Cartographer's Toolkit

Map Making Tips, Tricks, and Inspiration

A Great Little Map

August 30th, 2012

In order to write this post I’m going to have to admit that I was reading . . . Better Homes and Gardens. Let’s just say a certain in-law keeps getting me a subscription every year. And what are you going to do, just throw it away?

In this month’s issue there’s a story about the NYC High Line, telling readers about the sundeck and the woodland. Yes, super interesting stuff, but what caught my attention was a small map in the sidebar. Here’s what was great about it:


  • The roads are denoted with simple strokes that vary in width ever so slightly. A bit arty but not too much.
  • Everything fades at the edges of the map, there is no border around the map.
  • There is a nice bit of blue to represent water, again fading at the edges.
  • Land is white, roads are gray, the High Line is olive green cased in a faint lighter green line.
  • Four simple black circles with white numbers indicate four spots that are discussed in the article.


But what is probably the biggest reason for taking note of this map is that it’s a perfect example of how a designer or illustrator sees the map making endeavor as opposed to the GIS person.

I’m not saying you can’t be a GIS person and a design-oriented person at the same time. Indeed, that’s exactly what this blog is all about teaching. But the point is that a lot of GIS people, after having been told to make a map of the Manhattan High Line, would have created maps that look more Rand McNally than Lena Corwin.

I can’t show the map here for risk of copyright infringement, and they don’t have it online. But I can tell you that it’s just a simple little location diagram that works. So that’s the tip for today: if all you need is simple, take the time to simplify.


Related: this post on the High Line’s giant inflated globe


Interactive Maps: Inspiration

August 27th, 2012

I’m in the middle of collecting inspiration pieces for an interactive map design project. This is the sort of thing that is perfect to share in a post, so here is our collection as it stands right now. Please feel free to link to webmaps that you are particularly fond of in the comments as well.


Wall Street Journal, Tracking Nation’s Bank Failures The map itself is straightforward. Likes: the reset map button, the historical slider bar, the way the raw data are integrated and sortable underneath the map.

Guardian Bookstore and Library Map Likes: instead of individual dots for each location, the bookstores are grouped together with the number denoting the number of bookstores; also, the green and tan pick list at left looks pretty good.

Casino Map via Las Vegas Sun Likes: Interesting use of oblique view; north arrow looks decent, gray and dark gray background is nice, simplified buildings with only most identifying details displayed.

Common Ground Country Fair by Maps For Good Likes: nice use of simplified surroundings with strong focal point; there’s a nice pop up window in lower right (not shown here) that gives a bit of information about each location once zoomed in, via hover-over.

Oakland Crime Spotting by Stamen Design Likes: the Open Street Map background looks good; another use of localized grouping of points with number in center of points; simplified, logical color key.

Burning Map by Stamen Design Likes: Uses WebGL to animate with 3d effects, new concept.

“Can You Add Some Roads to the Map?”

August 24th, 2012

One of the biggest challenges that cartographers face is clients who ask for maps containing every layer under the sun. Often, the project starts out as a map with a single focus but as it progresses the client asks for more and more layers. So “make a map of nitrogen hot spots” becomes “make a map of nitrogen hot spots with bathymetry and docks and populated places and nearshore septic systems.”



This is all well and good except for the fact that rarely are you given enough time to make this all happen without the result being a confusing mess of points, lines, and polygons. And this happens with traditional static maps as well as web maps. In fact, web maps can be even more difficult because certain engineer-types will request 20+ layers — most likely every layer your organization has ever produced — be placed on the same map.

The problem lies with (1) The symbology conflicts that inevitably arise when trying to create a distinct color or pattern for all 20 layers, many of which will have their own sub-characterizations and (2) the 20+ layer interactive map that the engineers wanted is not at all what the public wants or is able to understand, though often both engineers and the public are given the same web map interface.

To be sure, it is possible, especially with static maps, to create a map with many layers of information that looks good. However, one must realize that these are most often created by large companies with many resources, including generous timelines and many personnel. The decade-old topographic atlas of Washington State that’s on the bookshelf in my office has 71 different point, line, and area symbols listed in its legend, all of which come together in a cohesive and meaningful manner in the maps themselves. The atlas is made by DeLorme, a sizable company by all accounts. Hey, it even has a humongous rotating globe at its headquarters.

So what is a cartographer to do when faced with requirements to place a large number of layers on a map without the resources of a large company like DeLorme? Some options include:

(1) Manage expectations: let everyone know at the outset that you will do your best to incorporate as much meaningful information as possible but will reject requests for additional layers when those layers conflict with the original intent of the map.

(2) Create multiple maps: adopt a small-multiples style of mapping so that everyone’s favorite layer gets shown, just not all at the same time. This is possible in web maps by creating a “metro tiles” type of interface linking to the separate maps. Even just creating two maps, one for the public with only the most salient layers and one for the engineers with everything but the kitchen sink, could alleviate some of the design pain.

(3) Employ a detailed, yet mostly mono-chromatic pre-rendered basemap to provide all the appropriate contextual information. These pre-rendered basemaps (from Esri, Stamen, Google, etc.) look good, are ready to go, and contain a multitude of layered information.

If you are an embrace-the-challenge type of cartographer, and are amenable to trying to incorporate all requested layers into a single, effective, design, then at the very least make it known that you will need a commensurate amount of time, or even additional personnel, to complete the project.

Testing the Use of Openface Fonts for Large Area Labeling

August 23rd, 2012

There is a seminal paper by Eduard Imhof on the correct placement of point, line, and area labels titled Positioning Names on Maps. If you haven’t already read and studied this paper, then this is something to be put at the top of your list if you ever do label positioning.

One brief passage in the paper discusses the idea that spreading a label across a large area may create an unintended heaviness to the label. If your label has a large amount of character spacing and you do not want it to appear as though it is at the top of the labeling hierarchy, he suggests using an openface font. To test this idea, I’ve installed the free font called Cloister Open Face (available here). There aren’t a lot of openface fonts available and they are certainly not widely used.

Testing the font on an existing map yielded the following. Please note that this map shows rough boundaries of the axis and allied powers as they stood at the very beginning of World War II — they are not the current political boundaries. I’m using this map simply for illustrative purposes and because it happened to be at-hand this morning.

Original label in Garamond Bold


 Label changed to Cloister Open Face Regular


Indeed, it does certainly seem as though the open face font allows the type to be spread out across a large area without drawing as much attention to it as with a regular font. This does show that it is a technique that needs to be in your mental file. However, do realize that it is not a commonly seen technique. Much more common is to simply downgrade the font’s color from a bold black to, say, a medium gray. In the examples above, a medium gray produces a cool-on-warm “dizzy” effect so the following example only reduces the black by 20%. However, it still achieves a bit of a lightening of the weight when compared with the first, completely black, example.


Label changed from bold black to bold 80% gray


Relevant label-types for this technique include mountain ranges, national parks, and wilderness areas, to name a few. Remember, if you are working with a map that has a light background (i.e., not like the examples in this post), you may want to try a bold light-gray font color instead of an openface font. As always, experiment yourself and determine what is best for your particular map subject and style.

If you like this post, you might also like Type Tips II.

Poetry, Cartography, and Dogs

August 22nd, 2012















August is a good time to put aside some of our serious map-making dogma in favor of lighter material. To that end, why not head over to to read some of Jim Bennett’s “the cartographer” poems? You’ll read such gems as:

to show his great skill to his visitors; the cartographer; shaved his dog. . .


. . . the gentle eyelash an isthmus

Don’t just read these two excerpts. You really must read all the poems and enjoy a good laugh this Wednesday afternoon.



Cartographer's Toolkit

Map Making Tips, Tricks, and Inspiration