Cartographer's Toolkit

Map Making Tips, Tricks, and Inspiration

The Limits of Logical Thought

April 4th, 2014



I was staring at some carpet in my house this morning as I drank my morning tea. I like this particular carpet. However, if you look at it really closely and actually think about that carpet, it wouldn’t be obvious that it would be  a nice carpet. Somebody, at some carpet design studio (is there such a thing?) would have had to think, “a light tan with some specks of black will look good,” and then this person or team would have had to present it to the boss.

Can you imagine thinking that a light tan color with specks of black in it would look good as a floor covering? The immediate thought, when in a logical mindset, would be to say that nobody in their right mind would install that on their floor because it would appear as if it were dirty right from the start! But when you do install it, logic defies and it actually looks very good.

So my take-away is to try to see a design from all angles, be broad minded, test in real life situations, and realize that what might seem perfectly logical might end up perfectly wrong.


Are Creative Products the Result of Randomness?

November 15th, 2013


How do you become a good cartographer? This is the question I was ruminating on yesterday. If you really think about it long enough it’s amazing how far this one question takes you into psychology, philosophy, and the science of teaching. The easy answer, and the one that I’m known to espouse, is that it takes (1) study and (2) practice.

But what needs more attention is the pathway to get from study and practice to true creative success. For one thing, you can’t simply copy what you study in order to be a good cartographer. Indeed, the map products you create have to be yours–original. I’m guilty of being rather flippant in one of the books, where I simply say that through lots of studying and practice you’ll eventually get to a point where the particularities of your data and study area and audience will all contribute to the uniqueness of the product.

It’s not that that’s not true. But we still have a serious issue of how you get from study/practice to original and noteworthy cartographic design.

Random. I feel that randomness has a lot to do with it. Some ingenious efforts are a result of randomness. The practitioner who makes a creative breakthrough somehow has enough sense to duplicate the result of that random design breakthrough and publicize it. This is how new techniques come into being and its also how new “good” cartographers are made.

Now, the implication of this conclusion is decidedly painful. It implies that every great creative achievement through time is essentially the result of one or more people, who have had the requisite study and practice, randomly discovering something new. So why bother trying? The key here is that you can’t randomly come up with something creative without that experience and study. That’s where the trying comes in. Then, if you hit yourself regularly with a healthy dose of idleness in order to foster those random synapse connections, the creative successes will might come. I still think its a rather depressing idea. Let me know what you think.

The main inspiration for writing about all this was actually an opposing idea: does a lack of ability to notice detail mean that you can’t be a good designer? If you are someone who never remembers where the car keys are, a big picture kind of person, what chance have you?

Dale Chihuly Can Really Make a Mess

September 23rd, 2013

******Note: From time to time old posts are resurfaced. This post is from June 20, 2011. The New York Times just published a piece called It’s Not ‘Mess.’ It’s Creativity on September 13, 2013, where it’s argued that a messier work environment begets more innovative and creative work.*********

For many artists, the ability to work without constraints is necessary for the creative process. One of the things that often holds people back is their inability to make a mess. Maybe those childhood memories of parents being upset by a spilled glass of milk or a messy room manifest into a perfectionist attitude that impedes artistic disarray in adulthood. However, if you can overcome that and allow yourself to use trial and error, make mistakes, and create disorder, the end result can be a freeing of the mind and a corresponding heightening of creativity.

Take Dale Chihuly, the famous glassblower who injected the world of glass art with dramatic pieces, humongous installations, and massive doses of color. Ever since a dislocated shoulder prevented him from directly working the glass, he has communicated his visions to his team via paintings. And it is in a picture of him working on some paintings that you’ll see the messiness connection come in:

The ability to make a mess in order to create a higher level of finished product is great. The lesson for those in the map-making profession is that it is okay to start off a project however it works best for you.

Maybe you need to throw a lot of elements on to the page and move them around until you get the right look. Maybe you need to sketch out your vision on paper before using the computer. Maybe you need to make a painting that gets at the essence of the finished map you desire. Who knows, with this kind of up-front creative work maybe you’ll make as large a difference in the cartography world as Chihuly has made in the art world.

****Another update: this just out from xkcd :) *********

Creativity Exercise: Zentangle

June 22nd, 2013

A recent Science article reports that “only a few [colleges and technical schools] focus on the advanced analysis and creative, thoughtful presentation of geospatial data involved in cartography.”

I focused many of the earlier posts on this blog on creativity (see “Creativity” in categories on the right-hand side bar) and my book GIS Cartography: A Guide to Effective Map Design includes a chapter on creativity right after the introduction. That’s how important it is.

A simple and effective way to train your brain to be creative is to do short exercises as a regular part of your daily work routine. These can range from 1 minute doodles to 5 minute lego constructions but the key is to do them daily in order to improve your ability to come up with original solutions to all the problems that come up during the day. It’s not just special people that can be creative, it’s all of us if we just take the time to hone the skill. In fact, it goes hand-in-hand with critical thinking skills, with one improving the other and vice-versa.

While there are lots of ways to practice creativity, I discovered a new technique just the other day called zentangle. It’s just basically doodles on steroids. You can buy some zentangle books or check out a video, or just create repetitive doodles from your own imagination. Side note: ever do something and then find someone else has put a name to it and commercialized it? I used to “zentangle” as a teen. I’d fill up entire pages with parallel curved lines to create patterns anytime I had an idle hand. So I’m just saying-I thought of it first. :)




The Two Facets of Creativity

May 3rd, 2013

The idea stage is a function of the subconscious. Our best ideas—Eureka moments, if you will—often come at mentally “idle” times: while napping, meditating, showering, walking, and so on. Trying hard to come up with creative ideas doesn’t work. The brain must be at rest to leap over large creative barriers.

The execution stage is all about putting the conscious mind back to work and focusing on the task(s). The motivation for this ultimately comes from your ability to visualize the end result that was formulated in the idea stage.

Map Innovation, Map Derivation

March 7th, 2013

Let’s talk a bit more about yesterday’s post. There was some criticism that the maps showcased there were not innovative. Someone even claimed you could find those mapping techniques in traditional cartography how-to books. To that I say: hogwash! And also: of course!

You see, while those maps do indeed contain a healthy dose of innovative technique, we can never say that something is 100% unique, because all art is derivative. It’s the extent to which something deviates from the norm that puts it into the breakthrough category. Let’s show this using the examples from that controversial post:

From Twitter NYC A Multilingual Social City by Stamen (carto by James Cheshire) This map shows the location and language of tweets in New York City. The derivative: dot colors by category. The innovative: no background map, the spatial context is implied by the location of the dots themselves.

Average Commute Times by the WNYC Data News Team This map shows commute times, based on census statistics, in the U.S. The derivative: choropleth color gradient of a single hue to denote low and high values. The innovative: pink is an unusual and refreshing choice for any map feature in modern cartography, let alone the dominant feature.

Women’s Political Rights Around the World by LUSTlab This map shows the state of women’s rights in the world over time. The derivative: time slider, pop-up information, world focus. The innovative: a generalization scheme so extreme as to verge on comical. My opinion would have been to generalize less, but they’ve obviously pushed the boundaries here…so to speak.

Fata Morgana by Damon Zucconi This map shows place names in standard cartographic style, in a webmap. The derivative: standard cartographic place names; typographic maps are not brand-new. The innovative: no basemap for context, just the place names; typographic maps are still within the purview of neocartography.

Cartographer's Toolkit

Map Making Tips, Tricks, and Inspiration