Cartographer's Toolkit

Map Making Tips, Tricks, and Inspiration

Because Halos

December 18th, 2014

Mostly, halos around labels on maps look bad. Especially when they are large and in high-contrast with the background. For example:

Halo Example Mega Size



We typically prefer what has been referred to recently as masking halos. These are fairly thin and match the background color. For example:




Any questions?


2014 Holiday Map Gift Ideas

December 10th, 2014

I was recently asked what I would recommend for map decor and had a fantastic time looking up old favorites and discovering a few new offerings along the way. Since it is nearing the holidays and many will be looking for some gift ideas for the map-enthusiasts in their lives (or, ahem, for themselves), I thought it would be good to list my finds here for everyone to peruse. Please feel free to add relevant map gift ideas in the comments as well!

  • David Imus’s map of the U.S. Get it framed and hand-signed by Imus for an extra-special gift! Purchase site.
  • Exquisite maps of major cities, made almost entirely with words. Purchase site.
  • Fans of Disney World’s Jungle Cruise will appreciate Jonah Adkin’s fun map. Also, Illinois and the Noland Trail maps. Purchase site. (Edited to add link to his new $5/off offer.)
  • The globe chair. And yes, it isn’t just a projected map un-projected onto a globe! It’s accurate (which is more than we can say for this). Created by Hans van der Maarel of Red Geographics. Purchase site.
  • Etched wine and pint glasses on etsy. Purchase site.
  • The 2015 Geohipster wall calendar. Disclosure: my company made the map on the cover. Make sure to specify Jan 2015 as the starting date. Purchase site.
  • And though this book is more about data visualization than about maps per se, it is a book that’s on my Christmas List so I’m hoping this hint makes it to the right person…The Functional Art by Alberto Cairo. Purchase site.

Opportunity Costs: To Make the Map or Not?

November 18th, 2014

If you fear making a map due to the critiques it might engender, think of it this way:

Is the opportunity cost of not making the map that you won’t steer people wrong…literally? Then it’s important to re-think the map data and concept. Maps with incorrect information that you have sufficient belief that people will rely on should not be published. All maps have some incorrect information so you would need to ascertain the severity of the incorrect information (is there a road that will lead drivers over a cliff?) as well as the quantity of the incorrect information and then make a subjective decision.

But, if the opportunity cost of not making the map is that you don’t embarrass yourself by putting something ugly or even maybe unusable out there, then still consider making the map. After all, you have to start somewhere. We all do. We’ve all made ugly maps and maps that nobody has used. Like the child who stops drawing after kindergarten, we mustn’t let our unfounded “lack of creative talent” become a blocker. Creative “talent” is borne of experience and trial and error, not innate capability.

Map Critique Friday

November 14th, 2014

It’s time to play…

What’s Wrong With This Map?

Take a look, jot down what you think, then see if your ideas match mine. If they don’t, let us know what you think is good/bad about this map.*



  • The legend is old-school. Needs to be more of a floating-type. Maybe in the ocean area at lower-left without the white background and most certainly without the black border.
  • Blue vegetation fill? Avoid pattern fill like this where possible. Especially the use of blue pattern for vegetation. I thought it was denoting wetlands at first.
  • Bright yellow roads near thick red highways are evocative of McDonald’s signs. These colors clash.
  • We know they used the default legend-making button in the software here. Because of the black outlines around the symbols, when the map, in fact, does not have black outlines around either the vegetation or the urban areas (which it shouldn’t, but neither should the legend).


*No offense to the creator of the map or to The Economist–which happens to be one of my favorite things to read when I’m traveling. I’m not above making mistakes. Look at one of the slides I tried to make for a talk, which didn’t turn out too well. Inkscape is still my friend, but we did get in a fight during the making of it.

stab me in the eye with this whiteboard

2015 GeoHipster Calendar

November 6th, 2014

At Boundless, we put together a nice and subtle world-wide basemap for our new product: Versio. It’s meant to be a basemap that shows you where your data is but doesn’t get in the way, thus the quiet color scheme coupled with ample data from OpenStreetMap.

A stitched together series of screenshots at about zoom level 14 in the San Francisco region provided a good entry for the 2015 GeoHipster Calendar and I’m pleased to announce that it has made the cover.


While I was the main designer for the map, we all know that cartography is only as good as its underlying data, and in the case of dynamic maps, as good as its underlying infrastructure. That’s why the map was really a

team effort by all of the Versio team at Boundless.

A short background on the map in case you’re interested: we used imposm3 to obtain a world-wide OpenStreetMap dataset with a customized mapping.json file that allowed us to get some generalized data for roads and things for the lower zoom levels while still getting the non-generalized data for the higher zooms. We also used quite a bit of NaturalEarth data for the lower zooms, including a raster hillshade for the ocean overlaid with a semi-transparent ocean layer to make it more subdued. Most of the labels are not cached, they are dynamic so that we don’t have any issues with double labels or labels cut off at tile edges. Because we aren’t using too many labels in the dynamic label layer, this doesn’t seem to affect performance. The map was made with most of the OpenGeoSuite components, including–yes, I’ll say it–SLDs that I basically edited by hand. GeoServer serves up the data + SLDs, PostGIS holds the OSM data, the NaturalEarth data are kept in shapefile format, geowebcache cuts the tiles, and OpenLayers shows them off on the webmap.

Cartographer's Toolkit

Map Making Tips, Tricks, and Inspiration