Cartographer's Toolkit

Map Making Tips, Tricks, and Inspiration

First Geo Flash Conference, The Video

October 17th, 2016


Didn’t make it to the first ever Geo Flash Conference? No problem, we recorded it! In this video of the talks, you’ll hear the latest tips and goings on from four fantastic spatial professionals:


Elliot Hartley of Garsdale Design Limited

Katie Kowalsky of Mapzen

Stephen Smith of MapSmith

Lene Fischer of the University of Copenhagen


Please keep in mind that none of these presenters had more than a few days to put together their presentations and a couple of them had no more than a few minutes. I think it turned out really well and my only wish is that we had more time for discussion. Next time!


Today’s David Rumsey Talk on Pictorial Maps

April 21st, 2016

Today was the second day of events celebrating the opening of the new David Rumsey Map Center at Stanford University. I was fortunate to be in the area already, giving a cartography workshop, and took the opportunity to go down and hear Rumsey give a short lecture on pictorial maps through the ages.

As soon as the talk began I took a quick picture for twitter, which was immediately seen by the guy in front of me. And thus BurritoJustice and I finally met in real life. Funny how things work out like that.

In his talk, Rumsey went over a plenitude of historical pieces at break-neck pace:

And used the term “visual culture,” which seemed a very apt phrase and well worth noting for future use. He explained that the era between 1915 to pre-World War II was especially rich with pictorial maps, created primarily for adventure, travel, and humorous purposes. He concentrated on pictorial maps from America, Europe, and Japan and remarked that 1926 in particular was an “amazing year for pictorial maps.”

The David Rumsey Map Center is located in Cecil H. Green Library, Bing Wing, 4th floor, Stanford University. Hours are Monday-Friday, 1:00-5:00 pm.


The Truthful Art: A Review

March 1st, 2016

The very first thing I thought about Alberto Cairo’s brand new book The Truthful Art is that the title on the cover sports no capitalization. This shows gumption! This shows panache! This shows that the author may have some new, snazzy, and possibly risky design tricks to teach me!

And guess what? I am happy to report that the contents absolutely lives up to my first impression. And I’m not even saying this because I’m completely psyched that my name is in the index or that he graciously refers to Cartographer’s Toolkit as “A good book to have by your side when choosing styles for your maps.”*

I've been indexed!

I’ve been indexed!

This is Alberto Cairo’s third book on data visualization. It manages to be both entertaining and full of substance in its main goal of taking to task misleading data visualizations, telling us why they are sub-optimal or even downright lies, and how we can do better.

In one particularly important section he describes the idea of applying controls to your data. We cartographers are familiar with the idea that we should normalize by population in a map of, say, the numbers of people who go to graduate school in each state, but we may be less familiar with other methods of normalization. One of the examples in the book is that a visualization of traffic fatalities by state might be more beneficial if we also knew how much people commute in each state. If we don’t apply these controls then the reader can come to erroneous conclusions. That bit is from Chapter 3, The Truth Continuum, which is quite possibly my favorite chapter in the book as it really reminds us of all the ways our data can trip us up.

The Truthful Art, Interior

Another bit that really resonated with me was the motto that he says he shares with his students:

“It’s more complicated than that.” 

And also: “Good visualizations shouldn’t oversimplify information.” I’ve been saying that for years (see When is Complexity Okay? and Not to Complicate Things…But More on Complexity.) Yes, clutter is bad but taking away all the details is also bad. In practice this means reducing unnecessary visuals such as neatlines around map legends but leaving in supporting charts and graphs that further explain the map data, for example.

One quibble, which I need to think more about, is that the text equates isarithmic maps such as weather and temperature with kernel density maps. However, kernel density analyses display a measure of the highest concentration of points in a given dataset, not the connections between points of real data. So I don’t typically think of kernel densities as isarithmic even though on first appearance they seem like similar beasts. But like I said I need to think more about this and feel free to weigh in, because I suppose kernel density visualizations really are typically shown as areas with the same value, but the values themselves really shouldn’t be seen as indicating anything other than relative density in a dataset, which to me is very different from lines connecting discreet data points.

Back to the positive notes, as these should far outweigh any quibble that I may have just uttered and that I haven’t even spent enough time really thinking through (something that Cairo says is SO important for any kind of visualization–Think It Through!). For one thing, the infographics explaining map projections are superior to the ones I’ve put together for my books. Also, Cairo goes into great detail on classification schemes for choropleth maps, which I think is a very good thing considering this is where a lot of data journalists (his primary audience, perhaps) need to be more cognizant. 

In all, a wonderful addition to my library that I’m sure I will go return to again and again in the years to come!

*Disclaimer which turns out not to be much of a disclaimer: I was sent a free copy of this book. But! I was not asked to review it. Furthermore, since I had already purchased this book on pre-order before finding out that I was getting a free copy, I believe we could almost say that no disclosure is needed though clearly instead of that we now have one very complicated and drawn out run-on disclosure.

Your donation in support of this blog is very appreciated! It’s simple to make a donation with PayPal using my link.

Valentine’s Day Printable

January 22nd, 2016

I’ve updated my Valentine’s Day printable this year! Please feel free to share and distribute. The intent is to provide a map coloring page for a Valentine’s Day school activity that could be paired with a lesson on map projections. This printable is aimed at early elementary or pre-school students.


Download the letter-size pdf here: ValentineMapPrintable.

The same sheet, but without the explanatory text here: ValentineMapPrintableNoText.

Download the pdf with the link above for full-size.

Download the pdf for full-size.

Adding Desktop Design to Your Repertoire

November 6th, 2015


What type of cartographer are you? Do you assume that other cartographers know the same tools that you do? Is it okay to be a beginner who knows one set of tools really well but still needs to get busy learning another set?




I was just doing a mental inventory of the tools I’ve been using this year and how long I’ve been using them:

Git: 2 yrs GitHub: 2 yrs SourceTree: 6 mos Inkscape: 4 yrs ArcMap and all previous iterations thereof: 17 yrs QGIS: 2 yrs Python: 10 yrs but not frequently Gimp: 1 mo AGOL: 1 yr d3.js: 6 mos JavaScript: 5 yrs but not frequently OpenLayers: 1.5 yrs GeoServer: 1.5 yrs CartoCSS: 2 yrs …etc


I don’t even know if I’ve got those years all exactly correct and I’m not sure it reflects relative expertise since at any one time I’m immersed in a few tools and therefore slowly forgetting the others until I pick them up again. Then there’s the little things you need to know enough of to get you by, like SQL. It’d take me a while to write a really complex query but knowing a little bit of SQL is a must, for example, for querying osm extracts for the tags that you need. I think this is pretty typical of a cartographer and GIS professional, though some are going to be heavy on the dev side of things, some on the design side, and some on the GIS side.


In fact, let’s take a look at these cartography “sub-specializations:”

  • Developer. Strong on programming, weak on design.
  • Desktop GISer. Strong on analysis, weak on programming.
  • Online mapper. Strong on cartoCSS, webGL, weak on desktop design software.
  • Designer: Strong on design, weak on analysis.
  • Data Specialist: Strong on PostGIS, MongoDB, etc, weak on design.

The gurus tell us to make sure we’re focusing on programming:


But it’s not a one-size-fits-all-weaknesses situation. Perhaps the vast majority of cartographers are traditional desktop GIS users who are weak on programming and therefore need to focus efforts there, I’m not disputing that at all. But recently we’ve seen another sort of “weakness” that needs to be addressed, and that is, in particular, the cartographer who doesn’t know desktop design software and all of its intricacies, oddities, and special lexicon.


A) A front-end geospatial developer with an emphasis on cartography tells me that she was thoroughly perplexed when another cartographer assumed that she knew what “path to text” and “erase” meant with respect to Illustrator/Inkscape commands.
B) An all-around geospatial developer who has to make maps as a side-product of his work tells me that he needs to make icons for his maps from time to time and struggles between whether to hire out such a small task or whether to just take the time to learn Illustrator or Inkscape so he can do it on his own.


My conclusion is that cartographers need to add basic desktop design software to their set of skills. Whether that means taking a class while getting their degree or learning it on their own, I think it’s a worthwhile skill. And I don’t say this lightly. I myself was hemming and hawing the other day at the fact that I needed to learn Gimp for something. A fellow GIS professional essentially told me to stop complaining and just learn it already. So I did and a few tutorials later was on my way.


So maybe there’s a mental hurdle keeping you from learning these things. In that case I’ll tell you the same thing: just take an hour or two to learn the basics of desktop design software. Learn a bit of Inkscape so you can design vector-based drawings and icons, and manipulate cartographic outputs from QGIS or ArcMap. Maybe learn Gimp (better for raster) for photo and screenshot manipulation. It really won’t take long and then you’ll have the ability to do these things yourself.


Does adding desktop design to your repertoire seem daunting, especially since you’ve been meaning to add deeper programming knowledge to your skills too? And what about spatial analysis skills? Why isn’t anyone getting ticked off about the fact that we have “GIS Analysts” running around who don’t have the ability to do multi-criteria decision analysis?


Get going and learn some things. Don’t expect that someone else with the title of “cartographer” knows the same stuff you do. If someone’s spouting off incoherent software-specific verbiage don’t be afraid to stop and ask them to explain. And if you want to get familiar with a bit of the desktop design lingo, here are a few things to start with, inspired by a real-life situation where someone assumed that these terms were universal knowledge (hint: they’re not):

  • Path. In Illustrator and Inkscape you can draw a line and display text on it. The line is called a path. You draw the path first and then tell it to place your text on it. Here’s a tutorial for Inkscape.
  • How to actually move something. You’d think this would be easy. Anyone with basic desktop skills knows how to click and drag. But did you know that you can’t always click and drag in, for example, Gimp? Sometimes you have to select a piece of the drawing with a certain tool or use the Layer Dialog. It’s a different way of thinking that you should get familiar with on a basic level at least.
  • Erase. Erasing or clipping is so odd in desktop design software. One of the best ways to make a triangle might be to make a square and then clip off half of it! You might want to draw a path and use it to erase instead of an eraser tool. You might need to know that a basic crop is a little complicated in Inkscape, since you essentially would want to draw another shape to crop with and then use Object>Clip>Set. Again, not exactly intuitive for a newbie.
  • Live trace/trace. This can be really handy if you want to create a drawing that looks somewhat like a photo or other drawing. You have the design program trace it and then you modify the result.
  • Scaling elements. Use the little lock symbol in Inkscape or the chain link in Gimp to make sure that both the height and width change in the same proportion. You might click and drag to make something bigger or smaller or you might need to use a scale tool, depending on the software.

Introducing Kids Map It

June 9th, 2015

Bright Rain Solutions and I put together a fun little project called Kids Map It in our spare time and we’d be glad if you took a peek at it and let us know what you think. Please spread the word about if you think it could be useful for the little ones in your lives or in educational programs that you help with.

Warning: It might go down. It’s on a free instance. It’ll be upgraded to handle more traffic if that becomes a problem–and what a nice problem it would be.

***For now the site is best viewed on a largish screen, not a small netbook screen or phone.***

Screenshot of Kids Map It

Goal: Our goal was to make something so easy that the youngest could use it (drag and drop!) but with a detailed enough map for everyone’s needs. It’s bright, but not garish, and intentionally devoid of the complexity of other sites. We had one job! (And hopefully achieved it though feature enhancements are in the works.)

Caveat: It’s early days on this so please let us know what needs to be better!


  • collaboration made possible by GitHub
  • jswizardry via JQuery, OpenLayers 3
  • use of icons by flaticon — we’ll add more soon
  • customization of a free bootstrap template called Grayscale by startbootstrap
  • styling of basemap coded in MapBox Studio and map hosting via same
  • served up via AWS free tier–if it breaks, that’s why :)

Edited to add more unexpected uses:


Cartographer's Toolkit

Map Making Tips, Tricks, and Inspiration