Making the Nashville Zoo Map

I've always wanted to make a map for a zoo or theme park and at the end of 2016 I finally got the chance. The Nashville Zoo has been expanding like crazy and they wanted a fun illustrated map featuring all of the latest exhibits. It was a challenging project, different in many ways than previous maps I've drawn, and I learned a ton from the process.

The Nashville Zoo map illustration without the labels (pictured with labels below...)

The zoo's Marketing Director, Jim Bartoo, asked for something similar in style to my Austin Peay State University campus map, but more playful and fun. It should be easy to navigate, but also exciting for kids to look at. We went on a tour, where Jim pointed out areas that should be featured, and I took a bunch of reference pictures. I took photographs of everything, from the habitats and animals to benches and signs.

The Tapir habitat

The Carousel!

Here's Jim showing me the Red River Hog - hey Jim!

I was also provided with previous maps the zoo had used, which I cross referenced with views of the site from Google Earth. After spending a lot of time walking the zoo, I realized that some of the paths seemed way shorter in experience than they looked on the maps. My aim was to make the map match the actual experience of walking the zoo as closely as possible, taking into account what you can see as you move from one exhibit to the next and how long the various path distances feel in comparison to one another. I also had to keep in mind the dimensions of the printed map and attempt to fill the space as efficiently as possible. 

Previous map

View of the zoo from Google Earth (the map is oriented south-up, so this appears upside down in comparison...)

After lots of sketching and walking and resketching, I eventually came up with a layout I liked. Here are the rough drafts as I developed the layout and added attractions.

The Spider Monkey, Andean Bear, Tiger, and Rhino habitats were still under construction while I was making the map, so I used sketches from the construction sites and architectural drawings to make my best predictions... It will be interesting to see how close I got! 

That's me sketching the Andean Bear exhibit. I should've been wearing a hard hat but shh!

This is all there was of the Tiger habitat. Had to use some imagination on this one!

A lot of the images I had were not from the perspective that I needed, which presented a challenge, but drawing from ultra-precise, engineer-produced CAD images has it's perks!


Another challenge was the medium - Jim wanted a vector map, but since I've been working traditionally so much lately, I hadn't even touched Adobe Illustrator in years! I got in touch with my former classmate Aaron Johnson of Anderson Design Group, who is a master of the Adobe Suite, and he agreed to give me a crash course in the latest tools. (Thanks Aaron!) It took a lot of practice - I used Illustrator to make my 2016 Drawlloween set on Instagram to prepare - but I got the hang of it in a week or so. Next I presented an example of the finished vector artwork to make sure they liked the style. Once I got the thumbs up, it was time to dig in on the details!

example of the final artwork

It was relieving and generally awesome to get the "go ahead", but an overwhelming sense of dread washed over me as I realized how much work lay ahead. (This sensation is described in my Making of the Nashville Map blog post where I describe the mental turmoil that accompanies intense drawing projects!) I also had to stay on top of my other freelance jobs, shipping print/puzzle orders, and it was the beginning of Party Season! (I am serious about Party Season.) So I knew I'd need to plot out a schedule for the project and stick to it militantly in order to hit deadline. As this was my first vector map at this scale and level of detail, the only basis for how long each section might take me was the example I made. I split the map into different modules and made my best guess at the hours I'd need to spend on each.

After knocking out the first few sections, I got into a groove and started to really enjoy the process. At times it got a little monotonous - so many bushes and bridges! - but I found ways to keep myself entertained.

I'd recently had hardwood floors installed so I was doing a lot of rollerskating at the time, and I was a slain ballerina for halloween so I had to practice my en pointe. #Excusesforadventurousfootwear

At one point I got so restless that I moved my computer to my drafting table for a slight change of scenery... It was cool for a bit, but I couldn't put my feet up on the desk so I moved it back within a couple of days.

Some parts took way longer than I guessed but others went quickly. I also got faster with Illustrator as I progressed, which I hadn't considered when building the schedule, so I managed to keep up, finish all of my other jobs on time, and make it to every party! Jim wanted each of the sections on a separate layer so they could be used individually or adjusted as the zoo continues to grow. This required serious focus on organization, but after a while I got into the habit of checking my layers. 

Listened to a ton of podcasts and audiobooks and ted talks and lectures and stuff. 


One of the trickiest parts of the project was warping the perspective. Each area needed to be depicted from an aerial view, but had to be recognizable from the ground level. It was also hard to decide what to include and what to omit - I wanted enough landmarks and clues to allow guests to orient themselves, but I didn't want to overload the map with too many details. I made a point to draw in key items like benches or recognizable features of each habitat.

The Giraffe section and its well and stuff

The Unseen Plaza - particularly tough because from this angle the front of the building is not visible (...some may say UNSEEN), so I had to make sure people would recognize it based on what they're seeing on the ground. 

The Jungle Gym! (My favorite part...)

Alligator Cove - this one was kinda complicated because it can be viewed from two different levels one either side, but it worked out.


Overall this was a super fun project and I'd love to do another zoo (although I'm shooting for a theme park next...) I learned a ton about animals (did you know that all gazelles are antelopes, but not all antelopes are gazelles?!) and it was a great excuse to spend a bunch of time at the zoo. Here are some more detail shots and what it looks like with the labels. Go check out the new exhibits! Spider Monkey opened April 6th and Tiger, Rhino, and Bear will open later this year.

Emelia, age 3

Picture by @creamerandchaos

Here is the map with the labels - I overlapped them with tails and horns wherever I could to help incorporate them better