Behind-the-Scenes at UC Press: The Making of Rebecca Solnit’s Atlas Series

By Lia Tjandra, Art Director with Dore Brown, Principal Editor

A winning team: Lia Tjandra and Dore Brown

Each title in the atlas series had more moving pieces than any other book we’ve published. Multiple authors and contributors produced different parts that were worked on at different times. In our roles of project editor and art director, Dore Brown and I were the hub of the wheel, receiving and disbursing material from artists, cartographers, photographers, writers, copyeditors, proofreaders, museum partners, in-house staff, and, of course, the volume editors. It was a far cry from our usual linear workflow.

One of the first design decisions we made for the atlas trilogy was the trim size. I proposed that each map be shown on a spread and that the spread dimensions be square-ish, the way San Francisco is square-ish. In 2011, after the initial success of Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas, I briefly entertained the idea that the atlases for New Orleans and New York should have customized trim sizes that fit their respective map footprints. This was totally impractical, of course, and detrimental to the harmonious series look. But it was fun to imagine for a brief time!

Rebecca Solnit, who’s incredibly well connected to people in the artistic and intellectual community, brought in San Francisco artist Alison Pebworth to conceptualize and put on paper the logos for all three atlases. Each atlas has a unique visual identity, brainchild of Alison and Rebecca’s creative partnership. For the final logos, check out the finished books, but you may find these in-process sketches fascinating.

1 AP_infinite
Sketch by Alice Pebworth, for Infinite City
2 AP_infinite
Sketch by Alice Pebworth, for Infinite City
3 AP_Unfathomable
Sketch by Alice Pebworth, for Unfathomable City
4 AP_Unfathomable_
Sketch by Alice Pebworth, for Unfathomable City
5 AP_Nonstop
Sketch by Alice Pebworth, for Nonstop Metropolis

For each map, I started work with a base map from the cartographer. The very first map, Monarchs and Queens, had a skeletal, almost wire-frame appearance. We hadn’t developed a look or any map specifications yet, hence what you see here, from Ben Pease, is raw.

Raw map for Monarchs and Queens from Infinite City

Many months later, we had established the general look and feel of the maps, including the color palettes and type specs. Here’s the resulting Monarchs and Queens vector file.

Vector file for Monarchs and Queens map from Infinite City

After the map had been edited, I sent it to Mona Caron, a local mural artist. She tailored her illustration to the parameters of the map to create a vibrant piece of art that raised the map to a whole new level.

Final version of Monarchs and Queens map with illustration from Infinite City

The palette is one of the most important elements of each book. For Infinite City, the palette is muted and chalky. For Unfathomable City, we represented New Orleans with a watery and translucent look. For Nonstop Metropolis, we choose deeper and more intense colors to reflect New York’s energy and complexity.

It takes multiple rounds to get it right, and at least once during the production of each atlas we took all of the in-progress maps and spread them out on tables to see how they were gelling. The final decisions were always made by Rebecca and her coeditors.

Wildlife is one example of the creative process. Take a look at this early sketch and see how wildly the background colors and illustrations by Tino Rodríguez differ from the final version.

1 Wildlife_rough
Rough version of Wildlife map from Nonstop Metropolis, illustrations by Tino Rodríguez
2 Wildlife_Final
Final version of Wildlife map from Nonstop Metropolis, illustrations by Tino Rodríguez

From Nonstop metropolis: viewing a city’s crazy, diverse, complex history as an atlas in The Guardian:

“Tennessee Williams said: ‘America has only three cities, New York, San Francisco and New Orleans. All the rest are just Cleveland,’” Solnit explains, before admitting there were other reasons she expanded this undertaking, which began as a commission from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, to include the Big Apple and the Big Easy.

“They’re cultural capitals, three port cities on the three coasts of the US,” she says. “New York has been hovering in the wings for a long time. When this book comes out in October, I will be done making atlases for the foreseeable future.”

Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas is the final volume in our trilogy of atlases by Rebecca Solnit, Rebecca SnedekerJoshua Jelly-Schapiro, and a host of notable contributors. Following the publication of the critically lauded Infinite City (San Francisco) and Unfathomable City (New Orleans), we bring you this homage—and challenge—to the way we know New York City, an exquisitely designed and gorgeously illustrated atlas that excavates the many buried layers of all five boroughs of New York City and parts of New Jersey.

To get a copy of Nonstop Metropolis, visit your local bookstore, or purchase online at IndieBoundAmazonBarnes & Noble, or UC Press (to save 30% on, enter discount code16M4197 at checkout).

This post is part of a series on the atlas trilogy.