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On Airline Mapping | somethingaboutmaps

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A couple of months ago, I had the opportunity to redesign the route map for a major airline, to be printed in their in-flight magazine.


Click for a larger version.

This is not the final product that I ended up creating for the client, but it’s my favorite iteration, and the one that I want to talk about today. I just want to break down a few elements of how and why this came together the way it did: a little behind-the-scenes of my work and thought processes.


As I began exploring layout options for the project, I started with a simple Gall Stereographic projection.


Antarctica has been removed in order to leave space for some logos and other information that the client wanted on the page.

But I quickly ran into a couple of challenges, due to the demands of the two-page print spread that I needed to fit this map into.

  1. Gutter: There’s a fairly wide gutter in the middle of the spread, where the pages are bound together. No cities or labels or other important stuff can fall within that zone. That leaves me with very few ways to non-awkwardly divide the map into two pages. The above image is one of the only options. In fact, I had to widen the Atlantic Ocean a little bit just to make it work — Iceland and Greenland are much closer together in reality. The end result is that the whole thing is kind of unbalanced. The vast majority of the routes are on the right side.
  2. Scale: The whole map has to fit within 398 × 270mm (15.7 × 10.6in). That seems like a fair amount of space, but, because of the distribution of the airline’s flights, some areas, such as Europe, are very densely packed. Far too crowded to label.

So, I decided to take a different approach. Instead of being beholden to reality, and the true size and shape of the Earth’s landmasses, I made a cartogram. By resizing and reshaping different areas, I could both alleviate overcrowding and better distribute the world on either side of the gutter.


I widened a portion of Asia, just west of India, in order to make space for the gutter. I shrank areas where there were fewer destination cities, and expanded those that had more. But despite all the distortions, it looks (to me) still reasonably familiar. Cartograms tread a fine line between reshaping the world and keeping it recognizable, and I think that I did OK here. The extent of the distortions becomes much more apparent when you run it through Bernie Jenny’s MapAnalyst.

Undistortion Grid.jpg


The white grid in the top map corresponds to the white grid on the bottom, showing how warped the original Gall Stereographic has become. As the land is distorted, so is the grid. You can see, for example, how all the grid squares in the Pacific have been compressed as the Americas have been moved closer to Asia. Click the bottom image to enlarge it.

To make the cartogram, I started with the Gall Stereographic map in Illustrator. Then I simply selected chunks of land and resized/moved them until I was happy. I made heavy use of the Lasso tool.


Let’s just put that right over there.

I would shrink an area here, expand or shift one there. It was an iterative process over the course of an hour or two, changing a piece at a time and seeing the effect it had on the other pieces. The end result looked terrible and jagged, due to the way it was constructed, but it had everything in approximately the location that I wanted it.


To clean up all that roughness, I then redrew a new, tidier set of linework on top of the distorted map. I built mine out of straight lines and circular arcs, much like the Geo-Metro set I did for Project Linework. It gives things a modern, urban feel. I think it keeps enough detail to make places seem familiar, while smoothing over a lot of details that had to be distorted.


Finally, I nudged around some of the city dots. Since the linework I drew didn’t exactly match the (now-distorted) coastline, some coastal cities had moved a bit far from the sea. In other cases, I shifted them a little bit just to make more room for labels.

Root and Branch Lines

I began the project determined to avoid the clutter that characterizes so many flight maps. Major airlines have a lot of connections, and drawing each possible route can lead to a tangled mass of impossible-to-follow lines.


I expect that designing the flight map for United Airlines is a pretty tough job.

That’s an extreme example, but you get the idea. These things can get out of control quickly, and the map ends up not really being useful as an informational tool.

My client had far fewer flights than United, and fortunately almost all of them originated in Dubai. But, even then, showing every line could lead to chaos (if a lesser degree of it). So, instead, I created a root-and-branch structure. Lines to each city were bundled together (as though with cable ties) and routed through empty spaces. I also gave everything an elegant, flowing curvature. It’s sort of plant-like.


This was another iterative process. I’d draw a root, then start to add branches to it, then figure out a better routing and start that section over, or I’d decide another root was needed to keep things tidy, etc. It took quite some time. As a starting point, I mostly just looked for open spaces that had a good balance of cities on each side.


Smooth Line Joins

Getting the lines to join smoothly also took a some work. I couldn’t just quickly connect the city lines to the bundled lines — I wanted them to flow into each other. This meant adjusting the curvature on each line carefully until things looked right. Basically, I had to set the bezier handle of the thinner line to be tangent to the curvature of the thicker line at the point where it joins. To explain this, I’ve put together some diagrams that approximate (a nicer version of) Outline Mode in Illustrator, which shows you just the bare vector paths, with no styling.


Left: one line carelessly jammed into the other. Right: the branch line has been curved to flow into the root line more smoothly.

That looks much better. But, there’s still one issue. These paths are styled with strokes, and those strokes have widths to them. So, in reality, it’s more like this:


Now things don’t look quite so smooth. There’s a little bit of a non-organic-seeming corner on one side where the lines come together. When I did my manual smooth join, I didn’t really account for the fact that the edges of the stroke are a short distance away from the center of the stroke.

So, instead of connecting the branch straight to the root, I need to connect the branch a short distance away from the root, so that the right edge of each of those two strokes will be in alignment with each other. The roots have a stroke width of 3pt, and the branches are 1pt, so if I do a little math, it turns out that I want to connect the branch to something that’s 1 pt away from the center of the root, and it’ll all work out.


By shifting the branch up a little bit, now its right edge is in alignment with the right edge of the root, and they flow together well. How did I place it exactly? I used the Offset Path tool to make a new version of the root line, 1 point away from the old line. This is a little different than just shifting the line left or right by 1 points. It’s more like creating a buffer around the line, 1 point wide. Offset Path is great, and I use it a lot (often to make waterlines).


The end result is a nice smooth set of flowing lines. It’s a really little touch. But, so much of good mapmaking inheres in the small details, doesn’t it?

Gradients on Strokes

You may have noticed that some cities are red and some blue — the former are the client’s flight destinations, and the latter are those of one of their major codeshare partners. I wanted to show the flights to the codeshare cities in a matching blue, but it would have looked awkward to just join a blue line straight into a red trunk.


So, instead, I applied a gradient stroke to each of the codeshare lines, so that they were blue near the dot, and red near the root. I had to adjust each gradient manually; since each line was a different length, I couldn’t simply say, “make it red for the first 10% of the line.”


Make sure to choose the second Stoke option: apply the gradient along the stroke.

The end result gives us a fairly-smooth transition between roots and branches when we need to use blue.

Fun fact: one alternate version of the map that we looked at also used gradients, but this time for opacity. Each city had a separate arc line running toward Dubai, but the lines became invisible shortly after leaving the city, to hint at their destination while avoiding a lot of overlap and clutter. I used the same gradient panel in Illustrator to do this, keeping the color constant but changing the opacity for the middle portion of the line. It was a fun idea, though ultimately we decided not to use it.


I’m pretty pleased by the overall result of the root and branch style. It both shows the extensiveness of the network, and allows the reader to easily figure out which cities connect to which other cities. It’s relatively clutter-free. Again, I had a little bit of an easier job than the designer of that United Airlines map I showed above — I have fewer cities to deal with, and most of them connect to the same place. But I suspect that this style would still yield some benefits on a more crowded network; even if it might not make everything 100% clear, it would probably still help a lot.


My initial draft of the map started out with a much brighter color scheme for the basemap, and bolder lines.


Fortunately, I solicited the ever-valuable advice of my colleague Tanya Buckingham. She said it felt a little childlike to her, which I started to agree with as I looked at it. Over the course of about twenty minutes, we slowly adjusted the palette to look a little more mature and refined. Mostly this was driven by her; she had a particular shade in her mind and we kept trying to match it.

I also gave the route lines some transparency. This was actually done out of necessity on a later draft of the map, one that was much more crowded and which needed the lines to fit comfortably underneath the labels, rather than dodging around them. But I liked the look of it, and so I went back at the end and applied the change to the cartogram, long after we’d abandoned it, and I think it helps. It makes the route network seem much less vascular.

Odds and Ends

I tried to avoid crossing lines, but there were a couple of places where it was necessary. In those cases, I added little breaks to help make it clearer that these did not connect.


Given the distortions in the cartogram, I threw in a couple of ocean labels to help remind people of the geography they were looking at. If I’d done another draft, I might have also included some continent labels, as well. Just little context clues.


Finally, I wanted to show you a couple of the other maps in this project. Besides making a world map, I was also tasked with making a series of half-page regional maps, as well. Here, I took a page from the work of folks like Erwin Raisz and Richard Edes Harrison and did a series of perspective views.


I did not make these.


But I did make these.

I used both Orthographic and Vertical Perspective projections to create five regional maps. It’s an immersive viewpoint that I find very powerful. These kinds of projections always suggest the concept of distance and travel to me, by showing the far-ness of some place on the horizon. It also feels like flying, positioning the reader high above the Earth (though the eye is more at space travel height than airline height).

Concluding Thoughts

In the end, the client eventually preferred a more traditional representation, including a non-cartogram world map, and non-bundled flight lines, though we did keep the perspective views. That’s the nature of this business: there’s often a lot of stuff that gets discarded as drafts are done and different visions explored. Sometimes the artist’s favorite versions don’t make it to print; that’s something I find challenging about being a creative professional. But, this blog gives me a place to show off and talk about something that might not otherwise have had an outlet. I hope you found it interesting or useful!

This project walkthrough is, and will remain, free, but if you derive some value from it, you are welcome to make a donation to support my continued work.

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1 day ago
Toronto, ON
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Iceland – 2018

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I was slightly worried about finding fans of the smallest country ever to qualify for the FIFA World Cup, but the Icelandic Canadian Club of Toronto organized a viewing at The Football Factory on Bathurst and Iceland fans responded. Although we didn’t get a well organized thunder/viking clap in the bar, it was a rowdy environment, aided by a handful of Argentina fans. Despite dominant ball control by Argentina throughout the game, the 1-1 draw was an absolute victory for Iceland and they earned their first World Cup point. This is Iceland World Cup in Toronto.

Iceland World Cup Toronto

Iceland World Cup Toronto

Iceland World Cup Toronto

Date: June 16, 2018
Score of game: Iceland 1, Argentina 1
Location: The Football Factory, 164 Bathurst St, Toronto, ON
Estimated number of fans at location: 25

Iceland World Cup Toronto

Iceland World Cup Toronto

Iceland World Cup Toronto

Iceland World Cup Toronto
The photo below is the moment Lionel Messi missed the penalty kick in the second half with the game tied 1-1. It was a huge moment. Awesome.
Iceland World Cup Toronto
I definitely caught the Iceland bug, as many people did during the UEFA Euro 2016. It’s a good story.
Iceland World Cup Toronto
Speaking of good stories, I have to mention a true Toronto World Cup super fan. Adam, pictured below, second from the right, thoroughly combines his love for the World Cup and his love for the multiculturalism and diversity of his adopted city. He’s amazing! Decked out in full Icelandic gear (he’s not Icelandic) along with a binder of knowledge, literally, he seeks out and celebrates the beautiful game with fans in Toronto from every part of the globe. He’s been doing it for years, and you can count on him attending many other venues with fans of many different countries through the tournament. I look forward to running into Adam again.

Iceland World Cup Toronto

Iceland is the 77th country to play in the FIFA World Cup tournament since it began in 1930, and my 51st team photographed here in Toronto since 2006.

The post Iceland – 2018 appeared first on World Cup in Toronto.

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1 day ago
Toronto, ON
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Targeted OmniFocus Templates With Workflow


I’ve been impressed by the speed of the Omni Group’s release cycles lately. It’s obvious they are hard at work on the automation methods for both iOS and macOS. One of these recent releases introduced the ability to create new projects within a specific folder on iOS.

It’s pretty straight-forward. You use the /paste URL as before but replace target=projects with target=/folder/FOLDERNAME, so you now get something like this:


This opens a lot of doors, but I prefer to keep things simple by using a single Workflow. This new Workflow takes a text file in DropBox (containing a taskpaper template), replaces any placeholders (using this format: «PLACEHOLDER»), and places the new project in the folder you choose from the menu.

You can get this Workflow here.

If you look through the steps, you’ll see an action that looks like this:

These are the selectable targets in the Workflow. You’ll want to alter these to fit your structure. Just pay attention to the text and variable assignment under each choice and be sure to copy that format.

In the end, this allows me to pinpoint where I want my templated projects to land within OmniFocus without needing to manually move it after creation.

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13 days ago
iPhone: 49.287476,-123.142136
13 days ago
Toronto, ON
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Ai Weiwei exhibition coming to Gardiner Museum

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The Toronto museum will hold a survey of the dissident artist’s ceramic works in February 2019.
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18 days ago
Toronto, ON
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The TTC is rolling out a new type of streetcar technology

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Toronto's transit system is in the midst of a transformation that will make our streetcars more powerful, agile and reliable — but you won't be able to see a difference unless you look up.

As the TTC rolls out more and more of its new Flexity Outlook streetcars, the agency is also upgrading the technology used to power its vehicles from overhead.

Say goodbye to elaborate "crossing frogs" over major intersections, and wave hello to pantographs (but only on Harbourfront and Spadina. For now.)

Most Toronto streetcars currently have a "trolley pole" — a long, straight rod that sticks out from the top of the car and connects it to power lines above.

This is considered old school and less effective when using cars as long as the new Bombardier Flexity. 

Streetcars with trolley poles are more prone to "dewiring" (aka breaking down) and more complicated to make turns with than their more-modern counterparts, according to experts. They also lead to gross, oily build-up on the back windows of new streetcars.

Pantographs, on the other hand, can maintain contact with overhead wires even when they're not perfectly centred, as well as during ice storms and under low-clearance bridges. They also pull in a lot more power, allowing for higher speeds.

The new Bombardier streetcars all come equipped with these roof-mounted, spring-loaded pantographs, but Toronto's overhead wire network isn't quite ready for all of them yet.

This will change, slowly but surely, as the TTC works to convert its overhead contact system and carhouses to accommodate the new technology.

You may already have seen some pantographs in action on the 509 Harbourfront route, where they've been powering cars since September. 

Now, as of Monday, you can see them on the 510 Spadina route as well.

"Indeed, Spadina is the next route being converted followed by other lines in the network," wrote TTC spokesperson Stuart Green on Twitter in response to local transit buff David Lussier.

"This is so exciting," said Lussier. "Pantographs are MUCH sexier and they don't get the rear of streetcar all greasy."

True say!

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18 days ago
Toronto, ON
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New music from Sigur Rós

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In 2016, Sigur Rós drove around Iceland for 24 hours, streaming the journey on YouTube backed by a soundtrack made by generative music software. They packaged some of the best bits onto a limited-edition vinyl release last year and have just recently made it available on streaming services as well.

The song titles are GPS coordinates and one listener has already created a map of the locations.

Also from the Sigur Rós universe, SR lead singer Jónsi, Alex Somers, and Paul Corley debuted their Liminal playlist on streaming.

The playlist is an extension of the soundbaths the trio have been hosting. They promise they’ll be adding to the playlist frequently…an endless mixtape.

Jónsi, Somers, and Corley’s Liminal soundbaths include solo work, remixes, film score excerpts, AI, and generative music, according to a press release. “Sigur Rós played live a lot during the last two years,” Jónsi said in a statement. “And inevitably you end up playing the rockier, more focussed songs, which means that loads of other stuff gets ignored. ‘Liminal’ tries to do something different. It’s just me, Paul, and Alex in a dark room manipulating and mucking around with recordings, FX and vocals. We play and sing sparsely and focus on the atmosphere coming together. There’s a sound-reactive light sculpture and everyone can sit or lie down. It’s all very cosy and people seem to like it.”

In addition, a 2009 EP by Jónsi and Alex Somers called All Animals was also recently added to streaming.

Somers also did the soundtrack for an episode of Black Mirror featuring music by Sigur Rós (which you can find on my Black Mirror playlist on Spotify).

BTW, I am still waiting for one of the streaming services to offer an album-oriented playlist feature. I want to be able to add entire albums to playlists and then shuffle the playback not by song but by album. I listen to a lot of music (like Sigur Rós) that works much better as whole albums; having to dip back into Spotify after one album ends and hunt the next one down in my list of albums or in a regular playlist is a pain in the butt. Does anyone do this?

Tags: Alex Somers   music   Paul Corley   Sigur Ros
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18 days ago
Toronto, ON
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1 public comment
41 days ago
I watched so much of that Iceland livecast. Some summer day I'm going to have to do that trip myself. I've only made it partway around the island.
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