Cartographer's Toolkit

Map Making Tips, Tricks, and Inspiration

Papyrus – A Font For All Times*

December 29th, 2010

I’ve just learned about the font called papyrus. Yes, this may seem strange to you but I’ve never used it on anything I’ve ever written or mapped. I saw the font – not knowing what it was . . . elsewhere . . . and commented on it. Apparently I am just about the last cartographer to have heard of the incontrovertible fact that this font’s popularity is at about the height of a graticule tick mark. That is to say that there are people who don’t like it.

Its main offense is that it is overused. How can this be? Perhaps I have been hiding under a rock – entirely possible – but this font actually struck me as refreshing when I saw it. Not that I spend my days researching the intricacies of the font landscape, mind you. Not that I spend more than a few minutes a week actually considering fonts either. I’m betting most of us don’t.

So that’s why it is always so nice when those who do know a thing or two about this subject come out and declare for the rest of us the end of a font’s usefulness. Now, if only those same people could let us all know what the big-name fonts of tomorrow will be. No, they are probably hoarding that knowledge for themselves so that we font novices will continue blindly carrying on with our unfashionable fonts.

I also learned that there are some sites that cater exclusively to the bashing of the papyrus font. I won’t list them here as I think it is a little weird to bash a font. I’m really against negativity of any sort, actually. Why can’t we all just be happy?** I wrote this post to give you the knowledge that I lacked in this regard (of course, if it is true that the whole world is against papyrus then you’ve just wasted your time reading this since you already knew all about it) so you can trudge forth on your daily cartographic excursions with more aplomb.

The contrarian in me is already wondering if I should submit a map titled “I Love Papyrus!” to some designy, cartography-y event.

*Meant to be tongue-in cheek seeing as how most agree it is not a font for OUR times.
**Please don’t attempt to answer that deep question.

Toblerone’s First Law

December 21st, 2010

In honor of the holiday season, when it seems we encounter chocolate at every turn (and if we don’t we feel that it is okay to buy some for ourselves), I’ve come up with Toblerone’s First Law*, which states, the closer you are to chocolate the more you will want to eat it.

*Geography non-geeks may want to know that Tobler’s First Law states, “Everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things.” It is a foundational concept in spatial analysis.

Are Paper Maps Going Out?

December 19th, 2010

I was recently reading someone’s assertion that paper maps were on the way out, to be replaced fully and completely by electronic maps on mobile and desktop devices. The conviction with which it was said was striking in that the author thought it was terribly obvious that this was something that would happen very soon.

I do not think it is that obvious. It’s possible, sure. But just because a trend has been occurring in the recent past does not mean it will continue into the future. It reminds me of a friend who ridiculed a school-board for failing to allocate sufficient money for fuel (for school buses) in the upcoming year. This was at the time when gas prices had been increasing rapidly for several years and, because of that, he considered it obvious that the trend would continue at this same rapid pace. It didn’t. It turned out that the school board did have enough to cover fuel costs because the price of gas went down – much to most people’s surprise.

When the internet began to really catch on people were predicting paperless offices and publishing companies going out of business as books went digital. Do we read books on the internet and/or on our computers now? Yes – I was just reading portions of a book on Google Books just last night actually. Does that mean I only read virtual books and never the hold-in-your-hand variety? No. I am one of those people who still does a lot of her reading the old fashioned way. This is probably because I spend almost all of my day on the computer. Getting off the computer to read a book is a nice change.

I asked colleagues on twitter what others thought about the idea of paper maps becoming obsolete. Some of the responses were:

mstoddard: Paper maps are so useful as working maps in meetings. Easy to carry, mark up.

mstoddard: Yep. People like to gather around a map and talk. And mark it up.

briantimoney: We need good web tools to generate the cartographic equivalent of the 3 paragraph blog post.

sbixel: without paper maps how would the #GeoNerds of the world wrap their presents? cc @map_maker (map_maker uses old paper maps to wrap presents.)

fgcartographix: I still prefer a paper map when travelling too.

Good Cartographic Design: A Review

December 15th, 2010

My good twitter pal @DonMeltz sent me a link to a map that was made in a GIS and did not exactly espouse the cartographic ideals that we so strive for here. For some reason, the link doesn’t work anymore. :-)*

While you can’t see the map you can learn from its mistakes. It contained many common pitfalls that we need to review from time to time.

#1. The map looked like a first-draft. It was where one of my maps might be after about 30 minutes of trying. You have to try harder than this. You must not leave it at “that looks good enough.” You must leave it at, “That could win awards.” Why? Because your career is a competition and you must strive to constantly update and refine your skills if you are to remain in the race. Plus, the profession deserves better than what some people put out as a professional product.

#2. If there are a lot of different categories of non-overlapping areas then seriously consider eradicating the outline around those boundaries. For example, let’s say you have a parcel dataset that you have split into 5 categories: farmland, park, residential, business, and transportation. You probably do not need those parcel outlines cluttering up the display if your only goal is to show where the different categories are. It is okay to have the categories show up as large blobs and will be much easier to read.

#3. It is okay to show political boundaries that reside outside of your map’s focus area but make sure they don’t look like tentacles coming out to grab the map reader. That is, make them subtle – something the reader will discover on a minute examination of the map – not something they see first thing.

#4. In general, sprinkling margin information all around the map in every nook and corner is not a good idea. Keep your title, legend, and other supporting information grouped in a few places – perhaps all along one side, or at most put the title at the top and the other information in a convenient nook. Also – suppress the need to put boxes around these elements. It is okay for the title to stand out on its own without a white box behind it. It should be integrated but visible. And here’s something you haven’t seen me write before: consider not putting a title on the map at all. Can your data stand on its own? An interesting thought!

#5. Make the central theme pop. If you are highlighting something make sure it is obvious. Yes, it seems obvious (ha!) but it had to be said.

#6. Go over every element and ask yourself: is this necessary? It isn’t that you need to make your map dull, boring, and devoid of information. It just means that a streamlined approach is almost always best. For example, the map that was the inspiration for this post had a list of data sources at the bottom. They were numbered. But there was no reason to number them – the numbers were not linked to anything else on the page. I’m sure the numbering seemed like a good idea at the time but it is something that a good and thorough review would have identified. I do stuff like that all the time – create elements that make sense but after I’ve completed a draft I realize that they need to be modified or removed.

*Oh yes, I like the emoticon

New and Noteworthy

December 14th, 2010

On ecopolitology.org you’ll find an article about David B. Sparks’ election data animation: Stunning Animated Time-Lapse Map of Red-Blue America 1920-2008. According to Sparks, the map is more telling than a choropleth map because it does not use political boundaries as the organizing unit and instead uses isarithmic shading to show partisan intensity.

The International Cartographic Association has a map of the month feature. For November 2010 they feature the “Atlas of Canada International Polar Year Circumpolar Map.” It’s a circle! Be sure to click the full screen button to see the map up-close.

A map of Facebook friendships was recently produced by Paul Butler. He weighted the lines between cities – had coordinates of the cities and plotted lines between them – according to data on friendship density between those cities. Very interestingly, he apparently did the majority, and perhaps all, of the work in R.

Lazy Day

December 11th, 2010

While my family is out skiing I am sitting in my office having a very lazy day. Not in the way you would think though. I am, actually, getting things done. In fact I am just about to tick something off my to-do list. Never mind that the to do list is labeled, “To Do Friday” and that today is Saturday and that the Friday it referred to was not yesterday. Never mind that. I am about to cross off the item that says “find/add population data.”

It wasn’t just any population data I had to find. The group I am working with really wants to determine the spatial and numerical patterns in housing units versus full-time housing units because it is widely known that our study area has a lot of seasonal housing units that may skew the results of our onsite septic system study.

After looking into several potential datasets, including the tax assessor land use codes, I set upon extracting the subset of census data that deals with this (“vacant housing units: seasonal, recreational, and occasional use” for those who want to know.) Although this data is outdated by 10 years and is summarized by block it is probably the best we are going to be able to get for this parameter.

I was quite surprised to see that at least one block in our study area is 100% seasonal housing units, though on closer examination I see that this is due to a block that is mostly national park and has a grand total of 2 housing units, both of which are seasonal.

Now for the lazy part. I downloaded the data and did a couple of selections and exports with it to get it the way I wanted it. The file names? Export_Output, Export_Output_2, and Export_Output_3. The map? Your typical fruits and vegetables color scheme. My future self will get annoyed at the file naming and freggie evocation but my current self smiles as she crosses the item off the list.

Cartographer's Toolkit

Map Making Tips, Tricks, and Inspiration