• Jennifer Still

Guerilla Cartography: Fast Food, Cupcakes, and Babies

Updated: Jun 3, 2019

When I first enrolled in my undergraduate college four years ago, I had a sincere passion for graphic design. Lived it. Breathed it. Would have bathed it in it if it was at all possible. I wanted to be a graphic designer so bad I'd enrolled in an art school, where I would have paid enough to feed a small country, before I came to my senses and decided to go to a state university instead. By that simple chain of events and the fact that this blog's name is "Geo"girl and not "Graphic"girl, you might guess that I got out of the design game.

Well...you're partially correct. I got into GIS instead. Fell back in love with graphic design, but in the form of cartography. Since then, however, I've slowly been creeping into the technical side of the biz a little more. Think tortoise pace, not snail. I've done a little legwork, gosh!

I tell you all this, not to bore you, but to give you an idea of how much I truly appreciate when these two disciplines come together - when an individual or company can not only create a map that analyzes spatially sound data, but do it in a visually interesting way. It's almost like juggling and riding a unicycle at the same time. Only a few people can do it successfully (granted, they may be tucked away in a circus somewhere), but they exist. 

One example I'd like to point you towards is a Mr. Jensen and his "guerilla cartography" movement. Click the image to get to the article or go here - Do it. Do it right meow!

The first time I read this article I thought, "Hmph, that's interesting." The second time, my thought process ranged more along the lines of, "This man's onto something!" Although I do think the maps chosen for the article are valid - with interesting layouts, graphics, and information to boot - I do think there is room for improvement. I mean, even Picasso and Freud didn't get everything right, right? Their quality is not what I am focusing on here, despite my encouraging you to consider the use of both of these industries. It's what they mean and what they make you do.


The contributors for this collection of maps had some pretty creative ideas for data. Some silly, some actually worth considering for more than 3.2 seconds. What is the correlation between cupcake availability and gang violence? What does the presence of specialty shops say about those who live in the surrounding neighborhoods? Maybe not truly philosophical questions, but it's the notion of thinking and attempting to make those odd connections that we should be encouraged to do.

Exploring outside of the box can mean the difference between a $500,000 and $2 million profit for a company. Maybe a large number, but you get the idea right? For example, the map that is featured here considers factors like income, ethnicity, presence of fast food restaurants, and then shows health information for the regions. However, it neglects to take into account the types of businesses in the area just in case a high presence of fast-paced industries leaves no time for actual cooking or the location of schools to account for busy parents grabbing a quick meal or even the appearance of universities in the areas (come on, we all know how unhealthy college students are). The presence of these sort of factors might explain the market for more convenience foods in the areas, despite the income variations. The map also does not account for the availability of gyms and the ages/sexes of those in the health brackets.

Although these may not be the most out of the box examples I could give, it is only to demonstrate that there is always a different ingredient that could be added to or subtracted from the mix. We never know what will or won't have an impact, but being willing to think about even the things that might not, we are one step closer to exploring not only the world around us, but the applications of GIS itself.

My challenge to you, if you so choose to accept it, is to honestly consider who you're trying to convey a particular message to and market to that group efforts that will grab their attention. Stay away from the stale or even the tried and true. Consider how you can make that impact even greater by bringing in other aspects, industries, questions to either support the data you're portraying or provoke thought. Think of this not as just spatial GIS, but as a way to rethink the system. Personally, for me anyway, that is the whole notion behind guerilla cartography.


We can try day in and day out, bang our heads against a keyboard, to produce something that matters. No matter how much valid, soul-clenching, jaw-dropping pieces of information we pump into a map to get our point across - if it isn't somewhat visually intriguing then it's likely only the diehard GIS nerds who are going to look at it. Sure, that's great if you're aiming it at a large corporation who you want to change. Not so great if who you really need to inform is the Average Joe, the Everyday Ellen, the masses, the people like you and me.

In a time when everything is over-advertised, over-dramatized, and overwhelming, we need something to catch our attention right off the bat without having to first read between the lines to gain some sort of interest. Actually putting thought into the visual representation of the data doesn't mean you're taking away from the impact. Instead, it means you're actually interested in people seeing it and caring about it.