What type of cartographer are you? Do you assume that other cartographers know the same tools that you do? Is it okay to be a beginner who knows one set of tools really well but still needs to get busy learning another set?
I was just doing a mental inventory of the tools I’ve been using this year and how long I’ve been using them:
I don’t even know if I’ve got those years all exactly correct and I’m not sure it reflects relative expertise since at any one time I’m immersed in a few tools and therefore slowly forgetting the others until I pick them up again. Then there’s the little things you need to know enough of to get you by, like SQL. It’d take me a while to write a really complex query but knowing a little bit of SQL is a must, for example, for querying osm extracts for the tags that you need. I think this is pretty typical of a cartographer and GIS professional, though some are going to be heavy on the dev side of things, some on the design side, and some on the GIS side.
In fact, let’s take a look at these cartography “sub-specializations:”
- Developer. Strong on programming, weak on design.
- Desktop GISer. Strong on analysis, weak on programming.
- Online mapper. Strong on cartoCSS, webGL, weak on desktop design software.
- Designer: Strong on design, weak on analysis.
- Data Specialist: Strong on PostGIS, MongoDB, etc, weak on design.
The gurus tell us to make sure we’re focusing on programming:
But it’s not a one-size-fits-all-weaknesses situation. Perhaps the vast majority of cartographers are traditional desktop GIS users who are weak on programming and therefore need to focus efforts there, I’m not disputing that at all. But recently we’ve seen another sort of “weakness” that needs to be addressed, and that is, in particular, the cartographer who doesn’t know desktop design software and all of its intricacies, oddities, and special lexicon.
A) A front-end geospatial developer with an emphasis on cartography tells me that she was thoroughly perplexed when another cartographer assumed that she knew what “path to text” and “erase” meant with respect to Illustrator/Inkscape commands.
B) An all-around geospatial developer who has to make maps as a side-product of his work tells me that he needs to make icons for his maps from time to time and struggles between whether to hire out such a small task or whether to just take the time to learn Illustrator or Inkscape so he can do it on his own.
My conclusion is that cartographers need to add basic desktop design software to their set of skills. Whether that means taking a class while getting their degree or learning it on their own, I think it’s a worthwhile skill. And I don’t say this lightly. I myself was hemming and hawing the other day at the fact that I needed to learn Gimp for something. A fellow GIS professional essentially told me to stop complaining and just learn it already. So I did and a few tutorials later was on my way.
So maybe there’s a mental hurdle keeping you from learning these things. In that case I’ll tell you the same thing: just take an hour or two to learn the basics of desktop design software. Learn a bit of Inkscape so you can design vector-based drawings and icons, and manipulate cartographic outputs from QGIS or ArcMap. Maybe learn Gimp (better for raster) for photo and screenshot manipulation. It really won’t take long and then you’ll have the ability to do these things yourself.
Does adding desktop design to your repertoire seem daunting, especially since you’ve been meaning to add deeper programming knowledge to your skills too? And what about spatial analysis skills? Why isn’t anyone getting ticked off about the fact that we have “GIS Analysts” running around who don’t have the ability to do multi-criteria decision analysis?
Get going and learn some things. Don’t expect that someone else with the title of “cartographer” knows the same stuff you do. If someone’s spouting off incoherent software-specific verbiage don’t be afraid to stop and ask them to explain. And if you want to get familiar with a bit of the desktop design lingo, here are a few things to start with, inspired by a real-life situation where someone assumed that these terms were universal knowledge (hint: they’re not):
- Path. In Illustrator and Inkscape you can draw a line and display text on it. The line is called a path. You draw the path first and then tell it to place your text on it. Here’s a tutorial for Inkscape.
- How to actually move something. You’d think this would be easy. Anyone with basic desktop skills knows how to click and drag. But did you know that you can’t always click and drag in, for example, Gimp? Sometimes you have to select a piece of the drawing with a certain tool or use the Layer Dialog. It’s a different way of thinking that you should get familiar with on a basic level at least.
- Erase. Erasing or clipping is so odd in desktop design software. One of the best ways to make a triangle might be to make a square and then clip off half of it! You might want to draw a path and use it to erase instead of an eraser tool. You might need to know that a basic crop is a little complicated in Inkscape, since you essentially would want to draw another shape to crop with and then use Object>Clip>Set. Again, not exactly intuitive for a newbie.
- Live trace/trace. This can be really handy if you want to create a drawing that looks somewhat like a photo or other drawing. You have the design program trace it and then you modify the result.
- Scaling elements. Use the little lock symbol in Inkscape or the chain link in Gimp to make sure that both the height and width change in the same proportion. You might click and drag to make something bigger or smaller or you might need to use a scale tool, depending on the software.