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Printing Industry Exchange ( is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.

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Large Format Printing: Maps Provide More Than Just Directions

When was the last time you used a physical, printed map to navigate from point A to point B? Let’s say you’re traveling in a new town, or trying to find a location in part of your own town with which you are unfamiliar. If you’re like most people these days, you use a GPS (global positioning system) dependent on satellites circling the globe. Or you type your location into your iPhone (also a GPS) or your BlackBerry. Mostly this has eliminated the need for large format print maps—but at what cost?

Sioux City Addresses These Questions

An article I just read by James Q. Lynch (of the Sioux City Journal Des Moines Bureau) takes a look at maps created by the Iowa Legislature and Department of Transportation. “UNI Prof: Digital Road Maps Lack ‘Sense of Geography,’” offers some insight into printed maps, challenging some people’s belief that digital technology is always the best answer.

According to this article, the Iowa House and Senate will be custom printing their free maps every other year instead of every year. They may also decrease the overall press run from printing to printing. After all, printing maps is expensive, the article notes, as is drafting the map (i.e., ensuring the accuracy of the coordinates, roads, distances, etc.), and as long as people are migrating to GPS equipment, this makes financial and practical sense.

However, James Lynch’s article includes several thought-provoking quotes by Patrick Pease, associate professor and head of the University of Northern Iowa Geography Department. These comments point out the limitations of digital-only information devices.

Too Focused on Too Small an Area

Paul Trombino III, Iowa Department of Transportation Director, comments in Lynch’s article that there is still demand for large format print maps because “a lot of the communities and things that we place on the map [are] hard to find…on a GPS unit.”

To this Patrick Pease responds that GPS devices are so focused on a small area that you “lose the spatial characteristics” of the area in question. Digital maps “don’t do a great job of representing a large geographic area the way that when you fold out a map you can see the entire state.”

Digital maps also often omit topographical and geographical information such as “rivers, forests, mountains” that would be evident on a printed paper map. You can see how to get from Point A to Point B, but there’s more to a map than just getting directions.

Pease goes on to say that because it is easier to find your way using a digital map, “a person may have no real understanding of how they got there, no real idea of the trip they just took.” “You could ask them if they drove north or south and they may not know (because) there is no sense of movement, no sense of geography.”

Pease notes that “there is something about the shared experience of people looking at the same map that may be lost when they are looking at their own digital versions of that map.”

What About Consensual Reality?

This is my take on the matter, and I think it goes far beyond maps.

A map is more than a folded sample of large format printing. It is a metaphor for consensual reality. We all look at the same map, and we agree that cities are positioned here and there in fixed spots, with rivers, mountains, and lakes also in fixed locations. North is in one direction; south in another. We agree because we have a shared document (the map) symbolizing a shared reality.

What About Digital vs. Print Journalism?

Think about how this relates to magazine printing and newspaper printing, and how these physical print products differ from the digital news feeds that serve up bits of information precisely chosen to meet your interests (as divined by computer algorithms that translate your buying patterns and other “likes” and “mentions” into assumptions of your beliefs, preferences, and interests).

Pretty soon everyone is reading a slightly different newspaper, tailored just to them, just as everyone is reading a slightly different map on their own dedicated GPS equipment or iPhone. Maybe this detracts just a little from their shared experience. And maybe it’s important to have at least some shared experience (and some agreement as to what is real and important).

So “UNI Prof: Digital Road Maps Lack ‘Sense of Geography’” offers us food for thought. Perhaps large format print maps serve an important purpose. And maybe getting a newspaper or magazine that includes some articles with which you disagree, or articles about subjects outside your expressed interests, holds value as well.

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