Cartographer's Toolkit

Map Making Tips, Tricks, and Inspiration

Friday Humor: What, You Think I Built This Whole Business on Fake Maps?

January 8th, 2016

I’m figuring this little snippet of Modern Family, which my map-attuned ears instantly picked out while watching the episode yesterday, will come in handy someday. Especially as a good Slack or IRC retort. And here, my friends, I share the little gem with you:

Link to the video

Hey, look. Everybody loves stars. We could take him on a tour.
Driving around looking at houses isn’t much of a birthday fun day.
. . .
Charlize Theron, Harrison Ford, Halle Berry… None of these seem very Uncle Mitchell.
What does Uncle Mitchell like?
. . .
Barbra Streisand! Perfect!
Okay, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait.
How do we know these maps are real?
You think I built this whole business on fake maps?
What business? You got a sign and a lawn chair.

How to Win a Map Contest

September 25th, 2015


I’ve just sat down to organize my thoughts on what it takes to win a map contest. Some of these points are rather dour in that they don’t really serve the cartography world all that well. Designing a map to win a contest and designing a great map are not always the same thing. Some of these points are fairly congruent with cartographic best-practices, however. See if you can spot which is which. :) And feel free to let me know what I’ve missed.


  • The color scheme needs to be something that everyone is familiar with and comfortable with, ergo: white or gray background with a few modest colors, dark gray or black background with a few bright colors, or a multitude of colors, but all muted. The option not to choose: cacophonies of bright colors.
  • The content needs to be immediately understandable yet not so watered-down that the judge will feel like an intellectual light-weight for choosing your map. This is all about psychology. The judge has his or her reputation to uphold and doesn’t want to look silly putting a blue ribbon on a map that on the surface looks too simple. While I feel that posters with massive amounts of text are off-putting and undermine the purpose of a poster, these text-heavy posters may actually win contests more than map-heavy posters because they stroke the judge’s ego. See this analogous situation with regard to soccer penalty kicking in this excerpt from “Think Like a Freak.” (For the record, I’m not a fan of that book as several of the examples are very poorly argued, however, they nail it with the soccer goal example.)
  • Plaster drop-shadows on all the margin elements.
  • Drop a big picture into the background if it’s a world map. Something with a visual consistency throughout and meaningful to the subject like sand behind a World Deserts map.
  • Make the map about a subject that the judges are likely to feel is underserved. You know how we get a jolt of happiness when we give to others? Maybe that’s what your judge is looking for when he/she judges your Stop on Red map. This map may not win an award for style–typically blue isn’t used for land–but like I say, it may win because it is a non-controversial but hitherto unmapped cause. Voting for this will make a judge feel like nobody can argue with their choice.
  • Use an easily recognizable location like a U.S. state or a country. These seem to win more often than large-scale maps.
  • Incorporate graphic design elements like fade-outs or color-blending.
  • Neatly align all margin elements either strictly to columns or evenly spaced around the map element.
  • Place all text immediately on top of the page. Don’t use a text-block background color. Especially don’t use a garishly-clashing text-block background color.
  • Only subtly differentiate between adjacent features. Maps with thick black lines for county borders, for example, don’t win. They also tend to not look good. It might be nice to indicate where county borders are in a state-level map of course, but usually they aren’t the purpose of the map and only serve to undermine the visual weight of the other elements. Therefore, they should be indicated with, for example, a slightly more saturated color than the main background.

And sometimes you still won’t win. But that’s because judges are idiots.

One of the GISCI contest winners from 2014, credit Jonah Adkins:


A Cartographer’s Gifkit

September 18th, 2015
  1. When the colors, typography, labels, and features harmonize perfectly on each page in the map atlas you just created.
  2. When one small change in the cartography causes a cascade of unintended consequences.
  3. Your reaction when someone in a frog suit tells you to make that color a little more peachy.
  4. When your first d3.js interactive map actually works.
  5. When someone tries to reign in your cartographic profligacy but you badass onward.


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.


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:


Cartographer's Toolkit

Map Making Tips, Tricks, and Inspiration