphic information as clearly as possible. Each graphic I work on is a fresh problem. I start by trying to get a clear idea of what information we are trying to present. Then I try to apply my sense of what will look good. There is a lot of playing around with ideas, sketches and discussion of various approaches.
SS: Tell me a little about each one of these maps.
JL: The New York City day/night population map was interesting because the data presented on the map was not available to the public before. The data was produced for the US government and it is classified. We managed to get permission to use the data as long as the actual number values were not displayed. Because of this, the key for the map is vague.
The US population density map was technically challenging. I actually had to do a bit of programming to convert the original data file, which was a text file with ASCII numbers, into a grayscale image. The grayscale image was then used in a 3D program to create the spiky look of the map.
The Arctic map was done to accompany a story about the Russian claim of an area of the Arctic Ocean that includes the North Pole. This map presents different layers of information. The most prominent is the thick read lines that define the treaty-defined boundaries of territorial waters. The shaded relief of the Arctic Ocean floor was important because the under water ridge that runs across the arctic ocean played a big role in the Russian claim.
SS: What excites you most about how maps are being used these days?
JL: Over my career I have seen a vast expansion in the quality and quantity of mapping data that is available. For example in 2000 Nasa sent up a Space Shuttle mission to collect high-resolution elevation data for most of earth. Over the next few years the data was released to the public. I have been able to use this elevation data to add unprecedented terrain detail to my maps.
The amount of a mapping data keeps ballooning. Publicly available Global Positioning System and commercial satellite imagery have greatly increased the possibilities for both mapmakers and the public in general.
SS: Do you have a dog?
JL: No but I do have two Siamese cats. They sometimes make it hard to work. One of them likes to walk on my keyboard. From time to time he manages to send unfinished emails and quit programs without saving changes.
All images courtesy of Joe Lertola.
The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.