Custom maps guide grads to success

A Cartografika map of Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood.

“Maps are about more than navigation. They can tell stories,” says Jose Alarcon.

Alarcon co-founded Cartografika, a company that produces custom-designed maps, with former UIC classmate Adam Jentleson.

Since they started Cartografika two years ago, their maps have told many Chicago stories. But they’ve also discussed places as diverse as Budapest, Venice, Jackson Hole, the seven kingdoms of ancient China and Dayton, Ohio. And Siem Reap, Cambodia, highlighting the Temples of Angkor Wat. And the Molise region surrounding the town of Duronia, Italy (population 473).

It all depends on the places and things that mean something special to their clients. According to their online mission statement, Alarcon and Jentleson “eagerly invite fresh design ideas and will gladly suffer constructive criticism.”

The two started making maps while studying geographic information systems in the master of urban planning program. Alarcon, who majored in art history as an undergraduate, was drawn to the design aspect, and Jentleson “just fell into GIS and really enjoyed the classes,” he says.

They graduated in 2011 and found full-time work as GIS analysts. Alarcon works for the South Suburban Mayors & Managers Association, where he manages an online mapping application that offers data on building footprints, parks, land parcels, brownfields, waterways, infrastructure and more. Jentleson works at UIC’s Institute for Health Research and Policy, most recently mapping parks, sidewalks, bike lanes and food access for a national study linking child obesity to the built environment.

Cartografika founders Adam Jentleson and Jose Alarcon.

A few months after graduating, they gathered up the maps they’d been making for friends and family and showed them at the summer 2011 Renegade Craft Fair in Wicker Park. Suddenly, their side business began to take off as people asked for maps of their neighborhoods or other favorite places.

“People wanted different colors, or they wanted to mark their apartment buildings,” Jentleson said. “The level of customization is endless.”

“Every custom map is quite time-intensive, but we enjoy working closely with our clients,” Alarcon says. “One of my favorites is a series of three custom maps of Mexico City, Houston and Chicago, all of which have the same scale, map features, and certain buildings and sites of great significance to the couple who ordered it.”

Now they sell their maps through and the occasional craft fair, and they promote dozens of designs on their website. Jentleson says about half the maps are customized and half are premade. They can be made to any scale, but printing costs are added to the base fee of $175.

One of their recent commissions was a 14-by-20-foot wall mural for the Intelligentsia coffeehouse in Logan Square. It details the neighborhood’s buildings, roads and waterways.

“We want to move into more consulting work, going beyond the artistic side,” Jentleson said. He describes a suite of “foyer art” they’re preparing for a real estate company that will depict Chicago parks, transit lines and buildings.

Both artists stress that good maps have to combine accurate data with compelling design.

Jentleson recalls sifting through a lot of “ancient, inaccurate data” for that map of the seven kingdoms of China.

“There are a lot of sources online for free GIS data,” he says. “But it’s often of poor graphic quality.”

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