Cartographer's Toolkit

Map Making Tips, Tricks, and Inspiration

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 Maps with incorrect information that you have sufficient belief that people will rely on should not be published.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.

Don’t Oversimplify

September 23rd, 2014

There’s been a lot of talk about simplicity in the GIS world lately and so it seems like a good time to remember not to let the pendulum swing too much to the side of oversimplification. Read up on this in Don Norman’s Simplicity Is Not the Answer.

In the meantime I thought it prudent to add another poster in this blog’s series of motivational posters (other “gems” are found here and here) Plus, I happened to be testing out QGIS’s Simplify Geometries tool today.


Book Selling

September 16th, 2014

Last week I was asking around* about how to publicize Cartographer’s Toolkit more. The reason this came up was that I finally sat down and calculated total sales since publication for Cartographer’s Toolkit vs. total sales for GIS Cartography. Now, there are a few important differences between the books:

Cartographer’s Toolkit

  • published in paperback in 2012, published in electronic (pdf) form in 2011
  • not available on kindle due to kindle publishing not being good enough for such a graphic-intense book (there are about 30 individual graphics on some pages)
  • Aimed at providing an easy-to-flip-through experience for experienced cartographers seeking fresh typeface, color palette, and map design ideas
  • self-published and therefore self-marketed
  • marketed via messages on twitter (many), cartotalk (1), a small email group I belong to, and a few other small outlets. Also featured in GIS User and a few international cartography publications.
  • mentioned and reviewed on several blogs
  • almost 3 times cheaper than GIS Cartography

GIS Cartography

  • 1st edition published in 2009, 2nd edition published in 2014
  • available on kindle
  • provides a comprehensive textbook for undergrads, graduates, improving and experienced professionals
  • published by CRC Press
  • present at many conference venues via CRC Press
  • marketed to professors via CRC Press

Cartographer’s Toolkit is being under-marketed as shown by the fact that total sales have been at about 1/2 those of GIS Cartography. Even though GIS Cartography has been out much longer, it is also much more expensive. This makes me believe that Cartographer’s Toolkit has the potential to reach a much wider audience. All this is to say that I’m tossing around ideas to get the word out about the book more. I got some great advice via twitter, so I’ll start to implement some of those ideas in the future (including emailing groups that have people who may not read twitter). One of the nicest things about asking on twitter was all the positive feedback I got on the book from those who have actually used it in their own cartographic endeavors.

Brian Bancroft said, “Cartographer’s Toolkit has been a boon to me. Some of my private sample maps even scored me a job as a field cartographer in the resource center in a faraway province. I will have a lot more spare time on airplanes to do reading as a result [to read GIS Cartography]. Thanks again for doing what you do. You do it well.”

When, in other ages, have authors been able to get such direct and quick feedback from their readers? I think that’s part of the reason that books are still being created at a fierce pace these days: the interactive component with readership.

Onward to marketing. A writer’s job is never done.


*Asking around = asking on twitter

Cartographer's Toolkit

Map Making Tips, Tricks, and Inspiration