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Published October 1st 2018

Interview: Map Maker Jenni Sparks on Visualizing Cities

In which we chat to Jenni Sparks about how to turn a city into a piece of art, and all the complications that come with doing it.

Jenni’s having trouble with her webcam as we start our interview so I spend an extra ten joyful minutes scrolling through her Instagram admiring her incredible artwork.

As an illustrator, map maker and typographic designer, Jenni is a woman of many talents who works across many mediums – from small prints on notebooks to filling the floor of Gatwick Airport with her quirky map of London.

Based in East London, Jenni’s worked with Nike, Adidas, Lonely Planet and Sesame Street, to drop just a few big names, but her favorite piece of work was a more personal one. She tells me the hilarious story of how she was once invited to meet Jeremy Kyle (of the UK’s notorious The Jeremy Kyle Show) after visualizing common storylines. The piece was picked up by LadBible and found its way to JK’s production team. “It’s definitely the highlight of my career,” she laughs, taking a sip from a mug with a very rude word on it.

When I first came across Jenni’s work I was browsing Reddit and saw her post explaining the gob-smacking number of hours she’d spent hand-drawing a map of Sydney. I had soon fallen down a rabbit hole, browsing Jenni’s site to find all the other maps she’d made as well as her less SFW Insta, @myfriendisatwat, which is kind of like a collection of insults in bubble writing made out like greetings cards.

At Brandwatch we love data visualization and maps are an important part of the way we display social data, whether we’re showing how popular a topic is across a region or the whole globe. So, keen to find out how Jenni approaches map building from her own unique perspective, I was delighted when she agreed to answer a few questions.

How to start building a map

I start by asking Jenni how she chooses what goes into one of her maps. “It’s really hard. It’s really, really hard,” she says, before explaining her process.

Jenni has visited Berlin, Paris, San Francisco, Sydney and Melbourne on map-making missions. She’ll start by breaking out the sights into touristy stuff – landmarks like the Sydney Opera House, then museums and galleries, and then bars and restaurants. That’s all tangible stuff that’s there that she’ll take thorough notes and lots of photographs of, but there’s a lot more to her research than that.

She’ll also go about gathering historical, social and cultural information. She’ll note famous people who live in the area, fun facts, storefront fonts, fashion trends of local people, rich areas, creative areas, multi-cultural areas, and anything else that feels important to a city. Most importantly, she takes time to speak to as many local people as possible, from tour guides to the owners of Airbnbs she stays in. She even asked a Tinder date what he thought should go into a map she was making – it turned out he was really into the local food scene and offered up some great information.

She’ll send her maps to people in the area to get their constructive criticism and says all their input is really important.

“Everybody’s got an opinion about the place that they live in so I try and get as many different people involved to try and get a whole picture.”

Forward-thinking to how big the map could be enlarged to presents it’s own challenges. Some of her work appears tiny – on mobile screens or as the cover or a notebook. It can also appear across the wall of an office.

“I try to make it as easy as possible for things to be blown up now, but it’s always a difficult one with size. I think they lend themselves to being made huge so people can actually read it all but it’s very hard because you can never accommodate both huge and tiny formats.”

The process

Given all the detail, I wanted to know how Jenni sets about creating her maps once she’s got all her research together.

She says that her latest map of Sydney probably took eight to nine months when you factor in the early research, but the real work was done in a concentrated four month period in which she worked 10-12 hours a day, six days a week.

“There’s always a bit where I’m like I can’t go on, I can’t go on, I can’t go on. And I have to push through it…You really have to throw yourself into it for it to work – it’s always in my mind when I’m doing it. It’s a bit of an obsession really.”

It sounds intense.

What about the technology she uses – what role does it play?

All Jenni’s maps are made digitally. She’ll use Photoshop and a graphics tablet to draw out the maps, although she’s always careful not to make it too clean – she likes to keep a hand-drawn feel. When she’s starting out she’ll create her own map on Google Maps using different colored dots corresponding to different kinds of places (landmarks, museums or cafes) to start mentally visualizing how the map will look.

“Looking back at the way cartographers first started, they would have had to dedicate their lives to finding these things out. So my job is kind of easy in terms of the research, I think … well, easyish. I use stuff like Google Maps and Google Earth, Wikipedia is great for historical information, and Airbnb is really good, randomly, for getting the vibe of an area.”

She continues: “The 3D renders are really good on Google Earth and Apple Maps because it helps you see where the area is built up and if there are any random buildings – like say there’s a tall tower block that you would obviously know if you were in the area. Online you’d have to see that in 3D in Google Maps to see it was there.”

How is technology changing the way we experience maps?

I ask Jenni about what she thinks of technology and algorithms in changing people’s experiences of new spaces, particularly when thinking about Google Maps and Trip Advisor.

“I think algorithms are great in so many ways because you do discover things that you wouldn’t necessarily. But I kind of worry that it’s skewing everything towards – it’s kind of like an echo chamber. Everything’s about having the experiences that the algorithm thinks you’ll like and you’re never going to get the chance to have experiences that are totally different to what you might like. I think it’s important to have those experiences as well.

“I wouldn’t say it’s bad, I wouldn’t say it’s good. I’d just say it’s helpful in some ways and not helpful in others.”

The importance of social

It’s clear why Jenni’s distinctive style and colorful, quirky snaps of her work do well on social, but she’s been practicing for a while.

“When I was at uni studying my tutors didn’t really care about it. They said, oh make a website – they weren’t really involved in social media at that point. I was a proper nerd, like really in love with the internet from when I was really young and I used to put all my stuff up on a site called Flickr. I had a Facebook page really early in my career as well, so it’s always been a big part of it.”

But Jenni is careful not to let social media take over her life. She explains: “I try to balance it out a bit because I don’t want to be always on my phone – it’s not good. And if you’re constantly chasing validation online it’s not good either. It’s about striking a balance – I don’t think I’d have a career if it wasn’t for social media.”

Jenni loves Instagram for finding new artists and she follows and eclectic bunch.

When I ask if Jenni gets a lot of inspiration from the artists she follows she’s not so sure. She says while you’re studying it’s good to take inspiration from other artists because you’re trying to find your own style, but now she’ll follow artists that create things very different to her own work. “Now I’m pretty settled in the style that I do so I don’t take very heavily from other people,” she says.

So what does she think of the social scene for artists these days?

“It’s a good a time as ever to be an artist because it’s easy to get your work out there, but also because of the fact that it’s easy to get your work out there it’s also a saturated market so you have to be doing something that’s pretty niche to get attention, really.”

Luckily, Jenny has found her niche.

Big thanks to Jenni Sparks for speaking to us and being so generous with her time. You can find her on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and on her website.

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