Cartographer's Toolkit

Map Making Tips, Tricks, and Inspiration

Map Cakes

April 27th, 2012

A post on map cakes seemed just the thing for a Friday afternoon. It’ll be a good companion to an earlier post on Map Cookies. Clicking on the pictures sends you to the original sites.

This one has a few things going wrong with it–ocean where there isn’t, for example–but I’m willing to overlook that because it looks really tasty.

This one is perfect for this blog, since the London Tube Map is discussed from time to time. Here, they’ve made a London Tube Map cake:

When I set out to write this post, I would have never guessed that I’d discover a thematic map cake, but here’s a really neat weather map cake, made for a 13 year old’s birthday:

A Common Map Design Error: The Bold Boundary Line

April 26th, 2012

My posts are coming out less frequently lately. This is because I’m coming up with cooking metaphors for my book such as:


The box’s contents would ultimately provide all the ingredients and recipes for you to make informed and inspired decisions that could ultimately be whipped up into a delicious cartographic concoction.

I’m still trying to find a good spot to put that one. :)

So today’s post is just a quick reminder to everyone out there to watch out for this common cartographic catastrophe…The Bold Boundary Line. Don’t let The Bold Boundary Line happen to your maps!

What is The Bold Boundary Line? It’s a situation where your map is completely overwhelmed by boundaries of one sort or another. For some reason that I can’t figure out, beginning cartographers make this error all the time. In fact, I made this mistake quite a bit in my early career too. I certainly was not immune.

It seems we sometimes fool ourselves into thinking that political boundaries, watershed boundaries, ecosystem boundaries, geologic boundaries, and so on are the most important thing on the map. In reality, the most important thing on the map is usually what is inside those boundaries such as the quantity or type of something, and of course that is what should be highlighted. The boundaries may still be of some importance but they ought to be lightened in order to lower their place in the visual hierarchy.

The best way to describe this map problem is with an illustration. Here are good / bad / worse maps of my own creation.

To start, let’s look at a GOOD map. This is a little map of Colorado that I made for the post prior to this one:

Now, here’s an example of a map with The Bold Boundary Line problem:

And here’s an even worse one, because it adds in The No Figure-Ground Sin (to be discussed in a later post?):

Farmers’ Markets, More Analysis

April 24th, 2012

I continue to explore the USDA Farmers Market database. See previous posts on this dataset here. Taking a look at just the Colorado portion of the data, we see there are 119 market points, shown as purple dots on the interactive map below:


powered by mapbiquity

It is interesting to see what happens when we quantify farmers’ markets, population density, and obesity rates. The number of farmers’ markets by population actually remains fairly constant (and fairly small) within all four categories: 0.001735%, 0.001975%, 0.001929%, 0.001875%* for categories 1-4 respectively where the categories are as follows:

1-12-25% obesity
2-25-30% obesity
3-30-35% obesity
4-35-45% obesity

However, the population density alone is very telling within the four categories (again from 1 through 4): 150/sq mi, 78/sq mi, 65/sq mi, 45/sq mi.*
*These figures are for the whole country, not just Colorado.

The correlation between population density alone and obesity is rather strong (also see: http://www.nature.com/oby/journal/v15/n8/full/oby2007251a.html). Distances to farmers’ markets is likely to be much lower in higher populated places, which may be a factor. The opposing viewpoint is that distances to fast food and other likely anti-correlates are also closer. Another point to make could be that effects on obesity by farmers’ markets (if any) might be a much more local scale issue, and if so, this data is not fine enough to capture that.

Here’s a micromap I put together with the market counts and the population density, by county.

Population per square mile:

Proportion of markets by population:

These three graphics just show population and farmers’ markets. Next I need to add in the obesity information so that we can have a visual of that with all the rest.

Comparing GIS and Cartography Software in Two Minutes

April 18th, 2012

There isn’t a lot of chat on this blog about specific software. Here are some reasons: (1) it would be a lot of work to compare and contrast all the software out there and it’s been done (wikipedia comparison) (2) the focus of the blog is more on design–it’s up to you to figure out how to get to that well-designed end-point, (3) the list of products keeps changing, and (4) everyone has their favorite workflow and they are all good.

If anyone can benefit from a quick, very rough, back of the napkin style analysis, then here’s an attempt at a two minute overview of various software options for making maps. Note that we’re talking about making maps, not GIS data creation, maintenance, or analysis. In the interest of expediency these are not complete sentences. It’ll be okay.

ArcGIS = Accurate! Not usually very fancy cartography output unless you try REALLY hard and even then there might be some difficulties (but I’ve done it).

Adobe Illustrator = Smooth, rich. Not accurate if you move things around. This software is difficult if you are used to ArcGIS. For example, you have to use a special button for selecting the artboard in order to move it, not the regular select buttons. But then, I’m biased.

MAPublisher = Get smooth, rich Illustrator outputs but with added ability to preserve accuracy via projections, edit features and tables while maintaining spatial integrity (i.e., edit your GIS data). For professional cartographers who do non-scientific style maps like tourist maps and the like, MAPublisher and Illustrator might just be the best bet.

Photoshop = You could export from ArcGIS to Photoshop to do some final styling, and folks who are very experienced with Photoshop (but maybe not with Illustrator) will go this route. Illustrator now has a lot of the Photoshop features so if you’re new, you might just head straight to Illustrator, which is better for print, typography and whatnot since it has vector capabilities. If everything you’ve got is in raster maybe Photoshop would be better for you. This doesn’t seem likely. But I’m not expert on Photoshop.

Global Mapper, Manifold, Freehand = Some people use these products to produce maps. Has Manifold had a recent release? As of a few months ago it hadn’t. Can’t say much about these software products except that some people seem to really like them. Worth checking out at any rate, if you are new or want a change, or need something cheaper.

Etc = QGIS is easy and free and has some okay carto-qualities. There are other options, this list is certainly not exhaustive and is entirely focused on print mapping rather than dynamic, digital mapping, for which there are a lot of open source tools out there. I’m keeping my eye on Kartograph too.

Add your likes and dislikes in the comments.

Upcoming Cartography Book: List of Map Authors

April 14th, 2012

My newest cartography book (more information on the new book here) will include many map examples from a diverse group of excellent cartographers. Here is the current list of contributors, though this could be added to in the next week or so.

Nick Springer
James Cheshire
François Goulet
Allison Bailey
Mike Schley
Christopher Helm
Brendan Heberton
Lena Corwin
Ann Stark
Matt Stevenson
Hugo Ahlenius
Chris Behee
Hans van der Maarel

Don’t see someone you think should be on the list? The book required examples of specific cartographic techniques. Maps had to be identified that were both excellent and exemplified those particular cartographic techniques. Also, we’re still working on this so the list is incomplete at this time.

Infographic Design vs. GISer Map Design

April 11th, 2012

Mike Werth’s infographic of the Best Beer in America reminds us that it is possible to break away from more of the usual and create some really interesting maps that engage, tell stories, and persuade.

Contrast that map with this one. Now, I do realize that this one deals with beer tax, which means it should look a bit more sober, but it is a good illustration of the difference between a much more typical GIS output versus a well designed infographic.

Let’s emphasize that the map directly above is a fine map from a GIS design standpoint. In fact, it’s much better than what the typical GIS analyst, even with a few years of experience can put together. But wow, what a difference some attention to typography, wavy borders, drop shadows, unique legends, and some subject-appropriate background graphics can make/

Cartographer's Toolkit

Map Making Tips, Tricks, and Inspiration