Cartographer's Toolkit

Map Making Tips, Tricks, and Inspiration

Mapping Secrets from the New York Times Graphics Department: The AAG Talk

February 29th, 2012

On Monday of this week the New York Times graphics department gave a talk at the AAG conference to a standing room only audience. The talk, titled Mapping the News in the Age of Visualizations: the Art and Science of the NY Times Graphics Department, was obviously a popular one at the conference so I’ll attempt to summarize some of the things that I got out of it in this post.

Of the 22 people in the NYT graphics department, four presented during this talk: Matthew Bloch, Matthew Ericson, Archie Tse, and Jeremy White. They started by going through a case-study of some of the decision making that has to go on when presenting data visually for the news by describing various ways that the 2008 elections results could be mapped.

First, there’s the typical blue/red by state mapping technique that most everyone is familiar with where states that voted primarily for Obama were colored blue and states that voted primarily for McCain were colored red.

Then they went through slides showing other ways of mapping the data in order to better reflect the population distribution such as taking out all counties where the persons per square mile was less than 3 (colored white), which created a map that showed a more balanced red/blue scheme than the typical map. Also, they tried to extrude cities as 3D bars reflecting population but the New England cities and Los Angeles overwhelmed this map. They tried cartograms but these distorted the geography in the middle of the country so much that you couldn’t tell what color belonged to what city, in, say, Texas. One of the more successful maps was one that depicted party shift from the 2004 election to the 2008 election, shown here:

Now, things were moving quickly in the talk and I’m not sure if I’ve got this down right, but there was a map that got a lot of critical acclaim, and I believe it was this party shift map. However (and again, I hope this is the map that they referred to) some did not like the map because it was not the typical election map, supposedly causing some confusion. Thus we arrive at learning point #1:

If you do something differently when people are expecting something that has always been done a certain way, make sure you make it very clear that the map is DIFFERENT. There was a remark that perhaps some day we will teach people that all maps require a certain amount of time for interpretation by the reader, but until then, people may draw the wrong conclusions if they read the map as though it were a standard election map.

Before this post gets too long, what I’m going to do is just summarize the rest of what I thought were the major learning points. A lot of these came from the question/answer part of the talk. If you were at that session and want to chime in with other bits that I missed please do so. This is certainly not a comprehensive report on the talk since that wasn’t what I set out to do.

  • They don’t keep a strict style book. It did eventually come out that they do, indeed, have a color book and a typography book with standard color schemes and 15-20 typefaces, but it sounded like they may not adhere (at least to the color styles – I’d guess they don’t have a lot of leeway with fonts) to these very strictly. Regarding the common style found in all their graphics from print maps to interactive maps and data-displays, it sounds like they do quite a bit of review and eventually everyone winds up with about the same aesthetic. It was noted that they strive for a clear and simple presentation.
  • Someone asked what tools they use. I jotted down as many as I heard, though I may not have got them all, here are a few: ArcGIS, Illustrator for the endpoint of all print maps, map publisher, r, various APIs, OSM, TileMill.
  • They recommend that those who are in college or new to the field learn JavaScript. They also recommend that whatever language you learn, you know enough of the fundamentals of programming to be able to learn a new language in 2 weeks.
  • Their design process consists of a lot of preliminary sketching. TAKE NOTE!!!
  • When asked how they deal with data of high uncertainty, they jokingly answered that they don’t know. Their real answer was something along the lines of omitting that kind of data from the display. What they mean by this, I assume, is if parts of the country (for example) have uncertain election returns, those areas are colored white instead of red or blue.
  • There was some discussion on how they serve up their interactive maps. Not being a complete expert in this arena, what I got out of their answer was that they can’t do it the normal way because they have too much traffic. Therefore, they heavily cache the map so that not every single user is getting a fresh call from the database, maybe only 1 out of 20 users is, and the rest are getting snap-shots.

For a few examples of great New York Times maps, see this post on Map Elegance: Putting the Data First.

Skeuomorphs: Relics from the Olde Days

February 21st, 2012

A skeuomorph is a new design that still retains a function and/or appearance of the old, physical object that it replaces. In the old object, the function and/or appearance was essential, but in the new design, it is just a relic – according to the Wikipedia entry. (However, it may be argued that design that seems to have no “useful” function does indeed – it has the useful function of transitioning the user from the analog object to the digital object.) For example, window shutters on new homes that you can’t actually use are physical skeuomorphs.

Skeuomorphs abound in the digital world. One example of a digital skeuomorph is the scrolling or flipping that an ebook reader employs – which is of course a relic of paper books, but which serves to make the ebook easier to use for those of us who are accustomed to paper books. Wired* reports that Flipboard gets rid of this skeuomorph and uses, instead, a center-pivot approach that they assert reduces eye fatigue. Another example of digital skeuomorphs are icons used in many types of software that represent out-dated or physical objects such as the floppy disk “save” icon, or the trash can icon.

Applying the concept of the skeuomorph to map design, what relics of print maps do digital maps still retain? What completely new design features are present in digital maps that we couldn’t do with print maps? Let us know. There’s got to be a lot of them. My contribution to the discussion:

Some people – ahem – complain about the overuse of pdf files on websites. For example, organizations often publish pdf maps instead of creating interactive maps. Whereas the map key could be dynamic, it is static. Whereas the user could have zoomed in and out easily, we have, instead, a static resolution and non-existant scale-dependent rendering. Pdfs, then, can be a type of skeuomorph. However, while the posting of pdf maps online has many flaws, it does have the benefit of being easy to understand for those not familiar with digital maps.

*Clive Thompson: Retro design is crippling innovation

Creativity Update

February 17th, 2012

To be extremely successful, you must be creative. Not the kind of creativity that compels people to put together scrap books or to arrange their bulletin boards just-so, but the kind of creativity that allows you to solve a problem with an uncommon solution. Your solution doesn’t have to be completely new and unique, but you’ll know it is a creative solution if it takes a certain amount of guts or audacity to explain it to people. Here are just a few creative solutions on my radar this week:

1) The idea of working out while working isn’t something I came up with myself, but I’m the only one I know personally who does it. Thus, it took quite a bit of research to figure out what was needed and how/if it would work. (By the way, yes, it does work. I cycle about 3 hours / day at about 7 miles per hour – slow – while working.)

2) According to an article this month in Fast Company magazine, someone offered free piggy-back rides to anyone who would “sign up today.” Okay, so we aren’t so sure that’s going to work out, as I certainly would be less inclined to sign-up (!) but I’m assuming he knew what his audience would think was funny and was successful with it.

3) The Stanford d school reported recently on student’s responses to the directive to describe each process design mode in one sentence. I like these: “Enter someone else’s world, observe and listen for an hour but design forever” and “Battle of egos: Pow! Pow!”

I know what you’re thinking: creativity means putting radioactively colored sticky notes up on the whiteboard.

Okay, so maybe it does sometimes. But the biggest two things you can do to boost your creativity are 1) give yourself a few minutes to one hour of free-time (Richard Branson used to walk around his garden to think, for example) and 2) do a quick creativity exercise such as putting together a few legos or solving a puzzle online.

Don’t be fooled, though, most creative ideas are met with criticism. If your idea is being criticized, it has to be met head-on. Is the criticism warranted? One way to find out is to think about whether or not you would have said the same thing. If it is something you would never say to someone, then you can bet the criticism is unwarranted.

A guy named Elbert Hubbard once said…

The only way to avoid criticism is to say nothing, do nothing, be nothing

Looking for some GIS Humor?

February 15th, 2012

Here’s a website you may not have seen: GIS humor, run by Kelly Sparks, aka @GISRocks.

My favorite may be the entry that points to the Onion’s headline, “Midwest Discovered between East, West Coasts.” It doesn’t appear that Kelly has updated the site since May 2011, prompting me to wonder if we need to do some more funny GISy things for her to write about.

Forays into Typographic Mapping

February 14th, 2012

I’m writing a new book on cartography. Without divulging what it’s all about just yet, here’s a post on what will become one sub-section of the book.

Typographic maps are maps that are built out of typographic elements as opposed to graphic elements; they are still spatially accurate. Instead of drawing a couple of lines to indicate a road, for instance, the road is shown via the road’s name, repeated along the length of the feature. For another example, instead of a blue blob for a lake, the lake name is the “fill” for the feature. As the typography is put together and layered, it becomes very impressionistic: you see a pattern from afar, you see the individual words close-up. Most of these maps that I’ve seen are of high-population cities, focusing on the infrastructure of the place such as roads and buildings.

It’s a pretty new genre of map design. The best-known typographic maps in the cartography world are probably those by Axis Maps. For a more free-form take on them, check out Paula Scher’s artistic maps. I’ve never created a typographic map before, so it didn’t seem right to explain the techniques and processes that go into making them until attempting one myself. Herein are the things I’ve learned so far.

Typographic map design requires:

  • FONT CHOICE: obviously your fonts will make a big difference in how the map looks, so choose carefully.
  • COLOR: while at first it seems like color isn’t going to be a big deal on these maps, it still has a high importance. Using color, and especially contrast between your main “blanket” word and your other words is important.
  • PATTERN: to create a proper patterning effect, large features (such as landmasses) need to have a single, steady, fill with which to layer the other, smaller features, on top of. Perhaps an 80/20 rule is applicable here. 80% background words, 20% foreground words.
  • CAPS: As was pointed out to me on CartoTalk, using all-caps for most of the words will be important, because ascenders and descenders in lower case words get in the way of the feature shape that you are trying to fill.

Process: The best process that I’ve uncovered is to blanket the background with a word(s) using a text fill, then layer on top of that with the smaller features. When you write another word on top of the text fill, depending on the program you’re using, you can either create a background for the text or create another polygon around the text that matches the main background color (often white, but you see I’ve used an off-white in mine). This creates a cut-out look.

This is just the beginning of my tests with typographic mapping techniques. For those who’ve already created these successfully, I’d be happy to hear more about your techniques and processes.

Cartographer's Toolkit

Map Making Tips, Tricks, and Inspiration