Cartographer's Toolkit

Map Making Tips, Tricks, and Inspiration

Background Screening, Titles

November 29th, 2011

Integrating a title into a map can be hard if it doesn’t have enough “pop” in contrast with the underlying data. Making a halo around the text doesn’t usually look very nice but you can set it apart subtly by making a masking box underneath it.

In ArcMap the steps are to go into data view and make a graphic box (can be difficult when your title text is in Layout view, but just go back and forth a few times to get it right), then right-click “Layers” –> convert graphics to features, then make the newly created feature layer transparent by a certain amount. This pic shows a small snipet of a map that I’m doing this on right now. The 2010 – 2011 is part of a title that needed a bit of masking underneath in order for it to compete with the ocean and dark gray land mass colors.

Consulting Philosophy

November 21st, 2011

I recently wrote this email to a group I belong to, in response to one GIS professional’s problems with a client. I’m publishing it here to provide some extra dialog about my consulting philosophy.

Hi [name removed],

So sorry to hear about your difficulties with this client. The best type of client is someone who appreciates and wants to support small business, period. The other type of client does not appreciate anything. Is there anything in between? I’m not sure.

I am so thankful for all the wonderful clients I’ve had over the years who truly appreciate my contributions, and I try to return it tenfold by keeping them informed of all kinds of things they might otherwise have not paid attention to (recently I made a friendly suggestion to one client that they should get a twitter presence and helped them w/ some tips on how to get started). Thankfully I’ve only had two truly difficult clients in 10 years of having my own business. I won’t go into the details on those but my first principle is to always finish the work that I said I would do as I feel that is implicit even if there is no contract in place. After that I simply don’t do more work for them. Obviously you should not do more work for anyone who doesn’t value your time. You might also read up on workplace bullying and/or consultant bullying because it can and does happen. Establishing and maintaining a friendly relationship with your clients is also well advised because it is just much easier to deal with miscommunications and create a healthy amount of mutual respect. Always remember that you are your client’s peer and not your client’s subordinate. A subordinate stance will be death to the project and cause disrespectful feelings all around.

There’s a really great book called Crucial Conversations.

Some people will disagree with me concerning logos but I do not place a logo on maps that I make for people. They paid for it, it is theirs. I always furnish all files that the client requests and try to furnish everything up-front without them needing to request it. Including AI files. Your value isn’t in the AI file but in the skills that you have to create custom solutions so you aren’t giving that up at all. Giving them all the files is important because that’s what they paid for and I have found it increases my credibility (i.e., I’m going to give them as much value as I can). Personally, then, I would take my logo off and send them the AI files. I would then never work for them again because there’s a bad vibe going on there. But you’ll feel good about wrapping it up in a professional manner.

So basically only work for people who seem enthusiastic about you and seem to respect your expert opinion. In return, you’ll be enthusiastic about them and the project! I’ll bet this is just one little bad experience and that most of the rest will be much better. Most people are a pleasure to work with.


Margin Encroachment

November 18th, 2011

Allowing the main focus of the map to spill into the main margin of the map is a nifty technique that can make a layout look more designed and even help when it comes to awkward geometries. Check out these two examples:

Digital Data Services, Inc.

Chris Behee

Web Map Design Using Mapfluence, Urban Mapping’s Platform

November 16th, 2011

I’ve been working with Urban Mapping to make some cool maps out of their data and API. It’s been a great project. The work has been somewhat along the lines of  what I described in the recent Cartographic Statistician post. I got to sift through their fairly extensive data catalog and pick and chose things to map. Yes – a cartographer’s dream! It looks like I’ll be making more of these, but the one shown below is the first:

The Urban Mapping basemap is really nice. I’d like to showcase it a bit more in upcoming maps by creating maps that the user needs (or wants) to zoom into, thus unveiling more detail in the basemap. This particular map is pretty sweet as-is but of course it is more of a small-scale type of thing that is best at the U.S. zoom level. Incidentally, they are responsible for the basemap used in Tableau software, which is a great data-visualization product to be aware of. In fact, Stephen Few is a big fan of Tableau.

Some Thoughts on Workflow

November 11th, 2011

I just finished making a series of maps and was trying to note my processes while creating them. Here were my thoughts during the week of map-creation:

  • Decide work-flow / software first. I didn’t have a lot of time to make these so I decided to stick with a full ArcMap production flow without using Illustrator. I’m not as good at Illustrator and work super-fast in ArcMap. I might have moved everything to Illustrator at the end to finish up some line work (simplify lines) but that would have taken more time than it was worth in this case. The lines looked decent enough anyway.
  • Uh yeah – don’t forget that you shouldn’t put a north arrow on a map that’s in a Robinson projection because in Robinson, north changes depending on where you are. Use graticule lines to indicate north or nothing at all.
  • Colors still take a long time to come up with. For one of the maps, which showed European countries in a 4-color scheme, figuring out what those four colors should be took several hours of trial and error. And I was even working with the colors for maps booklet to help me along. You just never know how it is going to look on the particulars of the geography you are working with until you try.
  • Think about what your data is telling you and try to show it with your design so others can get that same message. Don’t underestimate the power of a good think-session.
  • When making both a color and a grayscale version of the same map – as was the case here – create the color version first, then modify to grayscale.
  • The least fancy but easiest way for me to create great labels (if there aren’t an unwieldy amount) is to auto-label then convert those labels to annotation and hand-modify from there.
  • Don’t forget to zoom in on the layout to place things exactly right but also don’t forget to zoom back to a 1:1 scale periodically to make sure it looks good there too.
  • For some reason ArcMap makes my 6-point Arial labels look impossible to read on-screen. But when I print out the map or convert to PDF and open in Acrobat they are legible again. Know what your final output is and design for it by doing some test-exports, even at the beginning of the project.
  • If you have a list of specifications for the map, be like Santa Clause and check them twice.
  • If there are examples of maps similar to what you are trying to make, it can save a lot of time to sift through them and determine what you’d like to emulate and what you want to avoid.
  • You know you are well immersed when you consider at least 20 different shades of blue for the ocean background before settling on one, then changing your mind again.

Next Job Craze? Cartographic Statistician

November 3rd, 2011

This morning I was thinking about some seemingly disparate topics. One is that there are an awful lot of companies doing holiday themed maps, presumably to both have fun and show off their software capabilities. For example, here’s a turkey map just in time for Thanksgiving, from Esri:

There was also a Halloween themed map showing scary place names, a map showing the best neighborhoods to trick or treat (from the Census questions pertaining to neighborhood walkability within one mile), and so on. There are non-map examples of this too. Merriam Webster often has special articles showcasing words applicable to certain holidays.

Another one of my thoughts this morning was about the fact that there is a lot of geo data right now. It used to be that most of the GIS project work was focused on collection of data and analysis was almost an afterthought. But now, with many government organizations collecting more and better data and sharing it with the public in easily accessible ways (Census, USGS, etc.) and more companies putting together data in ways that make it easy to have a basemap or to analyze all kinds of data (Urban Mapping, GeoCommons, Esri, Natural Earth to name just a few), we are at a great place to start analyzing that data in more meaningful ways. I’m not saying the era of geo data collection is over. That’s still going to be going on for a long time. I’m just saying that there’s now a bunch of data out there that is just begging for some sense to be made out of it.

These two thoughts were turning around in my head, leading to this idea: we’re going to see people focusing exclusively on geo data analysis in the future. Perhaps they will be called cartographic statisticians.

These people will no longer concern themselves at all with collection of data or spending time finding data. They’ll be working with existing data catalogs full of variables that need to be examined in minute detail. These people will need both analytical skills and cartographic skills so that those results are effectively illustrated. Up until now most GIS jobs included GIS data collection and analysis. Sometimes they also included cartography and development (web development, software development). But this new niche that I really think will start to become more mainstream will focus only on analysis and cartography! Perhaps some would be turned off by the advanced statistics that would be required but some would embrace the challenge, I think. And, I do believe companies will hire for this type of position. We’ve already seen a bit of it in the marketing world (see tweets about turkey maps for example!) and we’ll definitely see more of it in government when this treasure-trove of data and its possibilities become more apparent.

One thing is for certain, it could be a very fun job. To have the creative freedom to just mash data together and determine correlations and perhaps even make a difference to any number of pressing social and environmental issues would make for an enjoyable career. Or maybe that’s just me. What do you think?

Cartographer's Toolkit

Map Making Tips, Tricks, and Inspiration