A little background.
I’m in the process of preparing a short talk for next month’s NACIS. That’s right, it’s about pushpins. Love them or hate them, they are everywhere. Physical pushpins hold maps, photos and to-do lists to cork boards everywhere. Meanwhile, digital renderings of pushpins are out of control. Their use as a Web 2.0 graphic is widespread and varied. They seem to indicate just about anything (with particularly frequent use in the context of user-generated/driven content). Wordpress uses the image of a pushpin as an icon for editing posts. Google Chrome invokes a pushpin on a button that allows users to retain a specified page on their “most visited” list. Most of us are also familiar with the pushpin symbols available to users of Google Maps and Google Earth. The list goes on…
In the spirit of keeping this simple, I will concentrate on map pushpins here. There has been increasing buzz about digital pushpins and pushpin maps over the last few years. Many cartographers believe they are more or less terrible as point symbols. “Map tacks”, “map pins” and “pushpins,” have all been dismissed as emotionally inappropriate. Pushpin cartography has taken on a connotation of rank amateurism. The pushpin on a paper map generally indicates something specific (home, research location, storms, etc.). These pushpins are also clearly separate from the maps on which they were placed.
But digital pushpins often have no immediate deducible meaning. If were are to consult some basic classifications in semiotics, as point symbols they are neither iconic (except when indicating the location of a pushpin) nor associative (except when indicating the location of… an office supply store?).
Unless the pushpins are the only point symbol and their meaning is in the title or legend of the map, the map-reader will have some serious decoding to do. If the clearest maps do not need a legend… if the idea behind a good icon or point symbol on a map is to make it intuitive and easy to read (to limit the need for translation), digital pushpins tend to fail. But does this matter? Are pushpins really about making beautiful maps or are they simply a tool for indicating the location of… well, anything? Pushpins may fail as a readable graphic, but I would assert that they excel as a universally recognizable tool for mapping. Who doesn’t know what to do with a pushpin and a map?
A little history.
We all understand – pushpins have been used for a long, long time on physical maps. Some form of pin or tack has been around for longer than can likely be traced (at least here). And for as long as there have been pins and tacks, it is fair to assume they could have been used to indicate points of interest on a map. The earliest map at the Library of Congress that has a record of a pin being placed in it is from American Revolution; it was used during the Treaty of Paris to delineate boundaries for the new United States with a series of red lines which were likely run between geographic features first marked with some sort of pin (n.b. it has been brought to my attention since initially writing this post that there is no hard evidence that this map was ever pinned. However, we do have evidence of Napoleon using custom pin maps in nearly the same era). In 1878, an inventor named JD McFarland cited the long-time use of map tacks by the United States Government Signal Service who mapped meteorological phenomena with them. McFarland pitched an invention that used map tacks to indicate points of interest in a map:
The devices by which I indicate the positions desired on said map are pointed instruments—as, for example, a tack or a pin. In connection with said tacks or pins I use a head on the same, said head being fixed or adjustable, and bearing a certain color or shape, or number, or combination of shapes, colors and numbers, or combination of colors and shapes, colors, and numbers, numbers and shapes, or either or all of them; or any other indicating devices or forms may be attached to said tacks or pins.
The pushpin as we now know it was an improvement of similar pins that were in use in the 1800′s. They consisted of ”a wooden body in which is held a projecting pin, said pin being clamped in position by means of a metallic collar about the wooden body” (Original Pushpin Patent). These proto-pushpins were considered unsatisfactory by Edwin Moore, inventor of the modern pushpin. Moore was frustrated by the proto-pushpin’s tendency to corrode and by the frequency with which his fingers slipped whilst pushing these pins into wood or cork. He patented this new pushpin in 1899. By 1910, his pushpins were so wildly popular that he invented a unit specifically for storing them. Yes, that’s right, it was designed to look like an enormous pushpin.
The application of pins in maps and charts continued to rise. By the 1920′s, it was so widespread that the Moore Push-Pin Company had expanded their line of fastening devices to include map-specific tacks, a product they still sell today. These were in such high demand that they found it necessary to patent a “device for inserting map tacks“. This invention was for saving the “cartopinographer” from sore fingers and to allow many pins to be placed in close proximity to one another (a problem that was approached by Willard Brinton in his 1914 work Graphic Methods for Presenting Facts – head to Making Maps for an excellent discussion of this work.)
A little guesswork.
Moore’s map pins were a success and they continued to be for decades. Roadside restaurants put pushpin maps in their entryways for patrons to be both impressed by their widespread clientèle and – here’s the key – eagerly mark the location of their own home. Who doesn’t like to be the first to place a pin directly through the label for their home on the map. I struggle to think of a voluntary act of mapping that has such broad appeal – people (if you’ll pardon the alliteration) literally pine to pin. So, the ubiquity of pushpins on web maps makes a whole lot of sense to me. If the developers and designers want to call out a desire to contribute to a map in their users, what is a more appropriate symbol than the pushpin?
If you walked up to a map on a cork board with a sign above it saying, “Where will you travel next?” what would you rather map with? A sticker? A pen or highlighter? Stencil? Decal? Rubber stamp? Apostille? Glitter glue?
Nope… a pushpin. And that – at least to my mind – is why they are everywhere.
It turns out that I quite like the use of digital pushpins, especially to encourage volunteer and public participation mapping efforts. But I should be clear; I completely understand the frustrations with them. Mapping drone attacks with pushpins, for example, is pretty far in lightheartedness from a restaurant wall map. And the extent to which the pushpin image has infiltrated the graphic vocabulary of the GeoWeb is astounding. But I think the issues surrounding the use of digital pushpins will work themselves out in the coming years. People are already hyper-aware of how ludicrous they can be (map marker death, digital to analogue pushpin art, pushpin coasters, alternate reality pushpin art, lost/dead pushpins, pushpin lanterns, etc.). Commentary on the pushpin will wax and wane. My plan is to keep on laughing when used comically and questioning when used inappropriately. Path dependence has spoken though; the pushpin is here to stay.