Canada's map to sustainability

Graphic by nik harron

Behind the Images

AJ’s creative director explains the meaning behind the imagery from our Roadmap to Sustainability issue.

Cover: Breakthrough

The cover of A\J's Canada's Map to Sustainability special issue

The challenge with settling on a cover for The cover of A\J's Canada's Map to Sustainability special issue

The challenge with settling on a cover for the latest issue lay in the broad-range of subject matter combined with the fact that the unifying thread between the articles was an abstract concept – sustainability. We wanted to create an image that looks toward a positive future and is immediately readable, without becoming tied to a specific topic. Wind turbines have become iconic of progress, a dramatic manifestation of sustainable values made physical, and it was a natural fit to our requirements.

A common frustration for environmentalists is the sense that many solutions to our predicament already exist, but political or market forces make it impossible to break on through to a sustainable future. The turbines are placed to imply a brighter, more open future from which we are only excluded by a paper-thin barrier. The map itself is based on data from the OpenStreetMap project, and is centred on Edmonton. The choice of which city to use to as a metaphor for the fossil fuel industry was informed as much by the need to have an appropriate level of visual texture as it was any other consideration, but as a major economic centre for the oil industry, it felt like a good choice.

Graphically, the creation of the image was fairly straightforward. One notable edit is the process used to create the illusion of the digitally-sourced map being a real map made of paper. We photographed a piece of blank paper which had been folded similar to a map then unfolded to create an appropriate set of creases. This black and white image was layered with the map to create the shadows and highlights that give the otherwise perfectly clean, digital data a believable analogue look.

This image shows the process used to create the background map image on the cover. From left to right: The blank, 
folded paper photo, the clean digital map and the combined result.

Opening Methodology Triptych

We chose to begin the issue with a three page legend to set up the theme. The three images – Look Back, Survey the Landscape and Move Forward – encapsulate the direction given to the authors when writing the articles. For each subject area, readers needed to be informed of how we came to the present moment, what the best practices are from a worldwide examination, and then recommendations on how Canada can move forward toward a sustainable future. This three-step approach is used throughout the issue. 

1. Look Back

The background diagram is a public domain image from Wikimedia Commons that illustrates our current understanding of the tree of life based on genetic relationships. Every organism around the wheel has had its genome sequenced, and compared to the others to elucidate the relationships. Homo sapiens is close to the top, labelled in black, to show that we are not the centre of life on the planet, but relative latecomers. We are only one amongst many.

The snake biting its tail is one of the oldest symbols in our culture, the Ouroboros, and symbolizes the chain of being that connects all life. It is an image of a cycle that is unbroken, and serves as a basic metaphor for sustainability.


2. Survey the Landscape

This image is an example of a graphic process called Delauney triangulation. The details of the underlying photograph have been reduced to a mesh of triangles, the colour of which is the average of all the colours contained in that area. The triangulation was achieved using a freely available Mac application called DMesh. While the software can automatically create the triangulation, in this case it was tweaked manually after the initial generation.

The original photograph is a stock photo taken by Olga Gabai, available from It is an aerial image looking across the Adam Beck II hydroelectric generating station on the Canada-US border. To the right one can make out the grand whirlpool on the Niagara river, and on the left the linear earthworks that constitute the reservoir that feeds the power plant. As an early renewable energy project, it seemed an appropriate symbol.

The icons layered on top of the triangulated landscape are symbolic of sustainable approaches. There is no one solution to our environmental issues – everything is connected.

The original photograph is at left, the triangulated version to the right.


3. Move Forward

This image is a reworking of a public domain 1930s poster from the American Works Project Administration. In the midst of the Great Depression the American Government instituted the New Deal, putting the nation back to work. Arts and culture projects were also prioritized alongside physical infrastructure. Artists were commissioned to create posters to advertise cultural events, tourist destinations and natural parks. Sustainability is as much about creating a cultural shift as it is a technological one.

The poster we used to craft our image was originally a tourist poster for the village of Sea Cliff. It was created between 1936 and 1939. Visit the Library of Congress website for more information.

We immediately fell in love with the surrealism of the giant step, and the sense of open exploration and purpose. Our modifications include changing the tourist attractions at the bottom into images of industrialism and power generation, adding a kite sail to the ship in the middle ground, and the addition of an airship and windfarm on the horizon.

In essence, our sustainable future has been imagined as a tourist destination. Arriving there will take great strides, but the journey will certainly be worth it.

The original WPA poster that was the basis for the illustration.

Nik has straddled the lines between graphic design, fine arts and scientific research for over 22 years. With a passion for image-making, pushing pixels and communicating complex ideas, his interest in the environment stems from his love of the landscape and a recognition of the profound changes that are impacting its natural beauty.