Cartographer's Toolkit

Map Making Tips, Tricks, and Inspiration

Review of “Designing Better Maps: A Guide for GIS Users 2nd Edition”

January 6th, 2016


I received Cynthia Brewer’s new edition of Designing Better Maps: A Guide for GIS Users in the mail yesterday. Yes, I purchased it myself and was not asked to write this review. I just happen to be very interested in cartography reading material. As if you didn’t know that already. The book covers a lot of the same material as my book GIS Cartography: Effective Map Design 2nd Ed, but is shorter and has fewer jokes. I’m just saying.

The other thing I immediately noticed about the book is that it is heavy. It is so much heavier than you would expect for a book of this size. At 10 by 10 inches and 260 pages, the thing weighs 2.6 pounds. For comparison, Cartographer’s Toolkit is only slightly smaller, at 8.5 by 8.5 inches and 184 pages and weighs 15.4 ounces. The explanation for the excess weight is cupcakes. Oh, that’s just me. The book’s excess weight is due to the really high quality paper inside it. You could buy two and walk with one in each hand as a nice way to work cupcake weight off.


Getting into the substance of the book, I’d say it’s much better than the previous edition. All the images have been updated and are now in keeping with modern cartography practices. All the typical things that you need to know are covered from fonts and labels to color and layout.

There’s a few pages on projections that offer great examples of why some projections are good (e.g., azimuthal projections show great circles as straight lines) and why some projections are not good under certain circumstances (e.g., the Plate Carrée projection stretches areas near the poles, thereby misrepresenting those areas). You won’t find an in-depth discussion of all the projection distortion possibilities but it’s enough to give a taste of what projections are all about, which I think is really the aim here.

There are a lot of great tips throughout such as labeling states and counties in pairs along boundary lines at medium scales, not using The Great White Halo*, reserving sequential color palettes for sequential data, and my favorite: do not stump your reader. One way of representing bi-variate data that I hadn’t seen before is depicting one of the variables with black and white dots overlaid on a heat map depicting the other variable. This is a visualization I’m taking note of as I think it could be very useful in future projects.

In summary, Designing Better Maps is a well illustrated book with concisely but excellently written explanations on all the basic mapping considerations. It needs to have a place in the library of all new cartographers and is also worth a look by experienced cartographers who seek a refresher and a few new tips. You will find references to ArcGIS in here (it is published, after all, by Esri Press) but the material is for the most part applicable to all cartographic endeavors, irrespective of the technology used.


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Cartographer's Toolkit

Map Making Tips, Tricks, and Inspiration