Cartographer's Toolkit

Map Making Tips, Tricks, and Inspiration

City Maps Review

September 21st, 2016

The Coloring Queen recently reviewed City Maps. The blog-post style review includes nice screenshots of some of the pages and her video review flips through every single page!



Interested in other reviews of City Maps? Here are some:

A Coloring Book for the Map Obsessed, The Atlantic’s CityLab

Quiz: Can you Identify the City from the Blank Street Map?, The Guardian

Map Lovers, this New Coloring Book is Perfect, Curbed

Color Maps to Your Heart’s Content with this City Maps Coloring Book, GIS Lounge

Coloring for the GeoGeek! GIS User

GIS Bookshelf, ArcUser


We recently sent a case of City Maps books to Behind the Book. Other authors and publishers should definitely check this organization out for gifting books for a great cause.


September 14th, 2016

Yesterday’s “Ghost critique” post caused some consternation among readers who worried that I might be critiquing this or that map. Sorry about that. Perhaps a new format for that kind of crit is necessary such that I can use a bad map as a platform for learning but not call it out in any mean-spirited way. If anyone has ideas on that please let me know. In the meantime I’ll continue to at least post the good maps I find.


Not like this

Not like this


Something else that’s on my mind is a book project that I’d like to get started. I’m excited about it but what really matters is if I can get a fantastic agent to get excited about it too since this one has “big publisher” written all over it. Or it will if I/we can get started writing it (it’ll be a collaborative effort, don’t ask me to explain, we’re just trying to figure it out). You think you just want to make maps in this life and then you realize it’s about all kinds of stuff like finding a literary agent, writing blog posts, and retweeting owlish confidence boosters.



Speaking of tweets, I gathered a lot of tips via twitter today on using ArcGIS Online and passed them on in a 2 hour AGOL training session. Some favorites included

  • taking the time to plan a map before getting distracted by all the AGOL functionality
  • keeping in mind that AGOL is an interface for map services, which can be interacted with in other ways too
  • cleaning data before uploading it to AGOL
  • be purposeful about tags so you can find data more easily
  • contribute to the Living Atlas program

I decided that training should jump right into it with live demonstrations on adding data (we imported a shapefile and a csv), making a map and making an app. There were several good questions, like why you would want to make an app instead of a map (so you can add widgets).

And there was one particularly interesting part where a question was asked about the My Organization tab, and in my haste to answer it I clicked quickly on My Organization so I have no idea exactly what happened, but it basically came up with a screen telling us that there was no organization anymore. After my heart attack, I was able to get rid of this bug by logging out and logging back in again whereupon My Organization suddenly appeared again in all its statistical greatness.



Ghost Critique

September 13th, 2016

This week I saw one amazingly bad map that was being heralded as a good map in the media. It prompted the following subtweet:

I’m not going to link to the bad map that I’m talking about even though I know it would be instructive to do so because this post does not constitute a positive review of the map. However, I do think I can use it as a platform for discussing the general errors that were made. Here were the two big ones:

  • Too many things on the map. There were circles of varying size and color, isolines describing another variable, polygons with regular shading and polygons with crosshatch fills, labels, lines of varying pattern and icons.
  • It was a static map that you could zoom in and out of but one of the zoom buttons changed its icon suddenly after a couple of zooms.

When you have to put that many things on one map you also have to spend a few weeks at a minimum getting their symbology, layer order, and palette correct. I’m guessing that’s where this map went wrong.

The map’s central premise, data gathering effort, and analytical effort were all solid, which I am sure are the details that merited the media attention, but it failed in the final graphical display. The map makers should have spent more time on the cartography, much much more time. A hundred hours more time! There is no doubt in my mind that the map’s audience is significantly stifled as a result.


Swiss Topo Style, and risk in cartography

September 1st, 2016

I haven’t written a post in a while so it seemed the best way to kick my butt into doing one was to lighten up and do a free-form post. Sometimes the biggest barrier to writing is the idea that it has to be perfect. The onerous task of revising and getting all the links and pictures just right takes so much time that it can seem daunting. So to heck with all that.

Earlier this week I posted something on twitter which, as usual with my twitter postings, probably made very little sense to those who read it. It went something like, “Everyone likes maps with hillshading, contour lines, and hachures. All on the same map.” And what I really meant was

I just read a tweet where someone said that these swiss topo style online maps that made the rounds recently should be formalized as best practice styling for online maps. In other words, a lot of people really like those maps. And I do too. But it made me wonder why everyone likes them. As someone who makes maps and who might aspire to actually making a popular map someday, it’d be good to note what everyone likes, correct?

Kind of like Cindy Brewer noting in her book that studies show that everyone likes blue and not a lot of people like yellow. We cartographers should pay attention to those things if we want our maps to be received in a credible light. The pure artists in the crowd will scoff at this of course. That guy making the huge (Michael Heizer) desert art installation says that art is only worth it when you’re taking a risk. Or maybe that art is only art when it’s risky.

I don’t know how to reconcile those two thoughts. As a cartographer do we want to be risky or do we want to use styles that we already know people will resonate with? Do you have to always go risky or always be conformal (little projection joke there)?

Someone read the tweet and is going to see if she can find a student to do a study on the swiss topo style to see if people do indeed like it better than other styles and if so, why. There’s some speculation that people might like the swiss topo style because the contour lines make them feel smart.


(Swiss Topo For The Win?) What do you think?

 So there we have it: a blog post written without a single edit session. Read at your own peril. Okay okay except the one revision where I added an actual title to the post.




City Maps Revision Details

July 25th, 2016

The revision to City Maps: A coloring book for adults went live in all outlets the week of July 11, 2016. Did you know it can be ordered from your local bookstore as well as most major online retailers? You don’t have to order from the Amazon links here on this page, though I do earn some extra spare change if you do.

For this revision, almost all the maps were updated in some way or other. In fact, out of the 44 maps in the book, 36 were revised! A few of the maps had slight scale adjustments but for the most part they depict the exact same locations but with better line work. I’m thinking that taking a close look at what was accomplished in the revision could be super constructive to other cartographers facing similar issues.

TINY SPACES There were some tiny squares in some of the original book’s maps. Occasional complaints about the spaces being too small to color surfaced. To address this, I did eliminate many of the small polygons. For example, in the Venice maps, many of these small polygons represent courtyards within larger polygons representing buildings. Most of the smallest of these were eliminated as shown.

Venice Small Spaces Before

Venice Before

Venice Small Spaces After

Venice After

In other cases I did leave in small polygons. For example, I was particularly enamored with the visual contrast between Tokyo’s Yoyogi park and the area directly surrounding it. I felt that not only were the small polygons necessary for the understanding of the location, they were also not too hard to color if you chose to make them all a single hue and colored them with broad strokes.

Tokyo's Yoyogi Park, Small Buildings Not Removed In Order To Preserve Visual Contrast

Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park, Small Buildings Not Removed In Order To Preserve Visual Contrast


CRISSCROSSING ROAD CASING (say that 3 times fast) One of the main differences between the original coloring book and this revision is the correction of cased road merge rules. QGIS aficionados should be alerted that this is resolved via the properties>style>advanced>symbol levels>enable symbol levels check box. This was an embarrassing error on my part as the original version did have a lot of clutter from this problem. My error was not in neglecting to notice it (oh boy did I ever notice it) but in not knowing that this was an easy fix. Live and learn and hopefully teach others how to do it better, that’s what I’m aiming for here!

Crisscrossing Casing

Crisscrossing Casing

Crisscrossing Casing Corrected

Crisscrossing Casing Corrected


NEIGHBORHOODS OSM contributors sometimes delineate the insides of city blocks with polygons that conflict slightly with the borders indicated by street casings. A similar issue is that in some cases polygons represent entire neighborhoods, which also can conflict with road and building lines and polygons by being slightly off geometrically. In most cases I eliminated these conflicts in the revised coloring book.

In this example, I show a before and after of London’s Kew Gardens area. They aren’t a 1:1 scale comparison because I felt it best to zoom into the area a bit for the revised map. But you can see how there are many line conflicts in the before image where overlapping polygons ended up looking visually like abnormally thick lines. There were many other issues fixed in this before/after slice as well.


Kew Catastrophe

Kew Corrected

Kew Corrected

Vancouver’s Granville Island map was a great example of this problem. The map was a mess due to the overlapping issue. This was resolved in the revision.

Granville Egad

Granville Egad

Granville Great

Granville Great

Linewidths were also adjusted in the Granville revision. Not every issue was eliminated. As I write this I see some slight problems there in the upper-middle that weren’t resolved. Dang it! But overall this map in particular is about 100% better than before.

BRIDGES Bridges are represented in many different ways, it seems, in OSM data. I imagine that they are a problem especially due to the fact that OSM editors would naturally choose waterways as places to leave off their digitizing for the day, or to leave off their digitizing entirely. So in some places bridge lines don’t exist at all (e.g., the Manila port area) and in others the bridges don’t connect to the surrounding roadways in a seamless way. Where there were bridge problems, I corrected them by hand to the best of my ability as shown.

Botched Bridge

Botched Bridge

Better Bridge

Better Bridge

Google streetview

Google streetview (keep in mind Google is in Mercator while the coloring book Paris map is in Lambert NTF EPSG 27561 so there is a slight skew in what shows up here vs. the maps above.)


CANALS The canals in Venice were “cut off” from the Grand Canal even though we intuitively think that a map should show them as “connected.” The OSM data has a single enclosed polygon representing the Grand Canal. This makes it easy for a geoanalyst to, for example, select just the Grand Canal for whatever purpose. However, a coloring book user has a different interest, namely, to color all the canals the same color. Therefore, I felt it was in the colorer’s best interest to change this representation in the revised book.

Connected Canals

Cutoff Canals


Cutoff Canals

Connected Canals

You might also notice some other issues fixed in the second image as well. Docks that previously appeared to be floating in the Grand Canal were connected to the land and that extraneous centerline at the lower left was eliminated (sometimes river centerlines are present in OSM data but aren’t at all interesting to a colorer).


I did add in some buildings and other features of interest as time permitted. For example, I drew in the Notre Dame Cathedral interior, whereas the exterior lines were all that showed before. I also drew in a better representation of the Sydney Opera House (which actually doesn’t look very geometric from the bird’s eye view regardless) and as shown in the below image, I drew in a dock or two where I thought it would be interesting and where it hadn’t been shown in the previous version.

Sydney Before

Sydney Before

Sydney After

Sydney After

Okay, in this example, a lot of things actually changed. For one thing, I added cased road lines to the Sydney map instead of just single lines. For another, the dock is added in the lower left corner. A few buildings were added, the map location was adjusted slightly, and overlapping neighborhood and road lines were eliminated.

PARK PATHS Many park paths were changed from simple lines to cased path symbology, as in this instance. Only the main path lines were shown and the water features were added as well.

Central Park Paths Before

Central Park Paths Before

Central Park Paths After

Central Park Paths After


IN CONCLUSION I’m hoping that this post is instructive to beginning cartographers in becoming familiar with some of the detailed symbology work that needs to be done to make a map pleasant and in fitting with the audience for the work. Things like whether or not paths and roads should be depicted as single lines or as cased lines with widths. Things like whether or not certain features should be visible or not. Things like fixing the data where needed either by adding in buildings, or taking out neighborhood boundaries, or connecting bridges to the land banks.


The ability to make a map is great. The fortitude to correct it? Even better!



Hang tight

July 9th, 2016

*Update* The revision went live in all outlets the week of July 11, 2016!

I’m working furiously on a completely revised and updated version of City Maps: A Coloring Book for Adults


Cartographer's Toolkit

Map Making Tips, Tricks, and Inspiration