Carissa Carter is the author of The Secret Language of Maps. She's a designer, geoscientist, and Academic Director at the Stanford Carissa drives the's pedagogy and teaches courses on the intersection of data and design, design for climate change, maps, and the visual sorting of information, and she helped lead the's seminal Stanford 2025 project on the future of higher education. She pursues projects at the crossover between design, science, and emerging technology.


We spoke in mid-August 2022, and I was looking forward to talking to Carissa since I got a hold of her book, The Secret Language of Maps, from the new Stanford series of guides. Not only is the book beautifully designed and cleverly crafted, tracking a murder mystery through various maps and infographics, but it uses it to make great points about information, complexity, bias, and the role of the visual.


I have long thought that many of humanity's hardest problems seem so pernicious precisely because they're too complex to model and understand through words alone. And I think that modeling and conveying complex information visually allows us to use our complex visual cortex to decipher complex, nuanced, and dynamic systems in an infinitely better and more accurate way.


It was great to dive into some of these topics with Carissa, who had an interesting and unique journey to get to where she is today.




In this conversation we talk about:

  • Her 6:06pm tradition where she takes a picture at the same time every day, and the value of documenting our lives in this way.
  • How she learned the value of prototyping at a very young age.
  • What drew her to geology, and the relationship between geology and visualization.
  • Her lateral move from geology to design and how that got her into designing maps.
  • What is a map? Hint: It's broader than you think.
  • The agenda of maps:
    • The bias of data selection.
    • The bias of interpreting data.
    • The inclusivity of maps.
  • Why she says maps are made of a mix of data, craft, and bias.
  • A map of a world in proportion to the number of sheep in each country.
  • The book, The Secret Language of Maps, and what made her write it.
  • And many other topics. 


I think what stayed with me most is the incredible richness and craft that goes into making the best maps. The myriad creative and tactical choices that have to be made, and what these choices say about us, our values, and our intentions.


This conversation is one a dozen or so weekly conversations we already have lined up for you with thinkers, designers, makers, authors, entrepreneurs, and activists who are working to change our world for the better. So follow this podcast on your favorite podcast app, or head over to to subscribe.


And now, let's jump right in with Carissa Carter.




[4:23] Life in the Present

[5:50] 6:06

[10:19] Early Childhood Prototyping

[14:07] Studying Geology

[16:37] A Journey from Geology to Design

[21:04] The Secret Language of Maps

[22:43] What is a Map?

[31:55] Data, Craft, and Bias

[38:42] An Idealized Future

[39:51] I Love Algorithms 

[43:21] Rep is a Magazine

[45:22] An Awkwardness Enthusiast

[49:13] A Short Sermon