Muncie Map Co. Founder Andrew Shears Calls Maps “Things of Beauty.” After seeing his work, THIS IS AN UNDERSTATEMENT. Here's the interview:
Let’s start at the beginning--the average person doesn’t meet many cartographers these days. Can you talk a little bit about how you came to love maps?
I guess I came by maps naturally, so to speak. My mom has been a geography professor at Ball State for over 30 years, so they’ve always been around and when I’d ask questions about the world, she’d show me how things worked on a map. But one of my earliest memories of traveling with my family involves rolling down the road in my grandpa’s early 80s Pontiac sitting on my grandma’s lap, parents in the backseat, and she’s showing me where we were on a highway map… giving me little reading lessons with road signs and comparing it to the map, that sort of thing. It’s a very fond memory, and a good one to associate with traveling.
Something about maps has always stoked my curiosity in ways nothing else does. Give me an atlas with beautifully designed, informative maps over any fiction, because I get a lot more imagination from the former.
Much of that has to do with the power of place. Most folks think geography, or even cartography to a lesser extent, is all about memorizing maps and knowing where cities, countries and other landmarks are located. Geography is about understanding the spatial relationships that drive the world; the idea that a location and its various conditional factors -- its economic conditions, climate, cultural norms, landforms and terrain, infrastructure and buildings, political machinations, everything all rolled together to the be unique combination of factors only found at this very specific location on or around the earth; the concept geographers refer to as “place” -- matters for understanding the world, both as a collection of unique places but the spatial relationships of these places’ factors between them. Geography is an attempt to understand the world from a spatial perspective, using that framework much like history does chronologically -- and we do it holistically, trying to consider every factor influencing spatial relationships. Using this perspective, geographers have advanced the larger corpus of knowledge a great deal, but I’d argue that one of our biggest contributions is the idea that place matters -- not just as a way for knowing things about locations or understanding the planet around us, but for understanding ourselves. I mean, how much of our memory is driven by the question “where were you when…?” Places have meaning that are unique to ourselves, indelibly driven by our experience of them. We have complicated relationships with place -- think about the emotional reactions brought by naming some: Paris, Dachau, Disney World, My Lai, Cooperstown, Motown, Dixie, even Westeros (yes, fictional place matters too!) -- but figuring out the fact that place is something that matters so deeply to us it a key moment in the human advancement of knowledge.
“...I’d argue that one of our biggest contributions is the idea that place matters -- not just as a way for knowing things about locations or understanding the planet around us, but for understanding ourselves.”
Now, how does this relate to maps? Maps provide us a way to understand a place. A well-designed and detailed reference map using the right symbology can suggest a great deal about what a place looks like, sounds like, smells like. Looking at a weather map can literally tell you what a place feels like, but looking at thematic maps which show various data about places can give you an idea what is being experienced in that place. Now, of course this is a vagueness in a way of course, but we as humans have developed an excellent ability to fill in the gaps of a generalized understanding of what we know to develop a more full image. Maps help us learn about places and how various spatial relationships impact them. It gives us a chance to imagine how we’d experience that place without going there -- what we’d see, feel, hear, smell, taste… it frames the basics of what that place might mean to the people who experience it, which we can them piece together using our intellectual imagination to build a better understanding of the world. And even cooler: the best maps, the ones that are both informative and aesthetically interesting -- can also be objects of beauty.
So, why create maps? You remember how I said give me an atlas over a novel? A well-designed map can provide tons of intellectual stimulation, providing plenty for the imagination to piece together. I feel like I’m trying to tell the story of the world -- and explain its geography -- in the way I best can. It combines my skills: I’ve been doing computer-based visual and information visualization design for 25 years (yes really, freaky!), I’ve done mapping and GIS since college, I’ve always enjoyed working with technology and trying new ways to do XYZ, and I enjoy teaching people stuff, as evidenced by my 14 years of teaching in higher education. I’m not an artist, but I know how to take aspects of the earth and represent them in cool -- and yes, aesthetically relevant -- ways for people to interact with however they choose. Its an intensely creative and communicative project that I didn’t fully realize as my outlet until recently, and it’s a chance to add both knowledge and beauty to the world.
How would you describe Muncie Map Co in 100 words?
Oh man. I’ve already demonstrated brevity isn’t my strong point. In fact, I’ll use 25 words to complain about it. Okay, let me start over.
MMC is a geospatial services company, but it could also be called everything and the kitchen sink. Have data with locations, like a mailing list? I can help you make sense of it using a full array of analytics, visualizing them using maps and graphics. I can do custom maps for any basically media -- print, digital, web interactive, mobile app, 3D print -- with interesting aesthetic presentation. I’ve got an online shoppe for selling Muncie place-pride designs, maps, artwork and other mappy things. I also offer graphic design, product photography, basic websites, vintage Apple data transfer… Things people might need that I can do, and all things I enjoy doing.
What do you want people to know about your work?
That it exists? Hahaha. Honestly, that’s the biggest thing. That these kinds of things exist - that maps can basically serve as artwork but are even more interesting because of the details and such. That I’m here to roll up my sleeves and help with Muncie’s continuing renaissance. That I do more than maps, too! That one of the biggest goals for my business is to eventually become an employer that will bring new people to Muncie.
“... I’m here to roll up my sleeves and help with Muncie’s continuing renaissance.”
As a geography expert, what are the must-sees in Muncie and the surrounding area?
I’m gonna take this a different direction and point out some local landmarks that are so Muncie it’s not even funny - I consider no city tour complete without all of them
The Skinny Truck out on East Centennial
The Purple Hippo on McGalliard (which seems to RIP?)
The Truck Mannequin Man (at Cintas, now MadJax)
Appeal to the Great Spirit
The overly elaborate sign for a towing company on Kilgore (formerly a sign for a drive-in movie theater)
Tin Man on Kilgore
Paul Bunyan at Timbers
The RV in his hand dude at the RV place by the 69/332 exit.
The Skinny Corvette (on a pole on east Jackson)
The giant Larry Bird statue out on Macedonia at that bar.
EVERY. PIZZA. KING.
Hunnicutt’s Ice Cream and whatever the latest health code monstrosity is occupying the old Betty’s Humdinger
Burkie’s - tenderloin of course
You recently discovered that you have autism. Has that impacted your work? How so?
It has, actually. It’s like, for a long time there was something about myself that I just could not figure out -- a missing piece. I had some ideas that I didn’t experience things or think in the same way as a lot of other folks do, but I could never really get a grasp on why and so that led to a lot of internal chaos for a lot of years. I know this is more surficial, but for instance, I knew there were a lot of seemingly random things that I don’t really like to do at all: shopping, eating uncooked vegetables, talking on the telephone. Understanding that I have autism (technically “Autism Spectrum Disorder” which is a sort of catch-all that now includes Aspergers, which is what I’ve got) helped me understand more about why I don’t like these things and allowed me to develop strategies for either doing them, or figuring out how to get them done another way.
For work, what does that mean? Well, it means I came to terms with some aspects of teaching at a university that were not a good fit for me. I knew last summer that I was done at my former employer as of May for a number of reasons that are more about the employer than the job, but I didn’t know exactly what I was going to do after that. Knowing about having Aspergers (which is honestly what I most identify with, not that this matters) gave me the knowledge I needed to understand what I didn’t like about higher ed and what kind of career I could pursue that fit my needs better.
It’s also allowed me to be easier on myself for workplace things. I was successful in higher ed, but the various untreated (wrong word?) or unaccommodated (also wrong word?) characteristics of Aspergers were barriers to achieving further success in some aspects of that career path. Before I had the diagnosis, I just looked at those barriers as my failures and shortcomings that I couldn’t seem to improve upon, which is a very short step away from considering oneself a professional failure, which can just spiral downward from there.
Now, I’ll admit, I’m still pretty early and rudimentary in my understanding of Aspergers, which elements of that neurology impact me and so forth, and I’ve been reading everything about it I can get my hands on. It’s gonna take years to figure things out, but at least I can move forward with a framework that explains a whole lot more.
What’s next for Muncie Map Co?
Well, launch is first and foremost! I’m planning to launch officially on June 19. That’ll give us time to get fully settled in and allow me to get my IP up to speed and my tech infrastructure where it needs to be. After that, I’ve got work for my first client (Plaid Avenger’s new world geography textbook) that’ll take up most of my time until July 4. I’m also hoping in July to team up with Derek Hammer at Hammer Lighting and Grip down in Indy. Derek, who’s also a Burris grad that took classes with my dad and went into TV and film production, owns that business which is probably the biggest production support company in Indy, and also offers UAV photography and videography. I can offer his clients geospatial processing, which means instead of just photos or video, we can use his UAVs to collect photos or other images, then I can take that data and make 3D models and environments, do things like measure vegetation health or soil moisture, and so forth. I’m pretty much over flying UAVs these days (I did it a lot and was never much good), but it’s also an important service to offer as a mapping company these days. So, it’s really a good fit for both of us.