Banner image of Jake Berman for the PolicyViz Podcast

Jake Berman is an artist, historian, and attorney. His celebrated project The Lost Subways of North America has been featured in The GuardianThe Daily Mail, and Atlas Obscura. In this week’s episode of the podcast, Jake and I talk about his work and get a behind-the-scenes view in how he develops and designs his maps.

In these strange times, I’ve started a new video series that I hope will bring people together to talk about data, data visualization, presentation skills, and more. The new Data@Urban Digital Discussion series continues with daily discussions and recordings made available within a few days. Please check out the current episodes and join us for an hour or so.

Episode Notes

53 Studio

Jake’s Etsy Shop

Lost Subways Project

Plot Diagrams Project

Data@Urban Digital Discussions

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Jon Schwabish: Hi, everyone. Welcome back to the PolicyViz podcast. I am your host, Jon Schwabish. I hope you are well, healthy, and safe in the strange times of COVID-19. No matter where you are in the world, this is all affecting us. And I hope you are well. And I hope you are able to work. I hope you are staying safe, and I hope you’re staying healthy.

So I’ve been doing a bunch of things during this strange time. The one thing that I would invite you to join me before is a series of video chats that I’m holding every day, every weekday with different folks from around the world. We have casual conversations about data, about data visualization, about presentation skills. We kicked it off about two weeks ago now with Nigel Holmes. I’ve talked to Ann Emery, RJ Andrews, Andy Kirk, Harry Stevens, and this week I’ve already kicked us off talking with some of my Urban colleagues. I’ll have Gregor Aisch, and Lisa Charlotte Rose from data wrap around later this week, and Enrico Bertini and Moritz Stefaner from the data stories podcast on Friday afternoon.

So I’ll put the link to that in the show notes. I hope you’ll be able to join me and just come chat with folks. It’s really a casual conversation, just a way to connect with one another, even remotely and to have some fun conversations.

Now on this week’s episode of the podcast, I talked to Jacob Berman, who creates a series of beautiful maps of from different cities with his own graphic design spin on them. And I found Jake’s work through Etsy, which I’ll link to in the show notes, and I would encourage you to go take them, check them out. He does some really lovely work. And so in this week’s episode, we talk about his process. We talked about how he goes about finding subway maps to redesign, how he figures out what cities he’s going to use. I will say that this conversation was recorded prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. So maybe we are talking about some things that are not quite applicable now in a different age of working from home and on Zoom or WebEx all the time, but I hope you will enjoy this conversation. It is more about graphic design and data visualization. But it’s an interesting and obviously relevant conversation nonetheless, for those of us who are working with data and trying to communicate our work sometimes in very different ways. So I hope you enjoy this week’s episode of the podcast, my interview with Jacob Berman.

Hey, Jake, welcome to the show. How are you?

Jake Berman: Great. Glad to be here.

JS: Thanks so much. How are things in your world these days?

JB: Things are good. I recently started a new project after the subway book comes out. So it is to visualize movie plot lines.

JS: Nice.

JB: So it’s to visualize movie plotlines using the visual language of the subway map.

JS: I’ve already seen one of these. I don’t want to ruin it for listeners yet, because I want you to talk about and describe it. And before we get into that project, and I’m sure what you have, and many others have them in the wings, maybe you could talk a little bit about yourself and your background and your interest in maps, since that seems to be your big focal point, focal interests. And I’m curious how you feel I think about maps. I think a lot of us have these like, deep intrinsic feelings about maps, and I want to get your take on it. So maybe you just talk a little bit about yourself and tell people where you’re from and what you do and how you got into this particular topic.

JB: Sure. So I started getting interested in maps after I accidentally blew off a blind date, my first year of law school. I had just moved to New York from San Francisco, where I’m from and I was waiting for the B train, which is a line that doesn’t run on the weekends. And so here I am waiting underground with no cell service waiting to go on my blind date and the train just doesn’t come. And I’m sitting on the platform like an idiot for half an hour before I ask a cop. And the cop says, “Oh, yeah, no, this train is around the weekend. You need to take a different train.” So, I said, “This is preposterous. The subway map doesn’t show this. I need to make my own subway map that’s better that shows which train runs on the weekends.” So one thing led to another. I’ve made my own New York City subway map. And that in turn led to my Lost Subways of America project because I moved to Los Angeles after law school, got stuck in traffic and started getting irritated that LA didn’t have better mass transit. So I said, “Well, why doesn’t LA have better mass transit?” And you know, it’s a hot day. I’m stuck behind a Jeep. It’s one of those guys who has too many bumper stickers on the back of their car. And I’m thinking to myself, “What am I doing here? Why can’t I just take the train to work?” And so I go to the library and I started thinking to myself, “Well, okay, let’s figure out why doesn’t LA have better mass transit?

JS: Hmm-hmm.

JB: And so I find this ancient map in the LA Central Library that has this massive light rail system covering most of Southern California. There’s something written on it by a cartographer who has been dead for probably 100 years now, that says, the greatest Electric Railway System In The World in all caps. I’m thinking to myself, “Oh, come on. This is ridiculous. You mean to say that LA got rid of all of this stuff in after World War Two, like, what were they thinking?”

JS: Right.

JB: So one thing led to another again, and I decided to make a map of what used to be and what could have been with cities last mass transit networks.

JS: Uh, so what I’m hearing is all of this is born out of some deep seated anger, waiting for a train, in your car or on a weekend.

JB: Frustration is a great driver of creativity. Okay.

JS: So okay, so was the LA subway map the first one you did? Or was the San Francisco one the first one you did?

JB: So the first subway map that I ever made was the New York City subway map–

JS: Okay, yeah.

JB: After getting stuck on the platform. And then the first historical one that I worked on was Los Angeles in 1926.

JS: Gotcha. And so did that, doing that historical subway map, did that really trigger something for you?

JB: Yeah, um, I was a history major in college.

JS: Okay.

JB: So I’m fascinated by the way that little things can lead to big changes down the line.

JS: Mm-hmm.

JB: And in the case of mass transit in the United States, the reason that mass transit got so bad is that almost all of these train systems were privately owned. Many of them were real estate development operations, as opposed to wanting to make their money through fares. And a lot of the time, once the cheap land to develop real estate ran out, they ran out of money.

JS: Mm-hmm.

JB: And because these real estate developers/transit companies were so incredibly profitable, they had a target on their back for most of the early 20th century. So in a way of thinking the car companies were the good guys in 1925.

JS: Mm-hmm. I see. So there’s this view of car companies versus view of, of transit companies at the early part of the 20th century.

JB: Right. I mean, in essence, it’s pretty inescapable that, like the Detroit United Railway in Detroit, the Pacific Electric in Angeles, the Key System in Northern California, the IRT, the Interborough Transit Company in New York. All of these were pretty evil monopolies. And this is what made them the target of good government reformers in the early 20th century.

JS: Right. Right. Interesting. So tell us a little bit about your process. I’m curious. So you’ve lived in San Francisco. You’ve he lived in New York, lived in LA. You’re able to go to these, at least in LA and New York, go to the physical libraries, but you’ve done a whole bunch of cities now. So what is your process like to find these original historical diagrams and plans and then to convert that to your custom work?

JB: So the first thing is just that I travel a lot for work, my company, I’ve, in my law practice takes me a lot of different places. And so I have the opportunity to look and see and get a feel for what these places might have been like 100 years ago.

JS: Mm hmm.

JB: And the thing that I do first is that I, I go to the library. I see what kinds of documents are already out there. Almost every city has an exhaustive and incredibly boring history of its mass transit system that somebody who is obsessed with trains has written. And they’re not exactly accessible because they spend lots of time discussing types of trains and long dead people who have since faded into obscurity, but they’re really good resources for figuring out what used to be there. And then from there, I work backwards and start figuring out, you know, what materials are available, what types of service guides are available from that time period. And honestly, my best resource is to find old tour guide books, because they have a level of granular information that a transit map from 1910 or 1920, or even 1960 might not have.

JS: Right.

JB: The idea is that I would like for a time traveler to be able to hop in their DeLorean go back to 1920 in Washington DC, and navigate the city by train.

JS: Hmm. You started this explanation with the look and feel of the cities when you, when you visit them. Does the city need to speak to you in some way, so that you will want to investigate further?

JB: Yes and no. Some cities just don’t have that much left from their early period to be able to really get a feel for it. The best example I can think of is Phoenix, which was a tiny little Nowheresburg in the desert before they invented air conditioning because nobody wants to move to a place where it’s 100 million degrees in August and even Phoenix had a streetcar system in the 1930s. But Phoenix being this cow town, in the middle of the desert with inhospitable weather before they invented air conditioning is a very, very different city than the sprawling behemoth in the middle of the desert, which is famous for baseball, which is famous for baseball, spring training,

JS: Spring training. Right. And it’s still a million degrees.

JB: Yeah, of course.

JS: Yeah. So, okay, so you go to a particular city. It speaks to you in some way in some historical way, I should say really. And then you start exploring the, the libraries and trying to pick up old tour guidebooks. What is your next step? Are you trying to replicate the original map as you have found it or are you taking your own spin on a subway map?

JB: What I don’t try to do is do carbon copies of what’s already been done before, because so much of what was available in previous decades or centuries was limited by the printing technology available at the time. There was color printing even in the 19th century, but it was hideously expensive. So a lot of what mapmakers back then had to do was limit their use of ink to black, white, and maybe red if they had some extra money lying around. And, and I say, well, it’s 2020. I don’t have to do that. I can make something that looks cool, and you can hang up on the wall. And so I try to put myself in the mindset of what somebody might have done 100 years ago, if they had had a modern printer available,

JS: Right. So now as you approach that task, do you have a favorite city map currently, that you think has entered your subconscious and that you base it on or you is your style for each one different to that it I don’t want to say matches the city, but, but maybe just sort of without leading that way is, is the style of each map completely different?

JB: Yeah. So each map is different. But what I try to do is to match the style of a particular period, as opposed to making it a carbon copy of what might have been done then, or what might have been done now.

JS: Right.

JB: So like, just for instance, if you go back to Indianapolis in 1916, the arts and crafts movement was a big deal back then. So there’s these wonderful, beautifully designed initial letters that look like they come from medieval manuscripts that were all the rage back then. And so you want to have this incredibly elaborate decorative eye showing like Indianapolis, Indiana, but you still want to make a map that somebody in 2020 can look at and say, “Oh man, Central Avenue used to have a train station. That’s crazy.”

JS: Yeah.

JB: So you do have to draw a balance between making it understandable to a modern viewer versus doing something that has the correct period flavor.

JS: Right? Do you have a favorite and least favorite modern map in usage?

JB: The first is the Los Angeles metros bus and subway map–

JS: Yeah.

JB: Which is an excellent piece of design to illustrate how to get around LA without a car. And just from top to bottom, LA Metro has the single best design staff in the business.

JS: Yeah.

JB: And like they do a wonderful job of making a sprawling complicated Metropolis understandable, and for people who don’t have to drive around LA.

JS: Yeah.

JB: Um, my least favorite map is I do not particularly like the modern Boston T map because as a piece of design, it does way too much to distort the geography of Boston. And Boston is already a complicated city because this geography is such a mess. And once you start distorting it to the point where you can’t tell when three stations are a block and a half apart from one another, that’s a problem.

JS: Right. Right. I want to go back real quick to LA. You know, one thing about LA public transit is the train station I think in LA is just, is just a gorgeous building, both inside and outside. And I’m curious as to whether that map matches in any way to the, to the transit map. And sort of more generally, do you think that the, the physical transit maps, no pun intended, but maps over to the map of the actual system?

JB: In Los Angeles, I think it does. I have my quibbles with the way that LA Metro has chosen to illustrate their system because LA Metro uses the same visual language as most other cities that have big subways where they generally match the geography to the city’s layout. But they don’t try too hard to make it geographically correct.

JS: Right.

JB: And in Los Angeles, the major reference points are all freeways. You know, if you go to LA, saying, I’m going west to the 405, I’ll be back in three hours actually means something, because you already have a general idea of where you’re going, and what’s going on. And I think it’s not very helpful for LA Metro to omit that. But, I mean, that’s, you know, that’s the decision they’ve chosen to make as an agency. And, I mean, the design results are spectacular, like, there are lots of agencies that just do a terrible job of showing what is where and the New York MTA is one of them.

JS: Okay. So I want to, I want to, on that note, I want to switch gears just a little bit. You have a new project that you’re working on these timelines. And I want to give you a chance to talk about although you, you alluded to it at the very beginning. So I want to give you a chance to talk about a little bit more and, and, and your process for creating those as well.

JB: Sure. So this is another project born out of frustration, because I was — this is a common theme with my work.

JS: Yeah.

JB: I decided a while ago that I was going to watch all of the Star Wars movies. And so I decided to watch them in the order that they came out like any sensible person does. So it’s Star Wars, Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi.

JS: Right.

JB: I’m like those are still good movies. And then I got to Episode I, which was terrible.

JS: Terrible.

JB: It was just, it was a very bad movie, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on why. Like I was thinking to myself like this has all of the elements that would seem to make for a good movie. It’s got great special effects. It’s got an all star cast. And then I realized the problem was the writing there was, the plot was just too convoluted compared to the original trilogy of Star Wars movies where, you know, you could sum up Star Wars, the first Star Wars in 20 seconds, you know, farm boy, farm boy, smuggler and a shaggy dog, go save the princess from the evil Dark Lord and blow up their big space station.

JS: Done. Done. Done.

JB: I couldn’t do that for Phantom Menace.

JS: No, there’s this terrible character of Jar Jar Binks, which is some sort of combination of a rabbit and a moose with a Jamaican accent and–

JB: Yeah. It’s–

JS: Yeah.

JB: Yeah. And like there’s too many characters, the plotline is too convoluted. No one quite knows why anything is going on. And it — and I thought to myself, “Well, why don’t I try to illustrate the plotline using the visual language of the subway map?”

JS: Mm-hmm.

JB: And that actually did a lot for me to try to break down why some writing works and other writing doesn’t, like the very original Star Wars movie has a very compact diagram that has the bad guys on one side, the good guys on one side. Occasionally, they come together and fight, but you only really have to keep track of at the one end the good guys. And at the other end, Darth Vader and Governor Tarkin.

JS: Yeah.

JB: But with Phantom Menace, there’s the Jedi. There’s the politics. There’s Jar Jar who suddenly turns into a general somehow. There’s something involving a guy with, a guy with the double bladed lightsaber and spikes on his head, who says like three words and eventually dies for no reason. Like there’s a really complex set of plots that just doesn’t quite add up. And being able to make that critique is a lot easier than writing a post on medium.

JS: Right. Absolutely. Yeah.

JB: Like I could absolutely write 20,000 words of deep thoughts on why Episode I just didn’t float my boat. But it’s easier to make that critique by presenting it visually and comparing it to the other movies in the saga.

JS: Right, right. Absolutely. So how many have you done of these so far?

JB: About 15 or 20.

JS: 15 or 20. And so you’ve got just a, just a few for, for people who are, who are into Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, fan of the Opera, Hamlet–

JB: So Shakespeare, yeah.

JS: Shakespeare in there. Yeah. So do you have a favorite in terms of your favorite diagram and how the diagram turned out and your favorite in terms of the actual story in your process to, to get to that final product?

JB: Sure. Um, the in terms of what the actual diagram turned out like, I have a soft spot for Hamilton because I got to use the visual language of the subway map from the 1970s, the famous Massimo Vignelli subway map. And because it’s so New Yorky and because Hamilton is a quintessentially New York play, it made sense to use the visual language of the subway map and it turned out great. And for the New Yorkers out there, it means that I could crack jokes about various subway lines at the same time.

JS: Ah! So there’s a little bit of a, little bit of an inside joke for New Yorkers on this one.

JB: Yeah, like basically the G train or King George is off in the middle of nowhere and it goes from nowhere to nowhere.

JS: Yeah. That sounds familiar. Okay. So, so that’s your favorite how it turned out. What about your, your favorite, I guess loosely like on the process in terms of, I guess maybe the way to put it is, you mentioned how, with the early Star Wars movies, it was easier to see the story in this visual layout. Is there another one that sort of struck you like that?

JB: Yeah. Believe it or not, Aladdin. Um, so in working on Aladdin there, it surprised me just how convoluted the plot of the movie is, and how many different tracks there are to keep track of, because on the one hand, you have the story of Aladdin and his pet monkey. Um, you have the villain Jafar and his pet parrot. You have Princess Jasmine who is in a gilded cage. And on top of that, you have to track the overarching story of like, who is going to marry the princess. I mean, obviously, we know who’s going to marry the princess, but we want to see how we go from street rat to Prince Ali in two hours.

JS: Right. Right. Yeah, it is interesting how these tracks, I’m looking at it now, how these tracks sort of converge towards the end of the climax of the movie. And then they then they diverge right at the right at the end as everybody gets to be, you know, happily ever after. So that’s an interesting way to diagram a story in that way.

JB: Yeah. And at least with Aladdin, I liked being able to experiment with forms, because specifically when dealing with Aladdin, I looked a lot at Islamic calligraphy and typography for this, like I don’t speak a lick of Arabic, full disclosure, but I like the look of Islamic Sans Serif fonts, because they have a certain angularity to them that you wouldn’t find when you’re using Helvetica.

JS: Yeah, sure. Sure. Sure, sure. Oh, really interesting. So what is on your list going forward?

JB: Going forward, I think I’d like to probably turn this into another book, just because it’s something that you would find on your dentist’s coffee table.

JS: Yeah.

JB: Like I’m not trying to make high art. I am not an artist. This is meant to be something fun. And it’s not meant to be something that requires me to have a stick up my [indiscernible 00:24:23].

JS: Well, I think that’s great. I think shooting beyond the dentist office is probably always a good, is a good goal. Yeah.

JB: You know what? I am okay with this being something that you look at and say, “Oh, hey, that’s pretty cool.”

JS: Yeah.

JB: Like, I’m aiming for it so that my aunt and uncle in Stanislaus County, where nobody knows where that is. It’s a, it’s in, it’s about two hours outside of San Francisco. So that my aunt and uncle in Stanislaus County would be able to look at it and say, “Oh, that’s pretty cool.” As opposed to saying, “Okay, what’s it, what’s that’s supposed to be?”

JS: Yeah.

JB: Because there’s a lot of art where, you know, there’s, there’s a lot of capital A art, where you look at the thing. You’re like, what is this supposed to be? And then you’re supposed to read the description below. And like understand whatever deep thoughts the artists was having that are so unintelligible in the actual piece itself.

JS: Yeah, right. But this is more, in some ways more practical, at least from a historical perspective, and certainly something that most people can relate to.

JB: Yeah. If somebody wants to comment on say Macbeth or Romeo and Juliet, it’s easier to do it in diagrammatic form than it is to write a college English essay.

JS: Right. Right. Well, don’t tell my kids that because they still have to write their essays.

JB: Oh, yeah.

JS: I mean, no, no great essays. But yeah.

JB: No, no, like you absolutely have to learn how to do this stuff. Don’t get me wrong. It’s just that I spent far too much time trying to analyze the deep symbolism of say Romeo and Juliet. And I think that both of the characters in that play are immature schmucks.

JS: Maybe the next one should be dinner with the schmucks should be your next, your next poster.

JS: Yeah. That’s not a, that’s not a bad plan. I mean, and it’s, I mean, you know, I like sometimes you have high art. It’s just–

JS: Right. That’s right.

JB: It’s just, it’s like, okay, well, this is just bad. And these are like, questionable people making questionable life choices.

JS: That’s right. That’s right. Jake, I’ll put all these links in the show notes. But where can folks find you if they want to get in touch or if they want to find all of your work?

JB: Sure. So all my work is at

JS: Great. And I will post some of these images and some links on the show notes page. Jake, this is really interesting work. Thanks so much for coming on the show. I really enjoyed leafing through everything. So thanks for much for, for chatting with me.

JB: Yeah, it’s a pleasure talking to you.

JS: And thanks to everyone for tuning in to this week’s episode. I hope you enjoyed it. I hope you’ll also stay in touch on Twitter or in the comments on the show notes page. I hope you will check out some of my data at Urban Digital Discussions that are taking place every weekday for an hour. Please do check those out, and log in and say hello, and connect with other folks in the field. And if you are interested in supporting the podcast, which I hope you are, please share it with your friends. Please review it and read it on your favorite podcast provider or go over to Patreon and send $1 or two or three a month over my way to help cover the additional costs of gear, microphones, portable podcasting gear that I need, the website, all the stuff that’s needed to bring this show to you every other week. So I hope you are enjoying it and I hope you will continue to tune in. So please stay safe. Please stay healthy. And until next time this has been the PolicyViz podcast. Thanks so much for listening.