Did you know: The map of your country is really an art piece

Daniel at work.

Can you recall geography class in school? How you were asked to draw the contours of your own country on a blank sheet of paper to show that you knew the shape of your own country. Now fast forward a couple of decades. These days we are mostly concerned with maps on Google Maps on our smartphones. But there are some people that have not forgotten the beauty of maps. One of those is Daniel Odonohue, the owner of MapScaping.com.
He is a GIS (Geographic Information System) professional that works with maps on a daily basis. His job really involves making sure that we know as much as we possibly can about our earth and the geographic world that we live in. He maps out the planet we live in. But he also sees the beauty in it as it is not only numerical science and plotting curves on a screen. Where does it come from, this passion for geographic data? Daniel touches upon the logic that he sees in urban life.

A science, an art, and the landscape in-between

“I’ve always found landscapes very inspirational. You can look at a map and see that it will take 2-3 hours to get to the top of a mountain or several days to cross a valley. For me it’s a way to combine two interests. It’s amazing to me to work with data.” The details talk of man-made logic “When I look at urban structures, I can see a certain logic in them, roads are connected in certain ways, cities are laid out in recognizable patterns but mother nature has a whole different way of organizing things and that’s why topographic maps are so interesting.”
GIS data science is a field that requires plenty of studies as a foundation and an analytical mind. But Daniel brought his experience from the natural environment to the GIS scene. To create the topographic art, Daniel uses a variety of open source software and writes his own software.
“I worked as a glacier guide during my studies and that’s how I met my wife.” But his contact with nature came earlier than the glaciers. After finishing high school at 18, he continued with a different type of school. “After high school I went to recreational school. I had my specialty in white water kayaking and rock climbing.” This lasted until he was 21 years old. His wife is very similar as she left Denmark at 18 and travelled the world. It then took her almost three years before she chose return to Denmark where they have being living for the last 7 years.

The road to Denmark

How did he really end up in Denmark and with his wife Nina? “I traveled and worked my way around the world for about six years before returning to New Zealand to start my master degree in Geography. I spent two of the six years working in Germany and traveling to other countries in Europe for work and to climb. But after a while I just felt like I needed something more, like it was time to move on to the next stage”. That was when Daniel decided to move back to New Zealand and pursue a formal education in geography. During his time at university he returned to the glaciers to work. During one of these visits he met a beautiful Danish girl, Nina, who is now his wife. She had worked there earlier and had returned to visit friends. “The odds were against us but the heart wants what the heart wants. First we are boyfriend and girlfriend, then husband and wife, and now we are mother and father to two amazing children and business partners”.

Daniel at work.
Daniel at work.

The decision to stay in Europe

Like so many fans of Europe Zig Zag have discovered, Daniel also mentions that the amazing thing about Europe is the ability to travel around. “This summer we went camping in Croatia. When you think about the adventures and the exploration you can do in Europe it is really quite incredible. On the way to Croatia we drove though Germany, Austria, Italy and Slovenia. That’s just not possible in New Zealand. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have the resources to go too far off foreign lands, you have so much to explore in Europe.”
As a side note he observes how easy it is to explore different cultures in Europe. “If you live in Europe, your first adventure should be in Europe, because you can get out of your comfort zone very easily but still be close to you safety net if things don’t work out.” If taking the train is not exciting enough for you, you could just take your bike.”
With all these good things said about Europe, the plan is still to move back to New Zealand. “I’d really like to show my kids where I’m from and give them the opportunity to explore the places where I grew up”, Daniel notes. “Both my wife and I see MapScaping as a chance to create a business that gives us the freedom and flexibility to and have an inspiring job.
Is MapScaping a way to feel closer to home as well? “In the beginning I made maps of New Zealand because I missed the landscape. Now it’s the potential for freedom and travel that motivates us. I guess it is the knowledge that we can have an amazing job and freedom if we do this right which really drives us.”
I wonder if they identify with the minimalistic trend? “I can remember when we first started accumulating things, and all of a sudden one day we realized that all this stuff can no longer fit into my backpack. I would not say that we are minimalistic but we try to keep our lives as simple as possible and we know that experiences are better than things.” Daniel goes on to say that the closest he personally has come to a minimalistic lifestyle was during his world travels where minimalism was not so much a conscient choice as it was a prerequisite if you wanted to travel around the world. “I remember a little ritual I had whenever I was really putting myself out there during my travels, every time I walked out the door I would tell myself that everything I need that day was already with me. A very inspirational way of looking at things and it does have a ring of minimalism to it.

Daniel and Nina.
Daniel and Nina.

Who buys your topographic art?

One topic that comes to mind for anyone wanting to create this kind of art is, who will it appeal to? Daniel’s perspective is of course the personal one. “Well, I look at it and see I landscape created by millions of years of natural processes and potential for outdoor adventures. As far as our market segment goes, we see ourselves as our target customers. People that lead active outdoor lifestyles, are interested in travel and of course those that see our maps as stylish way to personalize their homes. I would say people about the same age group. Those that engage with us on Internet are usually 25-40.”
Daniel continues to talk about how he sees this business as a personal one and that the idea is not to sell a million of one piece of art. “We are not interested in selling a million of one thing. “Right now our main focus is developing the concept, asking as many questions as possible and getting feedback.”
“We want it to be your story. The landscape that you grew up in, the lake you swam in, the things that are around you. Sure, people will smack it up on a wall and say, hey look at this a different kind of map. But we don’t just make maps, we made conversational art. The kind of thing that tells people where you are from, the places you have visited and the places you plan to visit. You can see people look at our maps and all of a sudden they are telling a story about this river valley, pointing at a feature in the landscape and explaining why it looks the way it does.”
With the explorer’s mindset and a scientific approach, Daniel and Nina have started out on what could be one of their biggest adventures. “We are relatively new to ecommerce and there is always something new to learn. We are the CEO’s, the web developers, marketing managers, customer service team and of course the ones actually processing the data and making the product. It’s an exciting time, but it’s not without its challengers! We both have fulltime jobs and two small children so we lead busy lives at the moment.
It can be difficult to stay motivated and finding a market fit is also a challenge. What is the most challenge side of the business? “At the moment the whole thing. We are developing our audience and gauging the market for this kind of thing. I product like our can be difficult to understand. Some people can’t see what it is. When we get better at telling our story, we will create a customized interface so using can personalize their map. We would stay with the theme of elevation data. Landscapes are amazing and timeless, there is always something new to see.”

The dream and the business

Daniel has succeeded in bridging his work with his passion for nature and geography. Then what is the plan for the future? “I definitely want to grow it into fulltime venture.”
Daniel and Nina see the business as being in the experimentation phase at the moment. “Not that I think you should ever stop experimenting but once we know more about what works and what doesn’t work we will start developing other products. We have experimented quite a bit with prices, styles, and colors and more and we see it as a necessary part of any business, the world moves fast and you have to keep up. It also fun, who wants to do the same thing all the time.”
The marketing is a larger upcoming challenge, as he points out. “A big thing for us in the future will be influencer marketing. I think conversational commerce will also be a big part of our future plans. The feedback we get is overwhelming with requests for new countries, or thank you messages for customers that have received their posters – A lot of expats buy from us.”

Inspiration drawn from back home

When asked which map is his favorite Daniel has this to say. “I really love New Zealand, no big surprise there. It just amazing to be able to look at it and see where I grew up and the mountains I used to climb and hunt in. I met my wife while working as a glacier guide in New Zealand and at that time was really into climbing and running in the hills so it brings back a lot of memories for me. We have both traveled extensively in Europe, Asia, Central America and North America so all of these prints have special meaning for us. But if I had to choose a map that I really love and is also I place I have never been I would have to say Iceland. It just looks cool.”

For more information about the topographical art, please visit MapScaping.com.

Paul-Christian Markovski
For EuropeZigZag.com