Mapping Life in 2020

 A zine that documented my world during 2020. 

The Problem

How can personal data be used to construct a map that shows and compares life before and after 2020?


The goal of the project was to create a map that accomplishes the following:

  • Uses research as a tool to inspire and inform visual design
  • Collect and curate data specific to my life
  • Develop a model for the expression of data and document the process as a final product


Final project for Visual Culture & Design graduate course, students were tasked to use data of their choice to create visual maps of their lives in 2020. 

My life from 2019 to 2020 changed drastically. The whole world halted as COVID 19 plagued us all. At the same time, I moved back to the United States after living in Taiwan for nearly 2 years. Not just the USA, but Texas, to live with my partner and his family. As my grandma always says, “when it rains, it pours.”

Project Duration

April – May 2021


  • Grid Systems in Graphic Design by Josef Müller-Brockman
  • Graphic Design The New Basics by Ellen Lupton and Jennifer Cole Phillips
  • Thinking With Type by Ellen Lupton
  • Illustrator
  • InDesign
  • Film photography
  • Gouache & Watercolors


Michelle Ramirez

What I worked on

  • Data visualization
  • Film photography curation
  • Illustration
  • Design
  • Storytelling

What I learned

I learned to trust my instincts on what story to tell. Originally, I wanted to document the international move but I decided against it because the scope felt too large for one small map. Instead, I focused on one small story like transportation. After a few iterations, critiques, and feedback I realized the larger scope was the best story to tell. I learned to not be afraid of scope but to utilize it as inspiration to tell a cohesive story.

I learned how to print a zine at home and how to hand-stitch a book! It was such a wonderful experience to create a physical project after a year of creating digital work.

Lastly, I learned when you are uncertain of what direction to go, that’s the best time to get inspired and ask for help! I referenced plenty of design books, walked when I hit a rut, watched tutorials, and scheduled numerous office hours. This combination is what helped me work through critical design moments.

Design & Iteration


The first step in the process was deciding what story to tell that will inform what data to collect. The professor asked us to think about how life changed from 2019 to 2020. This could be the nature around us, personal experiences, or even social movements. The goal was to answer the questions, “what story do I want to tell and what skills do I want to develop?”

Considering the process of data collection was a significant aspect of the project requirement, I decided to focus on personal events because the data would be easily accessible. I jotted a few events that significantly changed my life:

  1. Life in Taiwan (2019) vs. USA (2020)
  2. 14-day bike trip in Taiwan (2019) vs. daily driving in Texas, USA (2020)
  3. The differences in my emotions, fears, and hopes between 2019 & 2020 given my international move and global pandemic
  4. Full-time work (2019) vs. graduate school (2020)
  5. Experiences of having (2020) and not having (2019) COVID
  6. Apartment living in Taipei (2019) vs. House in Texas (2020)
    1. Living alone vs. living with partner’s family

Simultaneously, I researched maps for visual and organizational inspiration. My professor recommended we have fun with this stage and indulge in maps that we find interesting. While searching for inspirational maps, I knew I wanted a large-scale map that could tell a story that crossed borders. However, I did not want a typical map of the world, so I focused on maps that explained complex scenarios in a unique way. Below are five maps with notes on why they inspired my design process.

Categories & Scale

In addition to deciding what story to tell, and what maps to influence my design I needed to determine the data that will inform my project. The curation and explanation of data were integral to the final project. We were asked to think of data in terms of categories such as the color of food, number of objects, hours/minutes, etc. The categories are a metric that can be used to compare/contrast experiences.

Below are my notes on potential narratives and the supporting data.


  1. Story: map of my physical state with and without COVID
  2. Potential Data
    • Symptoms
    • Time spent sleeping
    • Locations I spent time in – room, living room, outside
    • Time spent with partner
    • Places of anxiety
  3. Scale: 800 sq-foot apartment

Mind Map

  1. Story: a map of my brain where certain emotions live. Map tells the story of how my feelings changed while living in Taiwan vs. living in the USA
  2. Potential Data
    • Quotes from my journal
    • Sketchbook illustrations
    • Photography
    • Time
  3. Scale: Internal

Life in Taiwan vs. Texas

  1. Story: explain the differences of living in the USA vs. Taiwan
  2. Potential Data
    • Instagram posts
    • Journal entries
    • Google maps location
    • Landscape photography
  3. Scale: Global

Life before graduate school vs. during school

  1. Story: how did graduate school change my thought process and how I spend my time?
  2. Potential Data
    • Google maps location
    • Amount of free time
    • Number of books read
  3. Scale: House + Internal


I presented these four narratives and supplemental data to the class to get feedback on which direction seemed the most compelling. Of the four ideas, they were most intrigued by my move from Taiwan to Texas. I could tell it was a compelling story as they had many follow-up questions and asked to learn more about my data (photos, journal entries, videos). I was surprised by this feedback as I thought my mental map was the most unique and personal story. The class agreed the mental map was a personal story, but they believed it was too abstract and not distinctly unique to me. Whereas, my international move was concrete, unique to me, and had them asking for more. Therefore, I took their feedback to heart and pursued creating a map that showed the differences between my life in Taiwan and Texas.

Iteration One

With a general concept in mind, the next step was determining the scope and exactly what story to tell. Attempting to tell a simple story that would not look overwhelming on one map, I focused on one aspect: how transportation influenced what scenery I saw.

While living in Taiwan, I primarily navigated the world by walking and biking. I even spent 14 days biking around the island for a vacation! Being outside was crucial to my experiences in Taiwan. Whereas in Texas during a pandemic, life was the exact opposite. My main mode of transportation was driving and I didn’t drive that much since I was in quarantine a majority of the time. My bedroom and office were crucial to my experience in Texas.

I aimed to keep the data (photographs, illustrations, Google Map data), base maps, and organization of the maps consistent. That way, the viewer could focus on the different scenery.

The image below is the first draft of my map which aimed to highlight how the differences in transportation lent to different scenery.

  1. At the top of the page is a base map of Taiwan and Texas for initial context.
  2. The second map is a zoomed-in view of Taiwan and North Richland Hills to get a clearer view of where I specifically traveled to.
  3. I then selected destinations based on Google Maps data where I either took a photograph or sketched an image and connected the image to the geographical location.
This is the first draft of a map documenting how the different modes of transportation lent to different experiences of scenery. On the left-hand side is a map of Taiwan that tracks my 14-day bike trip around the island. On the right-hand side is North Richland Hills, Texas, and the few places I drove to during the pandemic. On both maps, the size of the red dot reflects the amount of time spent in that location.


Concerned that my map was cluttered and unclear, I scheduled office hours with my professor to discuss how to best structure this story. Unless I provided detailed instructions on how to read the map it was confusing to viewers. My goal was to create a map that was easy to understand with a sparse key.

He suggested I consider the following, given the differences in Taiwan and Texas are so vast which makes this such an interesting subject:

  1. Size – consider other ways to emphasize size
  2. Tell story with parallel imagery – sketches in Texas vs. Taiwan, film photography in Texas vs. Taiwan, etc.
  3. Iterate through ideas that play with scale
  4. Consider alternative forms for final project – zine, video, or book
  5. What emotion do you want to portray?

Iteration Two

My professor’s suggestions shaped the direction of my project as I implemented many of his suggestions.

  1. Size: Taiwan is tiny and Texas is huge! To really demonstrate this to viewers, I included imagery that compared and contrasted the land space of both places and the population of their capitals.
  2. Parallel imagery: In addition to showing the parallel scenery imagery, I decided to compare/contrast all my experiences in these places with imagery such as food and personal art. This way, I could tell a more robust story about similarities and differences.
  3. Alternative forms: My initial assumption that one map cannot adequately tell this complex story was correct. I thought about creating a gif, video, booklet, Google Map with layers, or a zine. I chose to create a zine because they are easy to make at home, I can include as many pages as I need to complete the story, the book format made it easier to compare/contrast topics in one spread, it gave me a chance to improve my InDesign and bookbinding skills, and I had the opportunity to have a physical product at the end.
  4. Emotion: Since neither locations were my home, I wanted the viewer to feel what I felt: a combination of nostalgia and awe.

Below is the second draft of the zine.

Iteration Three

Comfortable that a printed zine will adequately tell a story that compares/contrasts my experiences in two countries, I took to InDesign to design the format. Since the goal of the zine was to allow viewers to quickly compare my experiences, I assigned Taiwanese experiences to the left-hand side to represent my past. Texan experiences would always be on the right-hand side to represent my present. Additionally, keeping the information consistent would minimize confusion even if the content on the pages changed. To better keep my content consistent and clear, I referred to Grid Systems in Graphic Design by Josef Müller-Brockmann. Specifically, I used a 20-field grid to lay out the text and images. I chose this grid over an 8-field grid as that felt too large and image-heavy, whereas 32-field grid was too text-heavy. The 20-field grid was just right for the combination of text and images.

While formatting the zine I asked myself the following questions to build upon my goal:

  1. Do I have enough time and resources to print this zine? Or does it work best as a digital artifact?
  2. How can I expand story beyond one bike trip? How can I use my data to tell a story that covers two years of time?
  3. It’s easy to show differences, but how can I include similarities even though I was on opposite sides of the Earth?

Here is how I answered those questions:

  1. After hours of researching YouTube videos, I learned it is possible to print a zine at home! All I needed was InDesign, a printer, decent paper, and and some practice. I primarily used this video to learn how to organize my pages in InDesign so that they print in the proper order. Since I already owned an EPSON printer all I needed was good quality paper.
  2. During a lecture, my professor mentioned that categories don’t have to be numeric/metric but poetic and metaphorical. The phrase “poetic categories” struck me as it better supported my goal of creating a map that feels nostalgic and enchanting. Instead of using time, duration, or count to support a story I thought it would be better to use my hair evolution, for example.
  3. During a class critique, one student mentioned that some of my photographs have similiar colors in them. That inspired me to place photos side by side with similar color schemes to show how these locations are similiar. I spent hours curating film, digital and phone photos that fit this criteria.

Below is the first version of the printed zine.

Iteration Four

With a solid foundation of what story I want to tell and data that can inform the narrative, I needed to fill in the zine. I then considered more “poetic categories” that evoked the innate and beautiful parts of my life that you can’t quite put your thumb on.

  1. Color – similiar colors in photography or illustrations
  2. Adventures – places I travelled to in both locations
  3. Emotions (joy, anxiety, uncertaintity, etc.) – journal entries and/or illustrations
  4. Drawing – how did the content of my sketchbook change based on my location?

After compiling photographs from both countries with similar color palettes I thought of ways to compare/contrast. At first, I had the raw image next to each other. However, that did not evoke nostalgia or enchantment. Wanting to push my photography to the next level, I referred to Grid Systems for inspiration. While flipping the pages, I came across this image of the Letter F filled in with a photograph. I immediately made the connection that this could work with the letter “B” for blue imagery.

Building upon my hair evolution, I kept the theme of a circle to demonstrate how the past connects to the present. I removed the circle shape and instead created the circle from images to keep it consistent with other pages. Additionally, I added text to explain why this evolution was relevant to the project.

I scanned my sketchbooks from Taiwan and Texas to compare/contrast what I was drawing. I added the scans into the grid, but in a collage style to represent how sketchbooks are a messy process with no clear pattern. It’s just a space to be messy. However, within that mess, I did spot a pattern: I drew places, people, and objects in my direct surroundings.

Printed draft of my drawing as a category page. The left includes sketches while living in Taiwan, and the right includes sketches from Texas. I compared these sketches and found I drew similar objects: people, places, and things in my surroundings.

Final Critique

Below is the presentation I shared with my classmates in our last critique before the assignment was submitted. While I loved my new poetic categories because they represented my life well, I was concerned that they didn’t translate to the outside world. To my surprise, my classmates really enjoyed the new additions and had such great comments!

“Using the color’s name to show color in the place so neat. I want to see more of that!”

“This is so endearing! <3”

“The categories are just great. Nothing shows the difference in time than hair, an awesome idea!”

“Printing across the gutter is a bold design choice that really works!”

You don’t need to share everything that happened. Be confident in your design decisions.

Feeling confident about my design decisions, I continued building on the foundation I laid down.

Final Design

The final categories that informed my story were:

  • Normal scenes
  • Sketchbook drawings
  • Peter, my partner
  • Adventure
  • Commute
  • Colors in photography
  • Hair evolution

I wrote the title of the category across the gutter to reflect this category impacted my past and present life. Even though what is on the left and right side of the page is different, there is a connecting theme.

Once the zine was printed and cut, I hand-stitched it togther and filmed a flip through for my final submission.