Q&A with Dave Imus: Cartographartist, Expert Road Tripper & The Inspiration for the Flyoverlands Logo

Eugene, OR to Myrtle Beach, SC

by Cassia Reynolds

Disclaimer: I know cartographartist isn’t a real word. But it should be. 

I first discovered the work of Dave Imus, the founder of Imus Geographics and winner of four top national awards for cartography (as well as six other runner up places), while on a mission to find a map to represent the Flyoverlands logo. 

Samantha and I had already spent a week searching for the right map to fit our vision. We wanted something detailed, readable, and representative of the actual landscape of the United States. Basically, we wanted the map to demonstrate what we hoped to do with our blog: explore America. We’d both noticed a trend in the maps we’d found so far; they were very colorful and overwhelmed with labels, but not particularly informative of the nature and distinctions in US geography.

The hunt led me to a Slate article about Dave’s most famous map, The Essential Geography of the United States of America, which won the Best of Show award by the Cartography and Geographic Information Society in 2012. From afar, it looked like a simple, 4ft x 3ft rendering of the United States. It was pleasing to the eye, a well-shaded illustration of geographic changes with clear lines marking state borders, rivers, mountains, and other important landmarks. However, the real genius of the map is in the attention to detail; I learned Dave illustrated and labeled his work over the course of two years. He included 1000 iconic American landmarks and did it all without sacrificing topographic detail for political information.

When I reached out to Dave about possibly using his illustration for the Flyoverlands logo, he not only agreed to it, but to an interview as well. And that’s how I got a little one-on-one time with the man who single-handedly beat out big companies like National Geographic and Rand McNally for this prestigious award in mapmaking. And I found out that not only does Dave not have formal training specifically in cartography, but that he really only started Imus Geographics back in 1983 because his lack of experience meant he couldn’t land a job as a cartographer. 

Over the course of a half hour, we discussed Dave’s love of road trips, his beef with geography in the American education system, and the DL on what really goes into making one of his mapsterpieces (BAM I’m on a roll today). 

Tell me about your work as a cartographer. 

I have very little in common with my colleagues across the country. I live in a pretty artistic community, Eugene, Oregon, and I have way more in common with woodworkers and painters and sculptors than I do with mapmakers. I’m an illustrator, an artist. And mapmaking is primarily a technical activity. It’s data manipulation and interpretation and once this data is somehow represented, it’s done. It’s like, “We have the data published!” And [I say], “Oh yay, that’s a good place to start. Now let’s make a beautiful illustration that really says something.”

What goes into making a map? Does it require you to experience the places you’re mapping out?

If I’m mapping a city I’ve never been to, I want to capture the essence of that city. So I read about it and I study large scale maps of it to see which of the principal routes I want to put on my map and what, if any, iconic landmarks are there that sort of identify it as a place. And so I experience the place whether I’ve been there or not. I’ve got to contemplate it and try to make sense out of it so that somebody who’s looking at my map will know the basic geography of the place just like people who live there.

What’s been your most difficult project and your favorite project?

The way that my career path has gone is each project is more difficult and more fun. For many years I have worked with a colleague in Massachusetts. And we were talking about how complicated we make things. And he said, “You know, if it were easy, we wouldn’t be interested!” And I said, “You know, I think you’re right.” But the US map took everything I knew about map making and geography to do it. 

What do you want people to know about your award winning map, The Essential Geography of the United States of America? 

The big thing really about that map is that it’s made with an entirely different standard of artistry than American cartographers embrace. I control every detail of the map so it’s all my interpretation of how best to communicate the geography of one area. I’m not letting algorithms do a dang thing. I use a computer but I use it as a drafting tool. So the map has far greater clarity. It’s just easier on the eye and more acceptable to the mind. And the other thing is that it’s the only map of basic geography. It shows where the country is forested and where it’s not. It has the principle populated places so people know what the important locations of an area are. And it’s got stuff like “the Bluegrass Country of Kentucky” on it. Because we care about these places but we don’t know exactly where they are.

Do you see your work as an education tool for others? 

In primary and secondary education, geography bores even me. It’s treated like some sort of abstraction. Look up a map by Rand McNally or National Geographic or United States Maps and they treat the world like it’s some sort of abstraction that doesn’t even really exist. [Their maps] might look like a moonscape. They’re just a whole bunch of bright colors but they’re not illustrations of the land. A good map is an illustration of the land first and it’s only a map because you put type tables on it. If you’re not illustrating the land with the artistic attention of a botanical illustrator or a medical illustrator, then you’re not illustrating the land in a way where people can actually make sense out of it. You don’t actually have to see a wild iris because people draw beautiful pictures of them. Nobody draws beautiful pictures of basic geography and puts these labels on them so we know what we’re looking at. 

As someone that’s spent so much time going over America’s geography, what are three pieces of advice you have for the American road tripper?

I’m an expert road tripper by the way - I’m exploring all the time. This traveling partner [and I] go on trips for a couple thousand miles and we don’t drive an inch on the freeway. You see so much more of America that way. I mean this is planet earth we’re talking about here! Which as far as we know is the most exotic planet in the universe. So you know whether you’re out in the middle of Kansas or you’re in the canyon lands of southern Utah, it’s beautiful and interesting.

  1. Growing up I made friends with places. I’d see a mountain range and I’d want to know about that. I’d look at a little town and want to know what makes this different. All these questions make life so much more interesting and people who are geographically unaware, to whom the world is just a series of interchangeable sceneries, that’s really boring! Enrich your life by noticing the world: the climate, the vegetation, the culture, everything that’s going on. And the world becomes a much more beautiful and interesting place. You can’t hardly get bored out on the road if you’re interested in what you’re looking at.
  2. Stay the Hell out of Denny’s and places like that! Find local restaurants and stuff that are some individual’s expression of what a restaurant ought to be. Now that’s a whole lot more interesting and varied than some corporate idea of what a restaurant ought to be. Every Denny’s across this country looks identical. So find local stuff! Check out local culture! It’s everywhere.
  3. Pick a US highway and just follow it. See where it goes, the in-and-outs. It might take you from the Texas hill country up through the sand hills of Nebraska and on up to the Turtle Mountains and you would have seen everything in between, you would have seen this cross section of America and would have a way better understanding of that part of the country.

Tell me something you love about the USA.

We have so much to learn from each other. I think that some time in the future, and I hope it’s not too long, people will come from all over the world to visit our Native American reservations. They don’t have them anywhere else. You can still go to the Hopi reservation and, man, people are living there the way they’ve been living for 2000 years basically. They’re still doing the same ceremonies and stuff and it’s really cool. 

Dave has now begun a quest to break down the boundaries further between cartography and fine art, transforming his geographic illustrations into high-quality canvas prints that highlight the beauty and intricacy of landscapes. His individual pieces focus on regions like the Great Lakes, or single states, like Iowa and Alaska. They expose the details of the cities, roads, forests, and mountains of these areas in a totally new light. 

Or, as Dave put it, “Every state looks cool. Iowa looks cool!” 

His current show, “ReEnvisioning Maps: The Cartographic Art of Dave Imus,” in the gallery space of InEugene Real Estate in Eugene, Oregon, began on November 6 and runs through December 2015. Check out the press release for more information, visit Dave’s website, and/or Like Dave's Facebook page, The Essential Geography of the United States of America