Cartographoria (aka, designing the FWT map)

I have this addiction. To maps. It started as a kid when I obsessed over the glossy, colorful maps at Six Flags Great America, the Field Museum or Brookfield Zoo. I often took it upon myself then to marshall the family around from coaster to coaster, exhibit to exhibit: “you guys, the map says it’s this way.” I was probably of annoying, but also correct. After all, I had the map right in front of me.

The addiction spread into my adulthood. I collect as many maps as I can when I travel. In fact, a highlight of any trip is examining the airport map kiosk and taking photos of all the wayfinding. (Seriously, ask my wife.) Ever been to IKEA? The furniture is fine, but they have a really nice map to help you make your way through the store’s maze of product displays. I decorate with maps, too. I just bought a huge 48″ map of the world for the den and am about to splurge on a map of the moon’s craters.

This cartographoria (real word?) has served me well as a professional. Over the years, I’ve had the privilege to design maps for Indiana Tech, Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo, Downtown Fort Wayne and Arts United’s Campus for the Arts. And this week, I just completed perhaps the largest and most complex map I’ve ever designed—Fort Wayne Trails’ (FWT) regional trail map.

FWT Map Cover


A Little History

Fort Wayne’s modern multi-modal trail system dates back to the 70s, when a bunch of passionate volunteers got the original Rivergreenway started near downtown Fort Wayne. Over the years, the city and other advocates helped expand the trails to span east to New Haven along the Maumee River, a few miles north along the St. Joseph River, and south along the St. Marys River.

Trails cost money (about $500k per mile, on average), and as public interest in safe, non-motorized pathways grew, several independent trail fundraising organizations emerged to raise money and advocate for more trail construction. Namely, Aboite New Trails, Northwest Allen County Trails, and The Greenway Consortium. As you know, as these groups raised money and expanded the trails in their boroughs of the city, their paths eventually crossed — in a good way! Trails were connecting! People could ride a bike on a trail all the way from New Haven to Aboite, or from Tillman Park to IPFW. Not only did the trails connect, but these organizations merged into Fort Wayne Trails, Inc.

Add up all the trails in the Fort Wayne area and you get about 68 miles (that doesn’t include our bike lanes, sharrows, sidewalks and all the trails within private neighborhoods). 68! And 50 of those miles are completely connected. That’s an impressive network. Impressive enough that it attracts visitors and business investments to the region. We don’t have beaches or mountains here, but our trails provide a natural outdoor activity that people crave. A way to exercise, spend time with family, or even commute to work, school or shopping. People want to live near the trails. Trails add value to the community.

And yet, exploring 68 miles of trail can be a little daunting. Questions arise: where do I park? Where does this trail go? What if I have to use the bathroom? Need water? What businesses and attractions can I see along this trail? All of these questions can be answered with a good map.

FWT Map Details


New Milestones, New Maps

Several good maps have been produced over the years to help users understand the trail network. Most recently was the fantastic Rivergreenway map distributed for free by The City of Fort Wayne. Its only drawback was that it wasn’t big enough. With so many trails added in recent years, its central focus didn’t capture the entire network.

Also, with the newly formed Fort Wayne Trails, Inc. advocating, educating and fundraising for trails for the entire city, not just specific neighborhoods, it made sense that Fort Wayne Trails, Inc. would take on the responsibility for creating a new map for the Greater Fort Wayne area. As a board member of Fort Wayne Trails, and a map lover, I naturally accepted the challenge.

Exploration and Challenges

I began the mapping process simply by working with the assets that were already available. Employees at the City of Fort Wayne, who are passionate trail supporters, helped me access technical map data. Their immense knowledge of the trail network, city streets and landmarks was invaluable. So using all this data, I started working on color palettes for the map. In an interest to convey vibrancy and natural beauty, I gravitated toward a nice rich green for the background color of the maps. This lead to issues with legibility, though.

early versions


You see, maps contain many layers of data. There are the streets and waterways, landmarks and parks, and facilities and services. All of the above then needs to be labeled in an orderly way. Strong background colors — whether very dark or very light — limit the ability to give visual emphasis to items on the map. There will likely be more color clashes, too. So a neutral background color is preferred. Grey would have done the trick, but I chose a tan color to warm things up a bit.

With that decision made, there was still the challenge of determining the right colors for other map elements. To decide that, a map maker needs to determine the map’s primary focus — what key information are you conveying to the user? Once you know the answer to that question, other elements on the map should be designed to serve the core purpose. The focus of the FWT map is relatively simple: to identify where the trails are, where they go, and how they can be accessed.

FWT Map Details


With that focus clearly in mind, determining the right palette was relatively easy. The trails needed to be the boldest element of the map — the visual anchor. Streets and roads are crucial reference points, but they had to visually play a tertiary role and not compete with the trails for visual prominence. To that end, the trails are a chunky dark brown, while the streets are all reversed out in white. This approach keeps both pieces of information separate, gives the trails the emphasis, and retains legibility for both. Identifying parks was pretty straightforward — green. And landmarks are in a salmon color, similar tone to the background with enough hue added to stand out on the map without overpowering any other elements.

The next challenge was adding icons for facilities on the trails. Since most of the map up to this point used natural and neutral colors, I could use more primary colors for the small icons. Bright blues, oranges, purples and yellows are judiciously used to call attention to parking areas, bathrooms and water fountains.

Good map making requires a little cheating, too. The trails appear to be very wide — wider than the roads! The rivers are also much wider on this map than they would actually be. These nuances are what makes map designing so fun. If this were a technical map for surveying, we’d have to be more judicious. But pushing the scale of landmarks and key features helps the end-users make mental connections between what they see from a trail and what they see on the map.

You’ll also notice that not all streets are drawn on the map, only major arteries and key neighborhood streets. Since the focus of the map is on the trails, it made sense to reduce the clutter by removing some streets.

Branding the Map

Fort Wayne Trails, Inc. is working hard to develop a brand that is modern and hip, while still appearing approachable and established. These maps will be available to travelers in the Visitors Center, convention centers, hotels, maybe even at the airport. The distribution of these maps will be in the tens of thousands each year. So, it’s important that we conveyed the right image for our city and its awesome trails. This map is more than just technical data and user information, it’s a flagship for the City of Fort Wayne, and a component of the overall brand that our city is building.

fundraising panels


Importantly, Fort Wayne Trails, Inc. is kicking off a massive fundraising campaign. We have $5 million committed to new trail projects, but we’ll only be able to access those funds if we can raise $1 million of our own. What an awesome opportunity! Every dollar given to the trails effectively becomes $6! In an effort to get the word out, we devoted a great portion of the extra space on the maps to our campaign. Check out what projects are in the works near you and consider supporting this awesome organization.

Continuous Improvement 

Any project this big, done almost entirely in free time, has a decent margin of error. So we’ve already identified a few areas where things could be improved. We’re also eager to find what kind of information can be added to the map that makes it even more user-friendly. But it’s a progressive project, and each season as we revise and reprint, it’ll keep getting better.

The word “we” has crept into this point, and for good reason. I couldn’t have designed this map without the incredible support of some awesome folks. Amy Hartzog, Dawn Ritchie, Alec Johnson, Paul Spoelhof, Bert Migues, Matt Peters, Kienan O’Rourke and many other awesome dudes and dudettes — my hats off to your giant brains. Thanks to Lori Keys and Josh Smith at FWT for your knowledge and patience as I finished this up. Also thanks to the team here at OLG for helping me hone the graphics, especially the boss who let me use some work time to get this done. Excell Color Graphics did the awesome printing work. And NIRCC — big thanks for helping us make the printing and distribution of these possible.

Well, thanks for reading all this. As a map lover and a map designer, this is one of my proudest accomplishments. I truly hope that residents and visitors use these maps to explore parts of their city they’ve never been to before. Or, at least see these parts of town for the first time from the vantage point of a bike saddle or a good pair of walking shoes rather than through the windshield of their car. I hope more and more people start using their bikes (or feet) to get to work and school, or the store — imagine a bike friendly community where people prefer riding a bike to taking car to most places. That’d be nice.

Want to get a map of your own? Drop by Fort Wayne Trails HQ at the Auer Center for Arts & Culture in downtown Fort Wayne. In the coming weeks, you’ll be able to pick up maps downtown at the Visitors Center and many other establishments around the city. Stay tuned.

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