Cartographer's Toolkit

Map Making Tips, Tricks, and Inspiration

Putting the Cartography in Art, Quotes to Work By

November 20th, 2015


Enough of this clever little wordplay of “putting the art in cartography!” Let’s go the other way round. In many cases “cartography” or “map” can be substituted for “art” or other art-related words like “painting” or “photograph” in oft-quoted inspirational text. Here are a few instances:


“Art is not what you see but what you make others see” ~Degas
Always consider the audience. Do you mainly want them to enjoy the aesthetics of the map? Do you want them to discover for themselves certain thruths (that you yourself may not have even considered) by presenting complex data in a well-organized map? Do you want to hit them with a single noteworthy point? The answers to questions like these steer the mapmaker in the right direction.


“Every artist was first an amateur” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson
And, I might add, we all remain amateurs in some realms of cartography. There is no possible way to become an expert at design, programming, every GIS, web, and design software product on the market, analysis, and the subject matter(s) that you’re mapping. You must try for solid achievement in one or more areas and continued learning in the others.


“A good painting to me has always been like a friend. It keeps me company, comforts and inspires” ~Hedy Lamarr
If the maps that you or your department are turning out are not comforting you or inspiring you then it’s time to rework them.


“I really believe there are things nobody would see if I didn’t photograph them” ~Diane Arbus
What seemingly unsightly realities would people be confronted with if you truly made the public aware of certain things in your data? If you took the time to explore hunches? If you produced some solid eye-opening statistics and explanatory maps to match?


“My imagination can picture no fairer happiness than to continue living for art” ~Clara Schumann



Adding Desktop Design to Your Repertoire

November 6th, 2015


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:

Git: 2 yrs GitHub: 2 yrs SourceTree: 6 mos Inkscape: 4 yrs ArcMap and all previous iterations thereof: 17 yrs QGIS: 2 yrs Python: 10 yrs but not frequently Gimp: 1 mo AGOL: 1 yr d3.js: 6 mos JavaScript: 5 yrs but not frequently OpenLayers: 1.5 yrs GeoServer: 1.5 yrs CartoCSS: 2 yrs …etc


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.

The Art of Illustrated Maps: A Book Review

October 23rd, 2015

Note: I received an advance copy of this book for free from the publisher. I offered that I would review the book if I liked it.*

I was first introduced to HOW books through Jim Krause’s excellent, and snazzily “flexibound,” Color Index 2. This publisher knows how to design books for designers. They’re also pretty well known for producing HOW magazine.

So when they asked me to take a look at the brand-new book, The Art of Illustrated Maps by John Roman, it was not far fetched to think it’d live up to a high standard and, happily, it does so and more. It includes a multitude of illustrated maps, both historic and contemporary, from a variety of mapmakers. This would be enough to make the purchase worthwhile, but the text goes beyond that with a healthy dose of history, how-to material, and explanatory text about the showcased pieces.

Art of Illustrated Maps

Roman covers a lot. He indicates that anxiety at the onset of a project is normal and an incubation period is needed to counteract that anxiety, whether or not the intricacies of the project are pondered consciously. This is absolutely in accordance with how my own creative process works and with what I’ve previously preached on this blog.

If you are a person who likes to approach map design with a clear methodology, you’ll be interested to read about the hierarchy of design, which Roman explains as the listing of A-B-C items where A items are uppermost on the hierarchy, B items are one step lower, and C are the lowest. Because of the sheer density of information in a typical illustrated map, Roman cautions that these can be subtle when you start to look for them. The concept is valuable nevertheless, and I’m reminded of some egregiously bad maps I’ve seen recently with regard to hierarchy (hint: a transparency slider should not be in the prime visual space of your interactive, public-facing, map).

The contemporary illustrated maps in the last section of the book are perhaps the most useful from my perspective. It’s fascinating and instructive to see how different artists approach things and is a great reminder that there are no hard-and-fast rules in cartography and that we need to be supportive of the rich and varied nature that the form can take.

bookpic2Is it lavishly illustrated enough for the coffee table? Yes. Does it provide plenty of design ideas such as color palettes, layout concepts and typeface inspiration? Yes. Does it have a well-written chapter on the history of illustrated maps? Yes!

“Unlike technical cartography…the structure of illustrated maps, like jazz and creative nonfiction, grants the artist permission to improvise with facts without setting limits on the styles or techniques employed to relate a visual story–a true story.” ~page 3

John Roman graciously answered a few questions expressly for the readers of this blog:

  • What was the impetus behind writing the book?

    Having been an illustrator who specializes in “illustrated” maps, I longed for a book, any book, on the subject of my unique specialty. None existed, however…so I felt there was a need for a book on this form of conceptual mapping. The field has grown enormously over the past ten years or so, and I believed the time for an in-depth look into the history and psychology of this branch of cartography had arrived.

  • What is one of your favorite historical facts about illustrated maps?

    Two facts, actually: 1) That maps of the “mind” were the very first type of map and that “geographic cartography” as we know it today, grew out of that original, conceptual form of mapping…and

    2) That “illustrated” maps actually had a name about two thousand years ago. In 150AD, Claudeus Ptolemy gave illustrated maps the name “Chorography”…a name that has been lost over the centuries. (In fact, at the same time, the name “Cartography” was also born.)

  • In your opinion, what should my readers—who are primarily cartographers—do when they are feeling discouraged about a project?

    To keep in mind that historians refer to mapmaking as the oldest form of art. With this thought, all of us working in the mapping trade can feel assured that our need in society has always been there…and always will!



*And speaking of disclosures, the book links here are affiliate links, which really just means that if you were to buy something through one of the links, I would be able to purchase about 1/10 of an exorbitantly priced healthy smoothie that I really should just make at home for much cheaper.

GIS Coffee

October 20th, 2015

Do you want to order some coffee for a good cause? is taking orders, for the next 6 weeks only, for GIS-y branded coffee and mugs. It’s a project coming out of the  excellently executed and always supportive #GISTribe discussion that happens on twitter every Wednesday.

The coffee just went on sale yesterday and is already generating a lot of buzz. (Pun not intended–after all I haven’t actually received my coffee yet). I went ahead and ordered The Experience package, which looks to consist of:


I bought this package myself, this is not a paid or sponsored post. I just wanted to help out. I can’t say what the coffee is like yet since we don’t actually get the orders for another 6 weeks. But these are good people behind this thing and I’m hopeful!


If you want to order, use the special code Nathan Saylor agreed to give the readers of this blog: QMD at checkout for 10% off.

After reading through the website I still had some additional questions about, and asked them of Saylor. I’ll reprint the questions and answers here for your edification as well!

  • So all orders get fulfilled at basically the same time? Yes, except for the GIS Day shipping orders which is an option for an additional $15 and must be ordered by Nov. 2.
  • This is a one-time kind of thing, you can only order within those 6 weeks and then no more? At this time, yes. This is our first try at something like this. If we meet or exceed our goal, we will likely do this or something like it again next year. But there are no plans to do this full-time.
  • I understand the dream of a coffee shop for geo people but are you actually doing something physically? Like a brick and mortor? (Gretchen’s question clarification: I thought maybe they had all gotten together on a regular basis in real life.) No plans for that, but I think that would be a pretty hard sell unless it would be in D.C., Boulder, CO, or Redlands, CA.
  • Like will the hashtag be used one day at a special time for all of us to drink our coffee at the same time and chat on twitter? I hadn’t thought of that, but it isn’t necessary. #GISTribe chats every Wednesday at 12pm Pacific regardless of choice beverage.
  • Also, what does the music have to do with it? You don’t have coffee shops in your area that have live music? (Gretchen’s response: no, I live in a cave and I’ve never heard music in my life. Gretchen’s non-snarky response: I figured out that with The Experience package they also send you some music.)
  • Whom does the money go to? Will there be profit? Our initial goal is $300 to cover general web costs, but more to promote #GISTribe in the geo community. For example, Nathan Heazlewood (@nheazlewood) held a #GISTribe event at the Esri UC this past year. We did a live chat projected and it was a lot of fun. He supplied refreshments, but I felt it would be better if we had an expense account for those sorts of things. I’m already thinking in the spring we could get some lanyards and maybe some other items made up for conference season. Also, when #GISTribe was first starting out, Emily (@wildlifegisgirl) would offer prizes for contests. Those were paid for out of pocket and as a result, have tapered off. We’d like to bring prizes back starting with this event. Profit-wise? Beyond our goal, we will donate to  who organizes mappers such as ourselves in humanitarian mapping efforts in disaster-hit areas. Setting up a scholarship fund is also on our radar. We haven’t set this up as an NPO at this point, but we’re definitely of that mindset. Any more questions or want clarification? Send them along. Thanks!

New Notes and GIS Coffee!

October 19th, 2015

I was just updating my company website and realized I could copy and paste the “recent activities” section on this blog and expand on the GIS Coffee bullet too. So here goes:

We are:

  • in the throes of writing QGIS Map Design, a book that’s due out in 2016. This immersive experience is giving us all kinds of fun while we use SourceTree, Git, and LaTeX in a new kind of continuous-build book writing process. This is not the way traditional publishers do it!
  • buying coffee over at This was just announced today so it’s very recent. I bought The Experience and can’t wait for it to get here, though I noticed that they really aren’t shipping until Dec. I’m a bit confused about shipping and how this all works so I have some questions out to the owners of the site. Once I hear back I’ll probably write up a longer post. If you decide to buy now, remember to use the coupon code QMD at checkout for 10% off.
  • continuing to support the Hood Canal Coordinating Council (See our NOAA CCAP map here!) and will even be doing some d3 for them in Nov/Dec 2015.

We were recently:

  • keynoting the Manitoba GIS User Group Fall Conference on October 7, 2015. Check out the slides.
  • collaborating with Bright Rain Solutions and Mangrove Services to create interactive d3 charts for an NGO. See this in action here.

Slides from MGUG 2015 Keynote

October 13th, 2015

Here are the slides from the MGUG 2015 keynote I gave last week. There’s a lot of information that just doesn’t come through on the slides, since I shy away from putting much in the way of actual words on slides. However, I’ve been asked a few times for these so here they are. Enjoy the animated gifs if nothing else.

Cartographer's Toolkit

Map Making Tips, Tricks, and Inspiration