Cartographer's Toolkit

Map Making Tips, Tricks, and Inspiration

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.


October 30th, 2013

Over on twitter we’ve been compiling a list of isoline types. I started with this list:

  • Isopleth/contour: Elevation
  • Isogon: Wind direction
  • Isotach: Wind velocity
  • Isotherm: Heat, temperature
  • Isograd: Geology

Others chimed in with the following:

  • Isobar: Pressure
  • Isoshear: Wind shear (and a whole lot more weather-related ones here)
  • Isochrone: Travel time
  • Isodistance: Travel distance
  • Isopor: Change in magnetic declination

After all that fine collaborative work I found that Matt has provided us with a nice complete list already. But hey, reinventing the wheel is a great way to learn what wheels are all about. I think.

Anyway, reminding map makers about this type of data construction is a good thing. We aren’t seeing any isolines on interactive, digital maps these days. I only ever see them on static maps. (Prove me wrong.)

The mechanism for including them would be the same as any other dataset: create the data (use your GIS), then create a multi-level schema whereby more isolines are shown the more you zoom in. You can populate the map with more isolines with each subsequent zoom level by creating a scalerank or minscale field and populating that however you want and calling it in the code. You’d also need to label them with fairly wide halos–hoping that your background color is mostly uniform and using that background color for the halo color–to create a break in the line where the label is. Unless your software of choice has a built-in way of dealing with that.

Thanks @rsimmon, @vruba, @oeon, and @ungarjo for your input. And yeah, thanks @williamscraigm…isochalaz?!

I figured I’d try my own too…

Proven wrong! @smathermather has shown us this fine example of a multi-scale, digital map with contour lines, on the Cleveland Metroparks map. They’re visible once you zoom in to a high zoom level.


Choropleth vs. Heat Map

January 23rd, 2013

*This post was updated on 1/27/2016.

This is a choropleth map.


This is a heat map.

Any Questions?

A choropleth map shows a change across a geographic landscape within enumeration units such as countries, states, or watersheds. A heat map shows a change across a geographic landscape as a rasterized dataset–conforming to an arbitrary, but usually small, grid size.

The heat map is sometimes generated from point data representing some sort of density but a choropleth can also be generated from point data. The difference here would be that the choropleth’s generated data will be by a non-regular enumeration unit that makes sense to people like countries, states, watersheds, counties or census blocks. A heat map would be depicted across a regular grid of cells, their size specified by the cartographer, but in any case, uniformly calculated.

Because the grid cells are normally quite small, the heat map’s colors are often “ramped” algorithmically as opposed to being specified as a set of discrete colors. The opposite is true of choropleth maps.

Both types of maps tend to require color palettes that represent values that range from low to high (sequential colors), or palettes that represent values that range from high to normal to the opposite high (diverging colors).

It should be noted that choropleth maps can also depict nominal data, though you aren’t likely to be confusing nominal choropleths with heat maps since they don’t depict low-to-high values. Instead, they use qualitative color schemes to represent non-ordered data.

See also: Choropleth Limitations

Map Generalization

September 22nd, 2011

Feature generalization is a key cartographic concept missing from many GISer’s skillsets. There are quite a few ways to generalize a feature layer*, but the big one that tends to get overlooked by the GIS crowd is line smoothing. For example, a detailed county boundary dataset is great when you are mapping just a few counties but if you are mapping the entire U.S., you want to have fewer vertices, especially around the shorelines, where the line can get quite complicated. If the scale is the entire U.S. those shorelines do not need to be representing every single bay and inlet as if it were a local boating map.

To smooth lines in ArcMap you have to have the ArcEditor license or above. You use the Advanced Editing toolbar, generalization tool after making sure the data are in an edit session (via the editor toolbar). If you’re in Illustrator, there’s always the smooth tool and the path > simplify tool. Or you can just find another dataset that’s already smoothed (for example, detailed counties versus general counties). If you are using ArcView (now called ArcGIS for desktop basic) you can get ET Geowizards and use the smooth polylines or smooth polygons operations.

The basic idea is that while we GIS professionals are very much interested in maintaining the integrity of our data, this often is to our detriment when we try to create cartographic quality maps out of data that’s meant more for analysis than for information display.

*Other ways include: merging features, changing data (from counties to continents as you zoom out to a world-wide scale, for example), and removing labels.

Quick Map

August 30th, 2011

When working on any GIS / mapping project there will probably be at least a small amount of back-and-forth between you and someone else on the team. Whether that someone else is your co-worker, client, boss, or intern, you need to make sure you use the right words in conjunction with those quickly-created maps that you send back and forth. And the right words would be…

This is a quick-map of … to show you …

This indicates to the recipient that you realize that the map is not up to snuff cartographically speaking, and that your only purpose in sharing it is to have a question answered or to make a quick point.

Geo Geek Speak

August 14th, 2011

*Reprinted here, first published on

Expert Feature – Geo Geek Speak: Common Terms, Defined E-mail
Experts – Gretchen N. Peterson
Written by Gretchen Peterson
11 August 2011

Are you a GeoGeek or wanna-be GeoGeek? If so and you want to participate in GeoGeek discussions then this fabulous and updated list of new GeoSpeak terms will serve you well… enjoy! (@gletham)

The other day I read a tweet that used the term thin data. It wasn’t about mapping thin people, but rather about a map that had so little information to show (not in itself a problem) that the designer chose to spruce it up a bit with gradients (a problem). This map, The Mobile Mason-Dixon: Android in South, iOS in North, is a great example of how thin data can become a problem if the designer decides to add useless and potentially confusing flourishes to data.

Besides thin data there are a lot of other terms out there that are trotted out in our daily geo-geeking on the world wide web and this article aims to define a smattering of them.

To clarify, this isn’t about defining common abbreviations, though Learon Dalby (@learondalby) points us to a great list (courtesy of Mike Mahaffie) of acronyms. Incidentally, this list includes the gem: GIS Maturity Assessment. This is a term that you might think describes the level of maturity of your GIS coworkers, which is a lot more interesting to think about than the term’s real definition, which is the level of maturity of the GIS hardware and software in an organization.

RESPONSIVE DESIGN Refers to designing separate, but related, interfaces for different browser window sizes and different devices.

NOGIS Technology to make maps is now being used by web developers, not just geographers, and with this new usage environment has come a discarding of traditional approaches (e.g., static time dimension) and additions of new spheres of need (e.g., tiling). It should be noted that NoGIS is not the antithesis of GIS.

OPEN DATA Government data made available to anyone who wants to use it, along with the services, policies, integration protocols, and discover/share mechanisms that go along with it.

GEOGLOBALDOMINATION Used when someone is going to or has just met up with some other geoprofessionals, to refer to their get-together.

GEOGLITTER The exact definition of this is unknown, but it is often used to connote happiness in a GIS context. The term brings vibrancy to the field, so to speak. My own example of a literal interpretation of geoglitter is shown below:
geoglitter by petersongis


FOSS4G This stands for Free and Open Source Software for Geospatial. It is a conference to be held Sept. 12-16, 2011 in Denver, CO.

CRISIS MAPPING Mapping natural and man-made disasters on a platform that allows input from a lot of non-professionals, either experiencing the disaster first hand (e.g., locations of recent London riot incidents) or remotely by helping to produce infrastructure basemaps to aid in relief efforts (e.g., Haiti road mapping).

COMMUNITY MAPPING This refers to the Esri effort to build basemaps using local government data via templates. The data are considered more authoritative but only accessible with Esri technology.

VOLUNTEERED GEOGRAPHIC INFORMATION/VGI Similar to crisis mapping in that it involves groups of volunteers putting together geographic information, usually in response to an event.

GEOECONOMY A new term used to denote the profitability that currently exists in the large demand for geospatial goods and services.

PALEOGEO Old-school, non-collaborative, mapping in static time.

OPEN STANDARDS Standards for geospatial content and services as organized by the OGC (Open Geospatial Consortium).

GEOBEER In reference to the fact that many geo colleagues seem to also be home-brew aficionados.
WHERECAMP Usually held after the Where 2.0 conference, this is a gathering of people to discuss geospatial technologies, trends, cartography, map art, and so on. It is an unconference in that the attendees decide, on the day of the event, what to learn and discuss. The next one is in Phoenix on October 1, 2011.

GEOJORTS One can only imagine.

GEOBUZZWORDS See all of the above words, for example.

*Thanks to Chris McClain and Tina Cary for their helpful input.

About The Author
Gretchen N. Peterson writes on the subjects of GIS analysis, cartography and ethics. Ms. Peterson is the owner of the geospatial analysis firm PetersonGIS. You can follow her on Twitter @PetersonGIS


Do you have any new, cool, web2.0 GeoGeek terms to add to this list? Tweet a suggestion to @pertersonGIS and @gletham

Cartographer's Toolkit

Map Making Tips, Tricks, and Inspiration