Technology hasn't yet wiped print off the map: digital versus print maps
By Jenny Roper Thursday, 29 November 2012
Digital innovations have threatened the A-Z, which seems unwieldy in comparison, but print's tactile qualities may save the day once again
Businessmen wrestling with unwieldy broadsheets on crowded trains and holidaymakers carting around several back-breakingly heavy holiday-reads. These are the images that will no doubt entertain future generations, as they wonder why people were ever reluctant to embrace digital alternatives as soon as they came out.
Add another to this bank of hilarious people-persevering-with-print-images: harassed mum and dad leafing angrily through an A-Z while the kids scream in the back of the car. A paper map seems like another format to join the list of those print items which, because they are highly functional rather than decorative or tactile, may soon be replaced by digital media – such as sat navs and mobile phone GPS.
But after a cursory glance at recent headlines about Apple’s new iOS 6 operating system’s failings, such as its invention of a new airport in Dublin, the digital map’s pre-eminence doesn’t seem quite so settled. There are those who would argue that, even once GPS teething problems have been ironed out, publishers and printers will resist digital by enhancing the functional aesthetic qualities unique to print.
Undeniably, there will still be scenarios where digital innovations are superior; for example, when driving somewhere new. And so the UK map printing market has, as you would expect, seen significant decline in map work in recent years.
"I’d suggest that 10-15 years ago map printing represented about 80%-90% of our business, whereas it now represents 25%," reports Victoria Litho managing director Andy Wilson. "Over those past 10 or so years, the market for both travel maps and street atlases – those big maps you folded out but then could never get folded back again – has been much reduced."
Simon Garfield, who recently authored On the Map, a book on the history of maps and their role today, agrees that maps are now considered far too unwieldy in many situations. "The temptation is to go purely digital because you don’t have to carry heavy things around," he says, adding that where someone needs a printed map they can now print just the bit they want themselves. "Both the Ordnance Survey and A-Z are mounting good digital responses; you can get maps online and print them out easily."
And it’s not only digital’s cost- and space-saving qualities that people are being drawn to. The number of exciting and sociable ways digital maps can be interacted with is becoming ever-wider as more companies launch innovative mapping websites and apps.
"Ordnance Survey digital maps allow you to plot routes. If you’re doing a walk with your family at the weekend, you can plan the route and email it to them; everyone can print off their own copy," reports Ordnance Survey corporate communications manager Melanie Osborne. "And there are websites introducing mapping where people tag themselves. People are meeting up by broadcasting their position and asking if there is anyone else in the vicinity."
Victoria Litho’s Wilson adds that consumers aren’t the only ones falling out of love with maps. "On the local authority side, you used to get big wire-bound packs with hundreds of different maps of all different areas, with things like planning consents on them," he reports. "That used to be quite a big part of what we did but – though we still do some from time to time – that’s gone predominantly digital now."
It might seem, then, that it’s only a matter of time before the printed map is phased out altogether. But this is not the story told by sales figures.
Contray to Victoria Litho’s Wilson, Osborne reports that, in Ordnance Survey’s experience at least, sales haven’t dropped that much – and have in fact have plateaued in recent years: "We’ve seen a little drop, but not a huge one. Around 2005, we were selling 2.8m units a year and now it’s pretty steady at just over the 2m mark. That’s not bad considering the current economic climate and the fact that the AA and A-Z have both started covering more of the areas that only we used to cover with printed maps."
Indeed the fact that these companies have started to cover more of the country with paper maps shows there is still appetite for these products, Osborne adds. "They obviously think that there’s a market there," she says.
With a handful of publishers actually expanding their range of printed maps, it stands to reason that some printers have in fact seen a recent increase in map work coming their way. Butler Tanner & Dennis, which prints Ordnance Survey and a wide range of other maps, is one such company. Map division director Steve Burry attributes this to growth in the leisure map industry.
"Perhaps one reasons for the increase is that, because of the recession, fewer people are vacationing abroad; they’re taking staycations instead," he says. "So we have seen an increase in hiking, walking and touring maps – larger-scale maps covering larger areas and showing routes."
BML Printers managing director Nigel Benham confirms that the printed leisure map is alive and well. The reason digital hasn’t made too many inroads here, he reports, because of its ultimate unsuitability for remote and exposed settings: the medium that relies on signal, battery power and not getting wet.
"Sat navs don’t work under water," is his concise response to the question of whether digital is any good for outdoor pursuits. "If you orienteer properly, it’s literally cross-country; through bogs, streams and rivers. Wherever you’re going, you’re going to get wet or muddy. Quite often, you will fall over and the first thing that goes down is your hand."
"You absolutely need a paper map for the rural bits of the country," agrees the Ordnance Survey’s Osborne. "We would say ‘always have a paper map’ because of the number of incidents where people have gone out with their phone and got lost when the signal’s dropped out or their phone has died."
Map publishers and printers are being sure to capitalise on this reliability by thinking carefully about how best to enhance this, continues Osborne: "We produce active versions that are encapsulated and so waterproof. We saw sales of those go up quite a bit over the summer when the weather was rotten but people were still keen to get out."
And there are other areas beyond the consumer market where the printed map is still prized as a surprisingly practical option. "Many geologists still prefer to use a printed map," reports Butler Tanner & Dennis’s Burry. He adds: "We also do aviation charts that go into commercial airliners, because there’s a legal requirement for any flight to have the relevant up-to-date charts in the cockpit, as a back-up, before the plane can take to the air."
But the printed map’s enduring popularity isn’t solely down to it providing a sturdy back-up option to digital. Many still find the aesthetics of a paper map easier to work with, reports Garfield. "The main thing you get with print and not digital is that you have a sense of where you are beyond 100 yards," he explains. "You can a plot a week’s walking and cycling on a printed map and get a sense of scale."
He goes on to say that many still find the aesthetics of a printed map not only easier to work with, but generally more appealing: "We all know the armchair joy of unfolding a map even if we’re not great walkers; you can’t unfold a map on your phone. Even if you pinch it down, it’s not the same."
In fact, as with many other areas of print, growth in digital has now inspired an even stronger attachment to the beauty of a printed map, says Garfield.
"There is a sort of nostalgia for maps as a slightly retro-chic thing that’s been going on for a number of years. I think the emergence of digital mapping has played a part in that," he says. "If you go into places like the National Geographic shop, you can buy all sorts of things that have maps on them, such as postcards, pencils and shower curtains. People love the object and the idea."
BML’s Benham reports that this holds true in the orienteering and hiking market, where people value a printed map as a nice memento of the orienteering challenge they’ve completed. "People like to sit down and thumb through and think, ‘Oh yeah – we stopped there, we crashed there, we had to run up that big hill there’. Because we print on waterproof paper, the map survives and then you’ve got a nice tactile souvenir," he says.
Really capitalising on this is a matter of thinking about how new printing technology might make maps even more interesting to look at and more valuable as souvenir items, says Victoria Litho’s Wilson.
"We’ve started doing digitally printed, personalised maps where we’ll add company names and office locations," he says. "Because we have a large-format flatbed printer, we can print on anything up to an inch thick, so we’re doing some really nice work on Perspex to create real showpiece items. I call them boardroom maps."
The Ordnance Survey has also started utilising digital print to encourage love of the map as a keepsake or display-piece, reports Osborne. "We have a custom-made map, so you can go online and choose the area you want on your map. You can choose the scale, the level of detail and have your photo on the front and a personalised title."
"We can tell from titles like ‘My New House’ that they’re being given as gifts," she adds. "We’ve one on my local area displayed in our hallway. It’s a lovely talking point."
So those proclaiming the printed map’s imminent demise well need to rethink. Of course, due to the rise of satellite navigation, GPS on phones and social media integration, sales of maps have indeed dropped over the past 10 or so years. Many map printers have to branch into other formats to insulate themselves.
But there are many areas where the printed map’s popularity is still strong. Perhaps most unexpectedly, this includes those in which a printed map is much more practical than its digital equivalent, such as in an outdoor pursuits scenario.
As with so many printed items these days, the map’s enduring appeal often now comes down to something a lot less practical and tangible than route-planning. Gaining a sense of our place in the world has always been a fascinating pastime. And it is apparently one that is still most interesting, contemplative and awe-inspiring, when related to the tactile and emotive medium of print.
A word of advice: never mess with a man sporting a multi-pocketed backpack, an all-weather, waterproof and breathable zip-up top (almost definitely equipped with a Swiss Army knife) and fluorescent green trainers. Especially not when it comes to competing in anything like an orienteering challenge.
Intrigue and secrecy
Fitting, then, that our first destination was Knights Templar Church, one of the atmospheric settings of Dan Brown’s cowl-and-dagger thriller The Da Vinci Code. My inability to find it also befits a location shrouded in intrigue and secrecy.
This is the real Achilles’ heel of the digital map, says Benham. Internet signal is inevitably strong in central London and, determined to give Benham a run for his money, I’ve been sure to charge my phone for the occasion. But signal strength and the opportunity to recharge are less guaranteed in other settings.
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