Cartographer's Toolkit

Map Making Tips, Tricks, and Inspiration

Good Design

December 21st, 2011

Brian Timoney put it well the other day when he asserted that people don’t want good design, they want familiar design, which ranges from blah to horrible.

When a client, boss, or colleague can’t grasp the virtues of a map design that isn’t of a familiar variety, what is to be done? First of all, remember that there are people who appreciate good design and seek them out. Second, don’t give up on your design, major changes can only see the light of day if they are backed by a strong supporter. Third, remember the preemptive strike: always explain design decisions as you go and during the delivery of the first draft (don’t give them a chance to apply out-dated reasoning to your map).

If you are a client, boss, or colleague, what is the best way to avoid the hard feelings associated with design criticism? First, remember that every design is personal to the designer. Second, always express as much appreciation as you can truthfully muster (regarding meeting a deadline, working hard, design decisions you did like, etc.) Perhaps that’s just a U.S.-centric custom, I’m not sure how it is in other, more austere/formal cultures. But here, you can’t expect to get good work out of someone for whom you’ve shown no appreciation.

Mark Twain’s Diagram of London

December 19th, 2011

I don’t know what it is with Mark Twain, but this’ll be my third post mentioning him. The previous posts are Critiques: Consider the Source and Fortifications of Paris. This time I wanted to highlight a “map” that he has published in his autobiography. It’s actually more of a diagram, and indeed, he has titled it as “Diagram of London” but being that it still has a spatial (though not to-scale) component, it still has a bit of relevance to the blog.

Mark Twain’s autobiography can be found (in full, I believe) on Google Docs. Here’s the diagram I am referring to:

And here is what he says about it:

One little wee bunch of houses in London, one little wee spot, is the centre of the globe, the heart of the globe, and the machinery that moves the world is located there. It is called the City, and it, with a patch of its borderland, is a city. But the rest of London is not a city. It is fifty villages massed solidly together over a vast stretch of territory. Each village has its own name and its own government.

Analyst First

December 16th, 2011

Some people don’t realize this, but I’m an analyst first and a cartographer second. Here, I’ll prove it…Here’s what’s on the white board in my office right now:

The deal is that GIS analysts have to be really good at the left-brain work (math and science, if you will) but we don’t necessarily feel it is a requirement to be good at right-brain thinking. However, this simply isn’t true. Analytical work means absolutely nothing if that work is not conveyed in a manner that engages and allows comprehension of the results. I enjoy writing this blog because at some level I imagine that it helps other people show off map data in its best possible light.

Now, if through the years of learning about and increasing your level of cartogaphic excellence you find that you want to do some pure map-making in addition to analysis, or you want to move into map-making as a profession as opposed to analysis, that’s great too. As I look back on my work for 2011 I did about 60% of what I consider GIS analysis work (that includes data creation, analysis, and the maps and reports that represent the results) and about 40% pure cartography work (no analysis, just getting data and arranging it to tell a story or to convey a particular point in the most effective way possible). It’s been a good mix for me, someone who likes variety and challenge. (But don’t we all, really.)

Twitter Contest – ends 12/15/2011 10pm MT

December 15th, 2011

Albert Kiefer wound up with two of my GIS Cartography books after a snafu wherein both myself and my publisher sent him copies. He had the idea to create a contest for someone to win the book – he’ll pay the shipping. If you would like to participate in the contest you just have to tweet something about the book and include the URL. Albert or I will be picking one of the tweeters at random to win, when the contest ends tonight at 10pm MT – 12/15/2011. See my tweet stream if you just want to RT my tweet about the contest – that counts too.

Titles that Engage

December 14th, 2011

Are you interested in maximizing reader engagement? Drawing folks in to see your map? If so, focusing a bit of effort on the title you give that map is essential. (Note that some people aren’t exactly interested in doing anything except telling it like it is in the title. You’ll just have to use your judgement given your audience and your aspirations for your map).

I’ve just been browsing through the Esri Map Book Online Volume 26. The map titles that are most likely to quickly get a map reader’s attention are:

OS Vector Mapping — Your Way
Terror in Afghanistan
GIS Bathymetry Analysis Helps Protect Threatened Ramsar Wetland Site
Thinking Outside the Blocks — Exploring Alternatives to Traditional Neighborhood Design
Footprint of a City
What Can One Do with Geoinformation and GIS? Plan Windmills from Behind the Desk!

Most of the other titles in the collection are descriptive only. I know that some people prefer them that way. But if you are at all interested in gaining the most map readers possible, you’ll want to put some thought into creating an engaging title instead. Or, if you aren’t comfortable with a 100% catchy title, you can compromise and create what I think of as a double title: start with the descriptive bit, then hook the map reader with the engaging bit (much as in the first example on this list). Sure, not every map title needs to read like a small-town newspaper headline, but surely you can give it just a bit of zip to stand out.

Here’s a good example of combining a serious component with an engaging component: Toward a Multipurpose Regional Environmental Network. No one could argue against the seriousness of the content of this map. But at the same time, we can tell that the title was constructed in such a way as to draw us in. The reason? Using a verb/adjective at the beginning makes it much less dull than if “Toward a” were removed.

By the way, what’s the title in this collection that is the least likely to get someone to stand and gaze at your map? “City of El Cajon Sewer System Atlas.” *

*Hey, I have a right to joke about this. Much of my recent work has involved analyzing and mapping sewer areas and other wastewater infrastructure.

Cartographer's Toolkit

Map Making Tips, Tricks, and Inspiration