When Jeff King was 6 years old and misbehaving, he said, his parents had a tactic for calming him down – they’d hand him a map.
And it worked. He’d stop his mischief and sprawl over the paper, gazing endlessly at the tiny printed roads, rivers and mountains.
He loved maps then, and as an adult, he still does. In 1995, after a few years working in graphic design, King got a job at Mapping Specialists – a private Madison company that was created in 1984 by Onno Brouwer, UW-Madison Cartography Lab director, to bid on government-based mapping contracts.
King had finally found his passion, and eventually worked his way up to project manager. His parents told him, “It took you long enough to get back.”
But Mapping Specialists isn’t a business built on nostalgia. It’s firmly grounded in the present, with employees of all ages. The company focuses mostly on work for hire: their projects run the gamut from traditional, such as atlases and textbook maps, to modern, such as online educational games and digital, updatable maps.
The president and owner of Mapping Specialists, David Knipfer, said maps are more prevalent in society now than they’ve ever been, from turn-by-turn direction apps, to restaurant searches, to social networks that pinpoint users’ locations.
Maps aren’t going away, but people are learning to use them in a different way, Knipfer said.
Mapping Specialists’ employees don’t fear Google Street View – the mapping project that’s photographing streets across the globe – but rather, they embrace it. King said the company uses Street View to double check locations or investigate an unidentified building footprint.
The business also creates custom maps through Google. For instance, they’ll put pins on Google’s maps for businesses that want a visual representation of all their clients and update that data as needed, using online coding — an area where younger Mapping Specialists employees shine, King said.
Paper is still king
Curiously, in an increasingly paperless world, printed products kept the business afloat during the recession – specifically, recreation maps, King said.
Mapping Specialists created a series of recreation-based atlases, which required detailed research on climate, campgrounds and other attractions, King said.
King has mapped so many locations and vacation spots, he said, that he could spend the rest of his life traveling the world. He travels a couple times each year to meet with clients, many of whom are located in Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Australia and India.
Mapping Specialists also creates waterproof and tear-resistant maps for hikers, bikers and fishermen. Unlike cell phones, paper maps never run out of battery power, and can’t short circuit when wet.
Knipfer, an avid fisherman in his spare time, said he’s a fan of the company’s line of folding lake maps. And although he owns a mapping company, he said that while traveling, he doesn’t stick only to his own products — he often uses a GPS device (he said they’re good for turn-by-turn directions) but refuses to trust it exclusively.
“I don’t like to just blindly follow it,” he said.
And that’s true of many people. Knipfer said there has been a migration toward using both printed and digital maps.
“The human nature,” Knipfer said, is that, “people like to have an inherent idea of where they’re going.”
Mapping burgers, pizzas and rivers
Maps are practical for pizza-delivery people, and King said Mapping Specialists helps many pizza places map out the limits of acceptable delivery zones.
But they don’t purely plot pizza — King said he once covered a giant map in Burger King logos, marking the fast food joint’s many locations.
King graduated with a degree in education from UW-Madison, and frequently makes use of his background at Mapping Specialists. He showed off a modern educational product the company is working on — a tablet game where users match Canadian provinces to their geographical locations. As the game progresses, students are prompted with more challenging tasks, for instance, locating Canadian rivers – some of which are so difficult that even cartophile King had to look them up.
However, tablets haven’t replaced textbooks, which still give the company a lot of business, Knipfer said.
And King has created maps and graphics for a number of bestselling nonfiction books: Pulitzer-Prize winner, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert and Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base, by Annie Jacobsen.
Mapping Specialists also has an online service (go.madison.com/maps) where any user can log on to create a personalized map. Start by choosing one of the company’s raw maps, and don’t hold back — the company has a map for any location.
Knipfer said, “We probably have the whole world.”