A textbook about ancient Rome would be less effective if there were no map to show the Empire’s annexation of provinces over time.
A museum exhibit about Arctic weather patterns would be perplexing without a map illustrating airflow.
A magazine article about a remote island with unusual flora and fauna would be lacking without a map to show where it is situated and the geographical features that shaped their evolution.
Enter The Map Factory, a Bel Air business with global reach. In a digital age when pixilated Internet maps are setting a new (low) consumer standard, Tracy and Justin Morrill produce finely detailed maps and illustrations that adhere to the timeless traditions of cartography.
“We are doing traditional cartography. These are not Google maps. There is a human element of a map that people like to look at,” says Justin. He and Tracy hold geography degrees and cartography certificates from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC).
“We love mapping. People don’t appreciate the artistry that goes into a map. It’s a perfect mix of art and science,” adds Tracy. “Yes, we use a computer to produce our maps, but we design them by hand, decide what towns to include, what typefaces, where to add shading.”
The couple met in the UMBC cartography lab where Justin, a Columbia native, was working part-time while he pursued his degree. He, like Tracy, stumbled onto a career path that would become their passion.
“I was a liberal arts major working at an ice rink when I noticed another guard filling out her course requests. She was taking advanced cartography. I had always loved maps. We always drove on our family vacations, and I was always the navigator. Maps have been around almost since the dawn of time,” Justin says. “It became my effective major, although I was taking the courses for a geography degree.”
Tracy, a York, Pa., native, was reconsidering the photography and applied arts major she started at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo campus, while her father was temporarily transferred to California. She says, “There were guys taking pictures of cracks in sidewalks and getting A’s. I enjoyed the artistic element, but I thought I’d have a hard time making a living at it.”
Following her family, this time to Maryland, she enrolled at UMBC and took a geography course to fulfill core requirements for any bachelor’s degree.
“I talked with someone in the cartography department and I was like, ‘Wow. I can use what I learned about photography and fonts, but with a set of rules.’ It felt safer, and I saw that I could make a living at it,” Tracy says.
The Map Factory counts among its clients – past and present – publishers HRW, WW Norton and the National Geographic Society. Corporate clients include PetroChem Wire, Collette Vacations and Blount Small Ship Adventures. They have produced maps for the Chesapeake Country National Scenic Byway, the National Park Service, the Ma & Pa Heritage Trail and the Maryland State Highway Administration.
The Map Factory’s illustrations and maps have appeared in National Geographic books and Saveur magazine, educational textbooks and in a museum exhibit designed by Washington, D.C.-based FasterKitty, LLC, for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History (NMNH). “I’ve collaborated on a variety of projects with Tracy and Justin. Our first was the Arctic and Atmosphere exhibits at NMNH. We collaborated on a children’s book about soil for the Soil Science Society of America,” says Katherine Lenard, owner of FasterKitty, LLC. “They have produced cartography, diagrammatic art, illustrations, 3D art … almost anything I can think up, they can produce.”
When asked why she has come to rely on The Map Factory, Lenard says, “They’re really good, very accommodating and have a wicked sense of humor. I also appreciate that they are local.”
The Map Factory is a small, woman-owned, MDOT-certified enterprise. Justin is an employee, which gives the couple flexibility during lean times, in case he needs to work outside the business to support the family.
“We do have lean times. The economy has hit us hard,” says Tracy. “People aren’t buying as many coffee table books. School districts aren’t buying new textbooks. It’s cyclical.”
In November of this year, the map-making duo will be married 20 years and have a combined 40 years of experience in cartography. Because they operate from their home, they are able to be full-time parents to two school-age sons, Ian, 9, and Jack, 6.
“We’ve seen every single developmental milestone of our children’s lives. Our oldest son was born with two heart defects and had two surgeries before he was six months old. I didn’t have to ask to take off,” Justin notes. “Of course, the downside is that when we are not working, we don’t have the revenue to cover the time off.”
Tracy and Justin transitioned their UMBC cartography lab jobs into full-time employment with Maryland Cartographics, at the time an ardent supporter of UMBC’s cartography program. Their employer was purchased by GeoSystems, which in turn became MapQuest.
“This was at the end of the Internet IPO craze and we all had visions of being instant millionaires, but the bubble was busting,” Justin says of the 25 or so staff members affected by the purchase. “After a year, AOL bought MapQuest and, although we were profitable, decided to close the office due to their internal metrics formula. About half of the staff was offered jobs. Tracy and I were two of them.”
In September 2000, after eight years of working for other people, the couple launched The Map Factory. “We could see the writing on the wall,” Tracy says. “We would never be out from under the control of people who knew nothing about mapping.”
At that time, the couple had no children.
“We made good money the first several years. We started our company and doubled our salaries because AOL expected the staff to do the same work with half the people,” Justin says. “We began to grow.”
Although the Morrills’ bubble is far from bursting, changing technology and the economic recession have the couple rethinking their business.
The Map Factory is at a crossroad.
“We get out or we push our services, and we’ve rarely had to do that, or we devise new products that utilize today’s technology but generate something that harkens to the traditional map form,” Justin says. “We have a new product we are developing that we will offer as a retail product. We expect to launch this year.”
“We love our life and are looking forward to what the future holds,” Tracy says, noting the long-term plan is to move The Map Factory from the couple’s home to accommodate their growing boys. “We’d like to have employees who generate income for us.” I95
The Map Factory
1300 Moonshadow Road
Bel Air, 410-420-8032