Tangible Geographies

laser-cut maps for an independent project

Purpose & Role

I created a series of maps as a personal project to practice laser-cutting and explore how to visualize the intersection of place and identity. As this was a personal project, I designed and manufactured the finished pieces independently using Illustrator, cardstock, illustration board, cork board, and glue.


I began this project with the goal of creating three laser-cut maps, each personalized for the intended recipients. The first map I tackled was for a couple who would be getting married in the San Francisco Bay Area. Taking their wedding as inspiration, I started the map with a simple outline of the coastline. Since the pure outline of the bay didn't accomplish the level of detail I wanted to provide, I added in major roads in proportion to the scale of the outline. However, while the couple would certainly identify with the San Francisco Bay Area in general, what made the place special wasn't necessarily the geography and certainly not the roads. What made that area special was the memories it evoked of their shared moments and milestones together. To highlight this, I added in markers and labels for their home (in Walnut Creek), wedding site (the California Golf Club of San Francisco), and engagement location (Point Lobos).

The initial outline of the bay, created in Illustrator.
To provide more detail, I added in major roads.
To personalize the map, I created labels signalling where major milestones occurred.

While initially I wanted to use wood to laser cut each element of the map, I decided to use paper as it provided a cleaner, subtly layered appearance. After selecting the cardstock and laser-cutting each layer, I assembled them all and glued them into place.

Assembling each piece of the map.
The final, framed result.

The second map I worked on was for a couple from Kansas who went to graduate school at the University of Southern California. They frequently return to Hermosa Beach for winter vacations. As a native Californian myself, I decided to take their infatuation with Hermosa Beach as inspiration for my map. Taking the same layering approach as I did with the first map, I created dxf files for the laser cutter for each layer in Illustrator. Since I was focusing on a single beach as opposed to a large swatch of coastline, the level of detail in the roads was much more profound. To indicate that it was Hermosa Beach, I added an additional layer that would have the letters of the name of the beach cut out.

A diagram showing each layer designed for the map.
The compilation of digital layers, each created in Illustrator.
Assembling the laser-cut layers.
The final, framed map.

The final map I worked on was for a couple that had worked abroad in several different countries and loved to travel. Rather than focusing on a scale of map that would enable the type of detail I was able to achieve with the Hermosa Beach map, I decided to focus on a map of the world. However, I wanted the couple to be able to personalize the map to reflect their travels. I also wanted the map to be able to reflect new places they may travel to in the future. In order to be able to update the map locations, I decided to go with different materials for this map. By cutting the world map out of illustration board and placing it behind cork board, the couple would be able to stick new push pins into new places as they visited them.

Assembling the laser-cut illustration board and corkboard tile.
The final, framed map, with personalized push-pins.

Once all of the maps were complete, I decided to use the cut-out pieces to create custom cards to go along with the gifts.

Custom created cards, assembled from scrap laser-cut pieces.

By experimenting with different scales of maps, I was able to explore how each scale affected the overall effect of the map. While the larger scale Bay Area and global maps provided greater indications of the locations they represented, the city-level map did a better job of showing of the level of detail that could be achieved with the laser cutter. In addition, different scales lended themselves to different expressions of identity. The San Francisco Bay Area map provided the best opportunity for expressing personal, annotated milestones. The Hermosa Beach map focused more on the place itself — every ally, park, and highway. The roads themselves evoked memories without the need for markers or annotations. The international map, in contrast, provided a blank slate onto which markers enhanced the overall effect of the map, rather than clutter it up. In the future, I'd like to explore how using different materials and spacing between each layer could affect the representation of the location.