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Monday, 12 October 2015 | By Gerry Mulvaney


By Gerry Mulvaney, European Sales Manager, Landa Digital Printing

As a young printing equipment salesman in the 1970s and 1980s, there were a few key items of equipment that you needed in the car when you were out and about. Of course you needed a bag of coins to use in the phone box when you needed to make a call. There was a box of catalogues and brochures, along with price lists and spec sheets, and then there was also the indispensable A-Z map of the city you were visiting.

In the days before sat navs, smartphones and the Internet, finding your destination was done in a very analogue way. The best navigation system by far was the trusty A-Z map book tucked away in the car’s glove box. Of course this must seem like the dark ages to the modern tech-savvy salesperson of today, but believe me, thousands of UK salespeople relied on their A-Z to avoid getting lost.

Now you might have thought that modern times had dispensed with the A-Z but it seems that the publishers of the map guides are enjoying something of a surge in sales recently, despite all the technology available to us. Unbelievably it seems we are falling in love again with a beautifully designed and printed map book and we have a lady called Phyllis Pearsall to thank for the origin of the publication.

London AZ atlas, early and late editions

London A-Z: 1936 version and 2014 version

It seems that in 1935 Phyllis was on her way to a party in London when she got lost and decided to use her artistic skills to design a map of the city that would one day become the most widely used navigation tool in the Capital. She decided that the only maps available in 1935 from Ordnance Survey were not up to the task, having been produced in 1918, and she could do better.

Phyllis walked 3,000 miles to note down London’s 23,000 streets and create the first map. She didn’t have much luck selling the idea to publishers, so in 1938 supported by her father, she designed her own map book using a Gill typeface, had 10,000 copies printed and hawked them round the capital’s book stores with little success. That is until the newsagents, WH Smith placed a trial order for sale at London’s railway stations and the A-Z became a runaway success. She later repeated the formula in most of the UK cities, founding the Geographers Map Company and living to the ripe old age of 89.

Phyllis Pearsal and A-Z atlas

The late Phyllis Pearsal with her paper-based navigation tool

The A-Z Atlas – a Modern Day Print on Paper Navigation Tool

The A-Z became the de facto standard for sales people and other professionals needing to navigate cities accurately. Indeed today the famous London Black Cab drivers still use the A-Z as their bible when preparing for their licence examination.

With sales on the rise again, it seems that having a larger, detailed, accurate and readable picture in the car, supplementing the 4” sat nav screen is a big draw for today’s drivers. I doubt that Phyllis would have foreseen such longevity in 1938, with print on paper still having a place even in today’s digital age.

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