Strong opinions, weakly held

Graphic design can save lives

A reader sent me a link to Lessons from the Swiss Cheese Map, an article by a former Israeli soldier who was charged with creating the map to be used during the 1995 Oslo negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. The map illustrated which areas would be placed under Palestinian control, which would be under joint Israeli/Palestinian control, and which would remain under Israeli control but eventually be transferred to the Palestinians. Unfortunately, the map was not well received:

Some people claim that the Oslo process was deliberately designed to segregate Palestinians into isolated enclaves so that Israel could continue to occupy the West Bank without the burden of policing its people. If so, perhaps the map inadvertently revealed what the Israeli wordsmiths worked so diligently to hide. Or perhaps Israel’s negotiators purposefully emphasized the discontinuity of Palestinian areas to appease opposition from the Israeli right, knowing full well that Arafat would fly into a rage.

Neither is true. I know, because I had a hand in producing the official Oslo II map, and I had no idea what I was doing. Late one night during the negotiations, my commander took me from the hotel where the talks were taking place to an army base, where he led me to a room with large fluorescent light tables and piles of maps everywhere. He handed me some dried-out markers, unfurled a map I had never seen before, and directed me to trace certain lines and shapes. Just make them clearer, he said. No cartographer was present, no graphic designer weighed in on my choices, and, when I was through, no Gilad Sher reviewed my work. No one knew it mattered.

Details always count.

1 Comment

  1. I work in the Geographic Information Systems (GIS) profession. Most of my work is very technical, but I’ve done my share of ‘making maps’. One question I’d always ask a project manager is, “What’s the thesis?”.

    A map isn’t just a display of data – it has a thesis – a point – that is communicated by selecting the right colors, symbols, and data to be displayed. And, as the ‘Swiss-Cheese’ map shows, even without intention, specific qualities of the data are emphasized due to the design choices. Or lack of choices.

    Remember all those red state/blue state maps after the last election. There were probably a hundred different versions on the web, each slightly different: by state, by county, normalized by population density…each one supporting some pundit’s personal interpretation of electorate behavior. Here’s the map I think is most honest. The point is that this particular map tells an entirely different story than this one, using the same data.

    Details always count.

    For a popular treatment of maps and how they are used to hide information, propagandize, and misrepresent reality try:

    How To Lie With Maps; Monmonier, M.

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