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Dave Imus' Great American Map

The Oregon portion of "The Essential Geography of the United States of America."

Courtesy of Dave Imus

For two years, cartographer Dave Imus worked seven days a week to create his grand opus, The Essential Geography of the United States of America. The map is the most recent recipient of his field’s highest honor for mapmaking: Cartography and Geographic Information Society’s 2010 Best in Show award. And this is not Imus’ first Best in Show honor; he has won it on three separate occasions over the past 20 years. So how does a man working in his Eugene farmhouse beat out monumental institutions like the U.S. Census Bureau, Central Intelligence Agency Cartography Center and National Geographic, which have all won the prestigious honor for so many years? It’s simple — with clarity.

As Imus explained to host David Miller on Think Out Loud, this map started out like all the others with a synthesis of science and art. “The scientific side, the crunching data, is the side I know almost nothing about. I collaborate with a cartographer (Pat Dunlavey) who is very good at that sort of thing. He obtains these digital files from all sorts of sources around the United States for a map like this.”

An example of the initial geography provided by cartographer Pat Dunlavey which Dave Imus uses to create his Essential Geography maps.

Courtesy of Dave Imus

For The Essential Geography of the United States of America, Dunlavey uploaded all the scientific information into Adobe Illustrator, and from there Imus poured in over 5,000 hours to paint his portrait of the United States.

In an age of GPS by phone and directions via Google, Imus believes his work is distinguished by clarity, which he explains as “(trying to) see what I’m doing through the eyes of somebody who’s going to have to read this and figure out what I’m trying to say.”

Although Imus concedes most Americans believe the main purpose of maps is to help get you from point A to point B, he sought to create “a map not to be used as an aid to navigation, but to aid an understanding of a lay of the land.”

Imus cites Swiss cartographer Eduard Imhoff as his most important influence. Through Imhoff’s work, Imus learned the important lesson, “clarity and beauty are two very closely related concepts.” For The Essential Geography of the United States of America, Imus explained, “I think my map is beautiful, but I wasn’t trying to make it beautiful; I was just trying to make it clear. The United States is beautiful and I feel like if I, perhaps, was able to accurately capture the character of the United States, then the map [would be] beautiful too.”

Listen to Think Out Loud’s full interview with Dave Imus.