Cartographer's Toolkit

Map Making Tips, Tricks, and Inspiration

Friday Thoughts on Cartography

July 18th, 2014

Today a few of us decided to create a new organization called Emotional Cartographers Anonymous. While I am decidedly not an emotional cartographer–in fact there was another faction arguing for a Rational Cartographer’s Guild or some sort that I would be a reasonable fit for–I think it would be rather fun to attend an ECA meeting. I imagine there would be lots of shouting concerning the acceptability of halos on labels, old-school vs. new-school color schemes (think light vs. dark), and of course an open source vs. proprietary discussion in which someone inevitably brings up child labor. Or something.

And when we’re done with the meeting we can all gather around and have some map cake, which won’t make us upset at all.

USA Cake

All kidding aside, I also managed to publicly declare today that: You really have to understand the infrastructure underlying your map to be an effective cartographer. This statement received a fair bit of attention on twitter. The reason I’m pointing it out is that it may seem like a departure from my oft-repeated stance that to be a good cartographer you have to learn the fundamentals of cartographic design independent of the software tools.

If you think about it though, these are not two opposing ideas. It is true that excellent cartography is based on a sound foundation of basic principles as well as application of both analytical and creative forces to the data and design. None of that has to do with software and shouldn’t be constrained by software.

If you want to create a certain visualization that is perfect for your purpose and you don’t have the ability to do that within your normal day-to-day software then you should seek software that does offer that functionality (or, if you’re a dev type, build it). In other words, I don’t have to teach software in order to teach cartographic principles.

Figure-ground differentiation, label-font hierarchy, balance of margin elements, choropleth color maximums, and many other principles remain the same regardless.

However, what I perhaps have not emphasized enough is that there’s also a need for the cartographer to understand exactly how features and maps are created, stored, styled, modified, updated, and published in order to have a maximum of control over stylistic changes. In short, if you can’t operate your map stack technology then you’ll be relying on others to do it for you, which will represent a significant delay in getting edits published. It also leaves a gap in your knowledge of what the possibilities/capabilities of your stack are.

So, learn cartographic principles. That’s key. Also learn data analysis, general design, and creative skills. Finally, learn your software, whether that’s traditional desktop GIS or an entire map stack comprised of a map server, a statistics package, a web mapping client, a tile cacher and so on.

This is a lot and you probably can’t be an expert in all of it. In fact, team effort is fully warranted, particularly if you are serving up complicated maps. For sure a lot of speed is garnered from a team that has a server expert, a styling expert, a design expert, a front-end developer, and so on. But a cartographer should be familiar enough with all these pieces to be able to at least ask the right questions and coordinate the experts to provide a substantial, informative, and timely map product.


Map Curmudgeon

July 2nd, 2014

It’s been 4 years since I started writing this blog. So that means I’m now old and curmudgeonly. This was startling apparent today when these three things occurred to me:

  • If you edit a publication with a circulation around say 1 million, and you include a picture of a person squatting on a table in what is ostensibly supposed to be a business-setting, then shame on you for sloppy work. As my highschool yearbook teacher would say, “nothing is illegal about printing that picture, but ethically, you will want to think hard about including a picture in a publication that might make the person in the picture embarassed.” Or maybe everyone thinks squatting on tables is perfectly accceptable business practice these days. Beats me.
  • In the same publication an article by a pre-eminent cartographer shouldn’t be composed of 5/6 ridiculous non-meaningful chatter about why maps are great and 1/6 description of why the author is great. How about giving us some real ideas about how to be better cartographers? At the least provide us with a modicum of value. Please.
  • Finding a dataset on something as simple and as ever un-changing as the Oregon Trail shouldn’t be difficult. Instead, you try to find, say a shapefile of the Oregon Trail (a single line, or perhaps a single line with a loop at the western most end) and you’ll wind up in a maze of government web pages where it as if each page is a government employee passing off the request to another (i.e., a link), who then immediately passes you off to another employee as if it isn’t their problem. That’s how hard it is to find a dataset with a single line of the Oregon Trail. And before you tell me that it’s available in ArcMap as a dataset you can get through their online service, I’ll tell you that indeed you can but it is utterly useless because you can’t make a local copy of it and you can’t even trace it with the tracing tool.

And because I’m not ever going to be eternally sour, let’s leave this rant with a triple set of tips on how to make your maps better:

  • Learn some digital cartography, I don’t care if it’s big-name online or open-source online, your clients/customers/constituents need you to know this. I know you’ve got your expertise in your niche. Maybe you are an expert in parcels for the county, an expert in salmon (raising hand), or a geologist who can use GIS to find the best archaeological sites, you still need to know how to make compelling (or at least usable) digital, zoomable maps. It’s actually quite difficult to learn this skill if you’re not a dev. But it’s doable (raising hand again) and pretty necessary.
  • Give us something other than sensational maps. Pop maps have had their day and we now crave intellectual, even sophisticated, if you will, maps that teach us what’s important today around the world.
  • A two-hour sequester of 2-4 people brainstorming how to take your county’s parcel map from passable to extremely useful is not to be underestimated.

There are lots of tips to impart but I also want to be wary of pedantry. There are plenty of absolutely amazing maps out there changing the world today. Let’s leave with the London Tube Map in 3d:


Making a basemap with OSM data, some notes

June 22nd, 2014

Creating a zoomable map with openstreetmap data that covers the entire world is doable even if you’re a single-person entity without your own server infrastructure. You’ll have to use a provider like AWS to scale up to the level of performance that you’ll need, of course. As with any cartography project, minding the data becomes about 50% of the work and multi-zoom basemaps of the world are certainly no exception to that rule.


A tool like imposm or osm2pgsql is usually required to parse data from a source like geofabrik (pbf). At Boundless we’ve had some great success with imposm3, though it is still in the experimental phase, but so far proves to be much faster than imposm2. The benefit of imposm is that you don’t dump everything into 3 tables like osm2pgsql; instead you dump it into any number of tables based on data type, usually around 25 tables (you customize the download via a json file with whatever parameters you want to specify). This makes querying faster. You also get “diff support,” which means that you can easily incorporate updates from OSM diff files, thus enabling easy updates however often you want to update. (We haven’t tested that in imposm3 yet.)

Going along with the “data is 50% of the project” maxim, you need to become familiar with PostGIS in order to deal with this data. You need to be able to use a viewer like pgAdmin and/or get familiar with the command-line tools both for viewing the tables and their contents so that you can actually use and style the data but also to manipulate the data if needed.

For example, performance is often enhanced if you create attribute indexes on any attributes that you are using for styling. Let’s say I’m showing parks at a high zoom level. My GeoServer SLD that contains the styling rules for my map might specify that type=parks in table landusages needs to be green with a dark green outline. The table landusages may benefit from an attribute index being created on the type field.


Personally, I believe the very best way to get familiar with all the tools that I’ve mentioned above is to play with them yourself in a real-world environment. For this my favorite two options are 1) learn on your own (I love Boundless’s new online training courses) and 2) attending a maptime near you. And on a final note, don’t try to download and parse the entire world’s worth of OSM data your first time. ;) Start with a city, county, or small state of interest and scale up from there.

Spending even a few nights beginning to fool around with OpenStreetMap, imposm2 or imposm3, PostGIS, and/or GeoServer will make you more marketable. Investing in this knowledge acquisition will certainly pay dividends.

The Second Edition is Available

June 9th, 2014

The long-awaited (at least by me) second edition of GIS Cartography: A Guide to Effective Map Design is finally in stock and available for purchase.

With Special Thanks to the Following For Their Contributions:
Kyle Schaper
Mamata Akella
Cezar Buterez
Michael Bowser
James Whitacre
Matt Layman
David Nash
Allison Bailey
Matt Stevenson
Elliot Hartley
Evan Centanni
Hans van der Maarel
Jack Dangermond
J. Edward Pickle
Dave Imus
Karsten Venemann
and many more

With extra-special thanks for the cover map conceived and designed by Dan Bowles.

You may want this book for its two new chapters on projections and zoom-level design. Many of the examples were updated and a lot of the text was updated.

And Now, a Picture From A Satisfied Customer, in which someone sends me a picture of their baby looking at the 1st edition! If this doesn’t motivate someone to write a 2nd edition, nothing will. Afterall, somebody is actually reading it! Okay, looking at it. Okay, drooling on it and probably chewing on it. But still.

Quietness, in which a cat symbolizes quiet typing time and an undercurrent of impatience at the long process of writing a book is hinted at.

Ice Cream and Topology, in which I promise myself an ice cream cone for finishing and describe how one of the example maps was updated. Yes, I did get the ice cream, though I think I went with Cold Stone ice cream cupcakes (6 pack) instead, which I’m sure we can all agree was the better choice.

Party Time, in which I finish writing. Also featuring a globe, a wig, and a glass of wine.

Doing Good. Cartography Edition.

May 24th, 2014

You can’t get uphill by walking downhill.

Do good cartography.

If you’ve done bad cartography in the past, made some mistakes, used low-resolution datasets at high zooms, forgotten to change the font from Arial to something more engaging, employed a pastel fruit color scheme, put a north arrow on an Albers Equal Area map, provided too small of a gutter when tiling and some labels got cut off, failed to normalize the choropleth, or used solid lines for disputed territories, take heed:

Unmitigated Audaciousness at the Museum

May 18th, 2014

I visited the Denver Art Museum’s exhibit of Modern Masters yesterday to gain some inspiration for my latest basemap design. There are over 40 artist’s works on display, borrowed from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, from now until June 8, 2014.

My favorite take-away from the exhibit? The obvious courage and audacity that artists need in order to convey the importance of their finished pieces. If you read this blog often, you’ll know that I’ve remarked quite a bit on the impact of criticism, how to encourage it, and how to deal with it (throwing in some pertinent references to one of my favorite writers, Mark Twain, as a matter of course).

To exemplify these twin traits of courage and audacity, there was the unstated, yet implied, feeling of greatness in all the works despite their huge variance in style from impressionist to cubist and from surrealist to pop art. For artists to apply such varied techniques all within the time-span of a century was quite a feat in light of a general public’s need for constancy and more gradual change. In short, selling themselves and their revolutionary works most certainly required unmitigated audaciousness, which these artists had in no small supply.

How much audaciousness do we need as cartographers? Given the plethora of brand-new tools and those that are maturing to such an extent as to provide vastly new and robust techniques, I’d say there is a great parallel here and a great lesson for us. While our new and maturing tools provide us with the abilities to make great new maps that teach the world geography lessons of a much different sort and with more impact than in the past, we will need to practice the art of backing up our new styles with sufficient aplomb to get them widely adopted. 

Now for the personal nit-picking portion of the post. I got waylaid in an attempt to take a non-flash photo of one of the descriptions that had caught my eye and that I had wanted to remember to blog about. Yes, a museum person took me to task! The outcome was that I have forgotten the quote and artist it was attributed to. :( The gist of it was, however, that when a critic told an artist that it looked like a particular piece of art must’ve taken no time at all to paint, the artist had replied that the critic must have not taken any time at all to look at the painting. Oh, to have such snappy replies!


One little painting in the exhibit spoke the most to me and I do remember it despite not being able to take pictures*: Henri Rousseau’s Flowers in a Vase, 1909**. Rousseau’s critics ridiculed him for his “childlike style” though his fellow artists appreciated his “pure, untrained approach.” I always favor the more simplistic approach, which isn’t to say that the meaning behind a map should be simplistic, but rather that the explanatory text and the overall message should be clear even if the work that went into it was quite difficult.

So get out there and do something crazy. Make a map like nobody’s ever seen before and do your bit to further our understanding of the world.

*What museum doesn’t allow non-flash photography these days? Are they crazy?! I also must mention here that there’s a book on display that has to do with the principles of color. Though one might not expect to gain much actual intelligence from it given that one of the gems was something like “yellow is the color of depression and sadness,” which is–ahem–much debatable, it sure would have been great if someone from the museum had bothered to respond to my twitter inquiry as to what the book was, given that I couldn’t take a damned picture of it to remember! Okay, rant over…

**Also known as “Bouquet of Flowers with an Ivy Branch.”

Robert Therrien's audacity. (Not in the Modern Masters exhibit.)

Robert Therrien’s audacity. (Not in the Modern Masters exhibit.)

Cartographer's Toolkit

Map Making Tips, Tricks, and Inspiration