A 1996 metaphor map providing a curated guide to navigating the World Wide Web before Google made it easy for us. Designed by legendary technical artist Timothy Edward Downs as a bonus for purchasers of PC Computing magazine.
PC Computing and Timothy Edward Downs
Back in the early nineties PC Magazine, PC World and PC Computing were in a three-way race for subscribers and newsstand sales. PC Computing viewed itself as the edgiest of the three—in retrospect, not dissimilar to Wired—and it ventured well beyond dry technical matter to include thought pieces, feature Penn Gillette as the back-page columnist, and generally “talk about what was really cool culturally.” (Timothy Edward Downs, YouTube interview) In 1994 it tried a new marketing tactic, with its designers producing a groundbreaking series of posters providing a graphic introduction to the rapidly-developing world of the Internet. The posters were “folded just like road maps, like you would get from AAA” (Downs) and shrink wrapped along with each copy of the magazine. Ultimately “about 13” such posters were produced over the next two years.
“This was a serial kind of a project, so every month with your new issue you’d get a different way of slicing and dicing places on the Internet…. and you could take this map, open it up, and start going to each of those sites…” (Downs)
Artist Timothy Edward Downs was, and is, a graphic designer, photographer and information technology expert, best known for his illustrated guide How Computers Work, now in its 10th edition. By his own account, he developed an interest in art and electronics at the age of 10. His distinctive, innovative approach to technical illustration later developed out of his frustration with the genre:
“Technical illustration… was all so boring…. at the end I never liked any of the things I did because they were all too perfect. All the angles were right, the perspective was perfect, everything was shaded in a way that was realistic but still very dry and very non-human, and ultimately you were showing what it was but you weren’t saying how it worked….
“As I was starting to draw and starting to work in the industry, I realized that I could draw technical things in a very accurate way, but it didn’t have life, and it didn’t excite, and ultimately it didn’t feel like it was alive and moving…. I wanted to invite people into the information as opposed to just showing them what all the things did.” (Downs)
“Map to Navigating the Web”
Offered here is one of Downs’ early PC Computing posters, produced in collaboration with technical writer Neil Randall. Here Downs adopts the format of the classic 17th-century double-hemisphere map—complete with sailing ships, sea monsters and compass roses–as a visual metaphor for the World Wide Web. In 1996, when this poster was published, the Web was already coming to be viewed as vast and difficult to navigate, and Downs and Randall aim to provide a “map”—really, a list disguised a map—to the huge variety of resources for finding what one wanted.
“Lost your bearings? You’re not alone. The Web has one big problem: It’s organized like a shipwreck. It’s amazing you find anything at all. So we’re tossing you a lifesaver—filled with essential tools you need to find whatever you’re looking for. And get there fast. Bon voyage!”
The “map” groups these resources into four categories: “Search Engines,” “Guides, Research & FAQs,” “Wed Indexes,” and “What’s New and Cool.” Within each category are several dozen sites, with an address and capsule summary of content for each and occasionally a bit of editorial comment. The back of the poster features an explanation of the different categories, directions for accessing the Web, and a large pictorial advert for the Gateway 2000 Destination desktop.
Though presumably printed in large numbers, this map and others issued by PC Computing all seem to be rare on the market. As of August 2018 I find no others listed for sale on line. For examples of other Downs maps offered by this firm, see here, here and here.
In all, a rare and unusual image of the internet in its earliest days of development.