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How did you first discover you wanted to be a designer? In grade school, I adored art class and my art teacher. We did tons of different types of art projects, and I remember getting into “the zone” when learning new techniques and perfecting projects. One project was to design a menu for any kind of restaurant we wanted, and I absolutely loved it. I collaged together a menu for the invented restaurant Walton’s Warehouse and, even then, enjoyed the finer details of layout, color and typography hierarchy. After that project, I started collecting magazines obsessively—not to read them, but to study layout and typography and make collages.

What prompted your interest in cartography? During one summer in grad school, I interned at the architecture firm Gensler. One of my larger projects involved working with landscape architects and community members to define and share plans for a park that was being built in a gentrified neighborhood in Baltimore. We worked on paper maps with community members to define what they wanted to see in this park, and I designed a map to reflect those wants and plot neighborhood resources and assets.

This project introduced me to the technical and geographical science behind designing an awesome map as well as to web mapping and open-source mapping tools like TileMill and Mapbox. The final delivery of the map I was designing needed to work in print, mobile and on the web. I soon learned that while this was not possible with one software, Mapbox was working on making it possible.

Curiosity led me to a Washington, DC, geography meetup called Geo DC. Hoping to get some help with my map project, I attended—and met four programmers from Mapbox! The following weekend, I found myself working on my project alongside a few Mapbox-ers in their DC office. I was blown away by the fact that they were willing to help me, and I became interested in the web mapping and software space.

Right before my final semester of grad school, I was visiting San Francisco and reached out to a friend from grad school who had just been hired as a designer at Mapbox. Mapbox had recently opened a San Francisco office, and I wanted to stop by and say hello. During my visit, I was introduced to the exciting problems Mapbox was tackling in the web mapping industry and became very interested in making beautiful cartography—the perfect mix of tech, science and design—with an ability to change the world. The rest is history.
Maps are both form and function, design and data.

What goes through your mind when you begin to design a map? The story I want the map to tell and how people will use the map. Maps are both form and function, design and data. You need to be mindful of the map’s aesthetic to communicate what the map is about to the reader. You must also be mindful of the visual hierarchy in order to make the map legible and usable in the ways it was intended to be used.

Do responsive digital maps challenge the principles of cartography? One of the biggest advantages and challenges of designing web maps is designing for all scales. Traditional print maps are fixed at one scale to illustrate how the paper distances represent the assumed distances on the Earth’s surface, but digital maps allow users to zoom in and out of a map scale at will. With this user control, we must design for legibility at any given zoom level. This requires a deep understanding of the user, the underlying map data—both available and needed—as well as the optimal feature focus at any particular zoom.

The principles of cartography remain, but the focus is tighter. It’s not acceptable to show everything at once, so you must pace the information with the user, the tool and the experience. It’s a marriage of time and space that must be intelligible—without being too bold.

Has working with maps affected how you view cities and places? Absolutely. There are many places in the world I am in love with because of their road networks, waterways or other natural features. When I finally do get to travel to these locations, I experience a sort of déjà vu when navigating them and remembering how they looked on a map. I rarely use turn-by-turn directions and enjoy navigating spaces with little-to-no assistance from technology. Walking is one of my favorite pastimes because I can just “get lost” in locations, surveying the terrain and points of interest while keeping in mind how the highways, streets and roads network together.

What’s a recent project you’re proud of? We regularly release newly designed map styles into core cartographic map products at Mapbox. I’m currently building a testing suite to aid in ensuring quality assurance as we release them to our users. Starting with unit tests, we are now establishing rules and fixtures to integrate test reporting into the user interface of our map design software, Mapbox Studio.

I’m proud because this project is totally outside of my comfort zone. A year ago, I didn’t really know what a “test” was, and now, I’m helping architect a design-facing testing suite for our flagship software. I saw a problem, defined a need, got buy-in on a direction and continued to push on a solution. Now, I’m collaborating across teams and languages, both visual and programmatic, to produce a solution that never existed before for my team and our users.

I’m also pretty proud that one of my map designs, whaam!, was featured in the third volume of The Atlas of Design and highlighted in an article on Wired.

What inspires you lately? Apps. People are really excited to talk about their favorite apps, how they use them, and apps they hate and what sucks about them. I’m inspired by what motivates people to bond with technology and the lifestyle hacks they use to complement their productivity and relaxation. I’m always looking for ways to personally automate my life, and I’m inspired by apps and tools that aim to improve the things people do every day.

What advice do you have for someone just entering the field of graphic design? Be rapaciously curious. Once you become good at something, teach someone else to do it. Then learn something new. You’ll be surprised how expansive your experiences can be if you never stop learning.
Amy Lee Walton is a multidisciplinary designer who walks the fine line between designer and programmer. Currently at open-source mapping platform Mapbox, Walton brings visual narrative and systems-based design into her cartography work. Walton holds an MFA in graphic design from the Maryland Institute College of Art, where she coalesced graphic design with physical computing, generative art and digital fabrication. An active speaker and thought leader, Walton has led a variety of talks and workshops, discussing design, creative code, cartography and narrative. She’s passionate about engaging in acts of social good, cultivating personal networks, and championing diversity and inclusion at all places of employment.

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