This award-winning project combines the best of print and interactive design in a new tool to help people navigate through cities.
by Bryn Mooth
What happens when you take a technology that’s primarily been used for entertainment or gimmicry, and apply it in a way that adds value and usefulness? You get the Panamap, which elevates lenticular printing from the Cracker Jack box to the Guggenheim. And you get the Best of Show winner in this year’s HOW International Design Awards.
Created by Ian White, the Panamap combines three layers of information (street, subway and neighborhood) with a three-axis lenticular lens, so that each kind of data is visible depending on how you hold the map. “It’s an amazing use of design and technology,” says judge Shannon Carter. “This technology has always been seen as a toy; here, it’s a tool.”
Like most good ideas, this one was born out of frustration, when White, on his daily commute in New York City, was annoyed by the general unhelpfulness of the city’s subway map system. Represented as a straight line of equidistant dots, the map bore no resemblance to the geography of the real world, where the stops are spaced irregularly and the train lines criscross the city.
Seeking a way to layer different kinds of information on top of one another (the subway map, the city grid, the major attractions), White landed on lenticular printing. While he didn’t invent the lenticular technology, White says he patented its application for “spatially aligned data on an X, Y and Z axis.” In 2003, White launched a business to bring the map to market, but the difficult economies of scale and the challenge of making money on a single product (the New York City map) proved insurmountable and he closed the business. White repackaged all the city data he’d collected and began selling it as an online resource under the umbrella Urban Mapping; this year he had enough capital set aside to bring the map back to life.
A Chicago version joins the NYC one, and White has plans for other cities this year. Specialty retailers like the shops at the Guggenheim Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago carry the products. In addition, he’s pursuing a custom-publishing business, creating maps for, say, major retailers (showing their locations) or events (displaying all related activities and nearby attractions and restaurants).
While the optical effects seem perfectly suited for the three-layer map, the whole project presents some unusual production challenges. The complex lenticular lens displays color in unexpected ways (much as you’d see colors shift when you look through a prism), and it makes text a real trick to set properly. And since the printing process inks directly on the plastic lens material, running accurate proofs was virtually impossible. White worked with art director Chris Cannon of Brooklyn, NY-based design studio Isotope 221; the pair produced countless trial-and-error versions, taking printed proofs and placing them under a sheet of lens material to see if the color and type rendered properly. “There was a whole lot of prepress experimentation that had to be done,” White says.
White notes that the product is interactive, even though it doesn’t have a circuit board. It’s that technology, unplugged though it is, that captured the judges’ attention. Carter says the project redefines the very concept of a map: “It feels like it’s always been like this, and you can’t imagine a map any other way.”