Make An Exploded Axon Mapping

While cartography in its most primitive form has been around for millennia, ‘mapping’ is the term employed by James Corner in his canonical essay The Agency of Mapping. According to Corner, when designers ‘map’ we are actually “creating and building a world as much as describing it.” Through the design of our mappings, we instruct the viewer how to see something that we see. This How-To is dedicated to explaining how to make an exploded axonometric mapping, using the Hancock Tower in Boston’s Back Bay as a case study. It assumes only a very basic knowledge of Illustrator, Photoshop, and Rhino, so don’t freak out. Special thanks to nbbj for sharing this project!


Step 1. Know How Your Softwares Communicate

Learning a new program is hard, but learning how to make those programs chain together into an advanced workflow doesn’t have to be. Below is a diagram of the workflow discussed in the body of this post.


File Format

Many 3d modeling and 2d drafting programs will export vector files such .ai, .eps, or .pdf, which Illustrator can open natively. Illustrator can also open .dwg and .dxf files. Most programs will print to a .pdf if exporting, or save-as for vector options aren’t available. Photoshop is always your best bet for raster images.


Most programs have a mechanism for saving a ‘frame’ or view at a specific camera point, perspective, canvas size, etc, but each program has its own name for this: QGIS/Arcmap have Bookmarks, PhotoShop has Image Size, Illustrator has Artboards, Rhino has Views, Sketchup has Scenes, Google Earth has Pushpins, etc. In order to move efficiently between these programs, it is imperative to set up a rigorous framing system that you can rely on when you import, export, or Copy/Paste between programs.

Step 2. File Structure and Data Gathering

Organize Your Data

The process of making a map in any GIS software requires a rigorous folder structure, because spatial analysis creates a lot of extra support files and also uses ‘linking’ of those support files to the main map file much like InDesign. You will save yourself a big headache later if you create a comprehensive folder structure before you start. Here is an example of a good folder structure:
file structure

Source Your Data

Spatial Data comes in many flavors, and GIS programs can handle them all…from native files such as .shp and .lyr files, to .kmz /.kml files from Google Earth, CAD files, excel databases, and groups of street addresses. Increasingly cities are making spatial data publicly available on their municipal websites, and powerhouse data repositories collect sets of data (Check some out in the toolbelt below). Use your power-googling skills to find the data you need, and use excel to organize it if necessary.

For this How-To, download and unzip these datasets:

From MASSGIS download, unzip, and file the following layers: Colleges and Universities Buildings, Libraries Buildings, MBTA Bus Routes, MBTA Bus Stops, MBTA Rapid Transit (Train routes and stops), Open Space, and Building Footprints.

DOWNLOAD CUSTOM G-EA unzip and file the following layers*: Cultural Districts.kmz, Dining.kmz, Fitness.kmz, Happy Hour.kmz, Hubway.kmz, Lunch.kmz, Shopping.kmz.

These Google Earth Layers were created specifically for this How-To. To learn more about adding Placemarks, Polygons, and Paths to make your own layers in Google Earth, check out Google’s own tutorial.

Step 3. Qgis And Google Earth

ArcGIS is the dominant commercially available GIS software, and this is probably what you will use in any design office. Although there is an inexpensive non-commercial home-use version of the software available for $100 per year, there are also a couple of good free, open source alternatives available such as QGIS, PostGIS, GRASS, and MapServer. In the interest of keeping this How-To as widely accessible as possible, we’ll use QGIS, which can handle most of the processing as ArcGIS, and is constantly being improved through independently authored plug-ins. There are also a multitude of free tutorials available online. Download QGIS above and make sure to install the required frameworks if you’re on a Mac.


Begin by adding the building footprint layer in QGIS, then isolate the Hancock Tower to its own layer. Use the menu bar and selecting Layer>Add Vector Layer>Browse to Data Layer. Add the buildings to your file, then zoom in until you spot the Hancock Tower. Making sure the building layer is highlighted in the layers palette, use the single selection tool to highlight the Hancock Tower. Then right click on the layer and select ‘save selection as.’ Browse to your ‘Generated’ folder in the Datasources folder…this is where you will keep all the derived data layers. Save the Hancock Tower selection there.



Create 5 and 10 min walk radii

As a rule of thumb, a 5 minute walk in a city is about ¼ mile / 1320 feet / 400 meters. We can use the building centroid to generate our 5 and 10 minute walk radii. In the menu bar select Vector>Geometry Tools>Polygon Centroids. Input the isolated building layer, and save the output file in the Generated folder. When prompted, select yes to add the new layer. Then select Vector>Geoprocessing Tools>Buffer. In the window, input your centroid file, change the segments to approximate to 10, input the buffer distance of 400 (meters), and save the output to the generated folder. Repeat with 800 (meters) to approximate a ½ mile radius.



Now that we have our ½ mile radius, we can use that layer to ‘clip’ the other data we add to the file. Clipping is like adding a layer mask in illustrator, except the extraneous data is actually removed from the file instead of simply hidden, so it’s more like the trim command in Rhino/CAD. The benefit is that the file size is kept to a minimum. Just be sure not to save over your original data in case you need the unclipped file again later! Use the menu bar and select Layer>Add Vector Layer>Browse to Data Layer to add the rest of the data layers. Clip each layer individually, save each file to the generated folder with “_clipped” appended to the file name. Remove the original file from the map, and you’ll be left with all the data clipped to the ½ mile radius.


Google Earth Integration

QGIS integrates perfectly with Google Earth, which is great if you want to generate your own data, which could be located points, lines, or areas. Generating your own data is possible in QGIS, but the interface is just too clunky to be of much use. Instead, use the Placemark, Polygon, and Path tools in Google Earth to generate data, then export a .kmz for import into your QGIS file. For this demo, we’ll export our ½ mile radius from QGIS to Google Earth so we can then export a high resolution aerial photo to use as an underlay.

google earth
Select your ½ mile radius layer in QGIS, right click and ‘Save As.’ In the resulting pop-up window, save your file as a .kml. Open Google Earth and from the menu bar select File>Open to add your ½ mile radius. From the menu bar select View>Reset>Tilt and Compass. Then open the aerial photo history tool and navigate back to 2011 for a photo with less shadow intensity. From the menu bar select File>Save>Save Image to save a .tif of the aerial in the ‘working file’ output folder. Then navigate back to QGIS.

SAVE vector

Basic Graphic Manipulation

Most of the graphic manipulation of this file will take place in Illustrator. However, there are a few graphic tasks you might want to take care of in QGIS before exporting to illustrator. For example, changing the T routes to their appropriate colors. To do that, double-click on the layer, highlight ‘Style’ in the left menu, and change the pull down tab from ‘Single Symbol’ to ‘Categorized’. This will let us change the colors based on categories of data embedded in the file, such as the line color. Click ‘Classify’ to see our options, and change the colors by double-clicking the symbol.

layer prop

You’ll want to make sure all your layers utilize unique colors before you export to Illustrator, because QGIS won’t save to separate layers and you’ll need to use the “Select by Color” tool to re-layer your file. (Lame, I know.)


Once you have your layers loaded and organized, you are ready to move into Illustrator. Use the menu bar and select Project>New Print Composer. Create a unique title. Use the ‘Add New Map’ tool to add your map to the sheet, and use the ‘Composition’ and ‘Item Properties’ menu to adjust the map output parameters. Select ‘Export PDF’ and export your map to your ‘working file’ output folder.


Step 4. Rhino, Illustrator, and Photoshop

Isometric Building

Finally to the Adobe Suite! Well, almost. Lets sidestep and create a 3D Hancock Tower isometric drawing for the pivot point of our mapping. For this we take advantage of the Boston Redevelopment Authority’s comprehensive publicly available files. Download the 3d .dwg file of Back Bay. Using Rhino, open the .dwg and delete all the buildings except the Hancock Tower. Select all the meshes using ctrl+A, and type the command ‘MeshtoNurb’ to create nurbs surfaces…you need these for the next command. After the process is complete, your original meshes will still be selected…just hit ‘delete’ to get rid of them. Adjust to the correct view by using the menu bar to select View>Set View>Isometric>Northwest. Now select all the nurbs surfaces using ctrl+a, and enter the command ‘Make2d’ and use all of the default settings. In the ‘top’ viewport, you’ll find your geometry still actively selected, this time as a 2d vector graphic. From the menu bar select File>Export Selected and save the file in your Illustrator folder as ‘’.

You might also use Sketchup, AutoCAD, or any number of modeling programs for this short task. Go with what you know on this one, we just need to isolate the building and get it out of the modeling program as a vector graphic.

Aerial Photo

Open your aerial photo in photoshop. Adjust the hue, saturation, etc through the menu bar Image>Adjustments. Crop the file to the ½ mile radius. Save the new file and close Photoshop.

Assembly and Graphic Manipulation

Open your .pdf from QGIS in Illustrator. Select all (ctrl+a) and release the clipping mask through the menu bar Object>Clipping Mask>Release. Add a new layer and create a rectangle at the canvas edge with no fill and a 1-point black stroke. Call this layer ‘Frame’ and move it to the top of the layers. Separate out your layers using the command from the menu bar ‘Select>Similar>Fill (or Stroke, etc), from top to bottom, in this order: 1. Frame 2. Walking Radius 3. Happy Hour 4. Transit 5. Cultural 6. Shopping 7. Lunch 8. Open Space 9. Water 10. Buildings Be rigorous with your layer naming. Change the T line colors and stations to green and orange, respectively. Change the fill and stroke of the elements to a color scheme of your choosing. Replace the place-marks with icons from The Noun Project if you like. Place your aerial photo on a separate layer below the others and scale to fit. Make a copy of your ½ mile walking radius and use it as a clipping mask over the aerial photo (so you have a circular image instead of a square.) Add a final layer to the bottom and recreate a compass-like graphic with black tick lines and arrows.

Illustrator, Photoshop, and Rhino are robust programs in their own right, and we are just skimming the surface in this how-to. Dive into these programs individually using video tutorials or

Step 5. InDesign

Open InDesign and make a new, single page 24” x 36” document. Type Ctrl+D to place your Illustrator map in the document. We’ll use a series of three transformations to skew the placed file. Select the map, right-click, mouse to ‘Transform’, and click ‘Scale’. Scale the Y-direction independently from the X-direction, ie set the Y-direction to 85% and the X-direction to 100% and click ok. Select the map, right-click again, mouse to ‘Transform’ and click ‘Shear’. Set the Shear to -30 degrees on the Horizontal Axis and click ok. Finally, select the map, right-click, mouse to ‘Transform’, and click ‘Rotate’. Set the rotation to -30 degrees and click ok. You should now have an isometric map. Hold down the Alt key to make five copies of the map vertically on the page. When Illustrator files are placed in an InDesign document, we retain the ability to turn the Illustrator layers on and off in different instances of the placement independently. Try this out with your five map copies. Select the bottom map, and use the menu bar to select Object>Object Layer Options. Turn all the layers off except the Aerial Photo, the Compass, and the Frame. Repeat for the second map; turn off all the layers except the Frame, the Mobility layer, and the Building layer, the Water layer, and the Compass layer. Repeat for the third map; turn off all the layers except the Frame, the Open Space, the Lunch Layer, the Water layer, the Building layer, and the compass layer. Repeat for the final maps using the final image as a guide. Place your Hanckock Tower Isometric in the file and scale to the approximate size. Add text and a legend for each layer.


the final image

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