Cartographer's Toolkit

Map Making Tips, Tricks, and Inspiration

Visual Hierarchy – A Primer

September 30th, 2010

Basin (watershed) Boundary maps often seem to befuddle the novice cartographer. How do you show a bunch of polygons on a map, but distinguish them from one another, while also showing what is underneath them? A big mess results when you use a bunch of different colors in thick outlines that all have the same visual weight. You would have to be extremely good at picking colors to do this right. Casing (outlining) some of the basin boundaries and not others further ruins not just the aesthetics but also muddies the message. In this particular map, it would be much better to use a fill instead of an outline.

Yes, boundaries can be tough to map, but it isn’t as if others haven’t been successful at it. Do a simple search for basin/boundary maps and find some that do look good. Proceed from there.

This one’s a bit better because we now see a definite hierarchy. First, the basin outlines, then the rivers inside. The basin outlines fade inward so as to not so completely overwhelm everything. The rivers/streams are in a very light gray so they recede into the background while still being there to inform:

Then we get to the good stuff. In the basin map below, it is interesting that it still achieves a hierarchy even though all the major background information is in dark, saturated, hues! Our first instinct about visual hierarchy is that the background needs to be light and the basins have to pop with bright/thick colors but here they haven’t done any of that. In fact, it is almost opposite: darker background and slightly lighter basins. Even that thin brown outline visually separates without cluttering.

This one is great too, and this time we’ve got a more traditional hierarchy with a lighter background and darker basins. Notice especially that the basins are easily visible as brown outlines, all the same color. As an aside, notice how the water background fades toward the bottom of the map.

How We Spend Our Time

September 24th, 2010

According to this interactive graphic from the New York Times, people spend a lot of time working, eating, sleeping, and maybe doing some traveling and socializing during their days. The graphic is pretty nifty to click around on, so give it a try. A snapshot of what it looks like is here:

That light blue band on the bottom is for “relaxing and thinking” time, which I was both happy and not happy to see. On the one hand it is nice to see that the category even exists at all but on the other hand it looks pretty darn tiny. I care about relaxing and thinking time because it is so important for creativity.

Without downtime, you can pretty much expect creativity to come to a halt. With creativity being so important in the construction of good quality maps, since no two mapping circumstances are exactly the same, a person engaged in mapping on a day to day basis needs to incorporate this into a typical day.

Innovation and Usefulness

September 23rd, 2010

Creativity is innovation, it is novelty. Should we imbue our cartographic products with creativeness? Absolutely.

While I advocate starting off a cartographic project by gathering colors, layouts, fonts, and such from other works, this does not mean that you should leave your own creative inspirations out. It can easily come into the process in the middle – while you are going about trying to fit your work product into the mold of something else that’s already done before, you often need to re-shape that original mold to fit your data and ideas into it.

From the standpoint of GIS cartography we are most concerned with conveying information, of course. This means that while your creative endeavors might produce original or novel outputs, you must be certain that your output is also useful and appropriate. What makes a map beautiful is its ability to show off your information in its best light.

(This is in no way a put-down of Marge Map, which has lots of usefulness as a humor piece. I mean, look how her hair goes clear out to the right-side bar.)

Web Map Usability Testing

September 21st, 2010

I want to highlight one more talk from last week’s Ignite Spatial NoCo 2.0. Peter Batty of Ubisense spoke on usability testing. His key message was to make sure that you actually do usability testing. It doesn’t take long. You can look at what a user does with your site in the first few minutes and get an instant feel as to whether or not it is working as it is supposed to.

He says that the user sees something much different from what the designer sees. To explain this Batty uses the great example of an airline booking site (I think it was United) where there are three vertical panels but the user zones in on only the upper portion of the left panel – the one where you input your airports and dates.

Probably the best tip in the presentation is to not reinvent buttons and toolbars for your map. Use the standard Google-type interface since so many people are used to that. As I’m always saying though, if you strongly feel the standard solution is inadequate, make up your own solutions.

Famous Cartographers

September 20th, 2010

If you didn’t go to Ignite Spatial Northern Colorado 2.0 last week, you missed an excellent talk by Brian Timoney. In it, he discusses four famous cartographers: Matteo Ricci, Gerardus Mercator (i.e., Gerry Kremer from Flanders!), John Seller, and Sir Robert Schomburgk. Some excellent quotes from the video:

“If you’re not excited about the colander on the gift registry, maps make wonderful gifts.”
“GIS people are horrible business people.”

Timoney talked to me at the end of the meeting about his quest to find a famous female cartographer. (If you know of one, let us hear about her in the comments!) Although he didn’t have much success he did mention that it was his theory that the wives may have had a large roll in the maps that their husbands made even though we don’t know it. These were family businesses back then, and the maps were constructed on the family property, not in large offices. Something to think about!

Watch the video to learn four life lessons. Enjoy.

Cartographer's Toolkit

Map Making Tips, Tricks, and Inspiration