Syria Wall-map. First draft showcase.

If you are interested in this please send an email to registering that interest, along which country you would like it delivered to, from there I can start to get preliminary numbers and hopefully a discount (which will be passed on) for printing in bulk.

A number of group-chats discussing the Syrian Civil Conflict which I’m involved in brought a common thread with them. There are is at least some niche of wonk who are interested in large-scale, high quality wall maps of the Syrian conflict, either as a reference, or a way to keep small gains by any side of the conflict in perspective. Likewise, as a privileged college student, I’m constantly heartbroken by the situation in Syria, and longing to do more — anything — to help, but at the same time I am a college student who can hardly afford dinner some weeks. This brings me to the perfect opportunity to kill two birds with one stone, and design a wall-map for Syria, a really pretty one hopefully, that can be sold to those wonks who want one, and can raise money for charities.

For the past week or so I have been slowly working on a design for the map, and although it is far from a complete draft I thought it worth showcasing what we’ve got so far, partly to make it open to comment, and partly to drum up interest. So hopefully in this post I’ll take you through what I was looking for in the design, the constituent parts and how it all looks together.

Design Brief

When thinking up this map, there were a couple of standout requirements for me in terms of aesthetic and practicality. Principally I wanted it to clearly show the natural and man-made features of the country in a way that was immediately clear but not overwhelming the aesthetic. It should also be designed so that it can be viewed from a distance, and then examined closer to view more details, in a similar vein to classic book atlases, rather than interactive online maps. This meant that the detailed text does not obscure the overall landforms and landscape until you look closely.

An example of one of the 1980s atlases which posed as inspiration. Courtesy of my wall.

Meanwhile, aesthetically I wanted a general air of antiquity and a soft, mostly muted or pastel colour palette. Terrain should be clear but also not the mechanical and unrealistic shading of traditional shaded relief. Colours were to be used sparingly and details such as forest cover, which would cause more distraction than clarification, should be avoided in order to prevent cluttering the map. Practically I wanted the design of this map to mostly be built of data which was available for the entire globe, so that, while this map is only meant to cover Syria, the process would be easily repeatable for any location around the world.

A quick mock-up of the same style on data from Shan state in Myanmar.

Let’s go over the particular layers and design choices made with each of them.

Firstly the natural features shown. Elevation is probably the key layer here which provides the underlying tint and colour to the map, although not immediately clear from the final product. I wanted a colour-ramp that was varied enough to show some detail even when considerably muted by the layers covering it, and principally showing areas of lowlands and river valleys, distinct from general terrain and mountainous areas. Simultaneously it needed to be muted and antique looking to fit the overall aesthetic of the map. I ended up settling on a pretty simple gradient which shows lowlands as a subtle grey, before showing normal terrain as an antique paper yellow, with mountains appearing almost tea-stained.

Next there was the relief shading, which adds a 3rd dimension to the elevation data. Traditionally shaded relief has been done by hand, showing generalised landform features in an idealistic way, however such generalisations are not possible to compute. As a result hillshade tends to be a depressing grey with highlights and shadows showing areas hit by light and shaded areas, as below.

Traditional computed levels of terrain relief.

Although this accurately represents the terrain, it would make the underlying tint look terrible and make some terrain details overblown or too shaded to be noticeable, rather I calculated the hill-shade by placing the sun directly above the terrain, rather than at a 45 degree angle, and exaggerating the detail three-fold in order to maintain the depth. This makes it somewhat challenging to tell between a valley and a hill, but mostly shows hilly terrain as shaded on a white background, giving the tint a depth without completely ruining the colour-scheme. I decided to simply transpose the relief at 50% opacity rather than layer-blending in order to make the background more light so as not to distract from the text to be placed on it.

To the left of this image shows the shaded relief transposed over the elevation tint. The right shows the relief independently.

The only other natural features on this map are water areas. Inspired partly by National Geographic’s excellent maps, and the general antique aesthetic, I decided to show a broad gradient fill to the water-areas with the edges darker than the centre. This helps divorce the water-features from other features on the map and also just looks nice, I think. Similarly river and stream lines use the same colours, with the main colour of light blue with an outer-stroke of darker blue.

After these natural features comes the more important ones, the artificial features. The first step was state-borders. These are important but also difficult to show. In-keeping with a similar aesthetic used with the rivers, and again inspired by National Geographic, I decided to have a gradient fill in each of the provinces, this time separate pastel colours fading into complete transparency. This makes it clear where the province boundaries are without being overwhelming, but it does also rely on a basic knowledge of Syrian geography as the states are not labelled (although always named the same as their capital city).

The international border of Syria is also shown with a thick black line, surrounded by two narrow lines.

Next comes the settlements themselves. Each labelled settlement has a corresponding built-up area which is marked with a subtle gray, in a similar style to the water polygons. This is meant to show where is built up without being imposing on the overall map.

Built-up area polygons.

The symbology for the settlements varies based on the prominence of the town, in order to facilitate viewing at varying distances. They mostly consist of open circles of varying sizes and strokes, except for capital cities which are solid circles (these solid circles make the capital cities clear from a distance, but also obscure the road network underneath them, which is important when trying to orient yourself around a city. This will be made-up for by insert maps around the border showing each capital city, its road network and neighbourhoods).

The settlements are labelled in corresponding sizes with a stroke buffer of the general landform, antique, colour making them legible regardless of the terrain or features they overlap. When the roads get added in later pay attention to how much clearer those buffers make the writing in areas of a dense road network.

Finally all we have to add are the roads. These follow the same symbology as the rivers, of a lighter inside stroked by thinner, darker lines. Minor roads are shown as thin lines without any stroke. They also have a slight (30%) transparency. These make them evident, even at a distance, without taking away from the simplicity of the map.

As for the more detailed specifications of the map, you’ll have to let me get back to you on that. I expect the map to be 1.7x.1.2m, which is large but also necessary for the detail it shows. In the future I will try to produce a smaller map with less detail for those who cannot fit something that large anywhere, but most rooms and even offices would have that much space on a wall somewhere. Price wise, it will depend on where I can find to print it off at a reasonable price and the quantity of orders delivered. I expect them to be somewhere around $50–70, but regardless of the price, I will sell them at a 25% markup, with 20% from each sale (or 80% of the profits) going to a Syria related Charity, and 5% to me to cover the costs of printing draft pages.

I am also open to suggestions on which charity to donate to, so much of the Syrian conflict is politicised, including aid organisations, and I want this to be as apolitical as possible. Please feel free to comment with any suggestions but I will likely let every buyer pick from a list of 5 or so charities for their money to go to, if, say someone would rather donate to the ICRC than the White-Helmets, for example.

The next steps in this are creating supplementary maps to fill the empty space surrounding Syria. These are still very preliminary ideas however I might include a series of maps showing the military development of the war, along with some brief explainers to the country/conflict or perhaps a tribal/ethnic/religious map to add further context. If you have any suggestions for those supplement maps please also comment. My other next step is labelling some of the natural features, especially in the sparsely-populated areas where natural features are at least as important as settlements, and adding further settlements which are not included in the UNOCHA database I used. I also need to clean up some of the data including weird transliterations and data-misalignments. But this post is hopefully a good general overview of the map and how it will look.

Remember, if you are interested in buying one please email so that I can get a rough idea of numbers.