Cartographer's Toolkit

Map Making Tips, Tricks, and Inspiration

Drop Shadows

October 30th, 2012

Drop shadows are an easily overlooked design technique that can enhance the map by separating certain features such as legends and focal polygons visually from the rest of the map layout.

Map readers may not be immediately cognizant of the drop shadow but it helps their understanding and appreciation for the map just the same. As map makers, we need to be aware of this subtle yet powerful graphic element. We’ll start with some examples of drop shadows on existing maps and map layouts and then proceed to a few notes on how to apply a drop shadow in ArcMap and Illustrator.

From “New Plants on the Way?”, a map accompanying a 2006 article in the New York Times, Slow Start for Nuclear Reactors.
This is a classic drop shadow applied to the United States to separate it from the rest of the infographic.

From “Getting to the Tidal Basin Blossoms”, a map accompanying a 2005 article in the Washington Post, Cherry Blossom Guide.
This drop shadow provides a clear 3D height difference between the land and water.

A portion of the Marymoor Park map by Matt Stevenson, CORE GIS LLC.
Notice the drop shadows underneath the leader lines. They provide an important figure-ground differentiation.

A portion of the Seafloor Map of Hawaii map by Tom Patterson, who maintains
The extremely subtle drop shadow to the bottom and right of the legend adds to the finished look of this exquisite map.


ARCGIS To create drop shadows in ArcMap, you must have ArcEditor or ArcInfo, and your data needs to be converted to a geodatabase. Use the representation > symbology tab. A tutorial on creating drop shadows this way is available on the ArcGIS resources site. If you only have the ArcView version of ArcMap, you can create a simple rectangular drop shadow for a simple rectangular legend by creating a rectangle graphic and offsetting it from the legend graphic. You can also create a rudimentary drop shadow by converting an irregular polygon feature to a graphic and then symbolizing that graphic via a gradient. Warning: at least in prior versions of Arc (I haven’t tried this in 10), gradient symbology was resource intensive and took a long time to render. Additionally, you can play with concentric buffers whereby each one is slightly lighter in color and more transparent than the last.

ILLUSTRATOR Select an object or an entire layer, then go to effect>stylize>drop shadow and click ok.

Hurricane Sandy Interactive Web Maps

October 29th, 2012

The center of Hurricane Sandy is currently at 37.5 N and 71.5 W. It is predicted to make landfall near the Southern New Jersey coast this evening or tonight (NOAA). Listed in this post are a few of the interactive Hurricane Sandy maps that are available now. The greatest thing about all these maps? Near to real time updating! Maps like these make a huge difference for all those involved or watching from elsewhere in the world. Stay safe everyone.

The New York Times hurricane map has been lauded during past storms for being one of the easiest to understand interactive maps. It only has three layer choices (map, satellite, radar), and these choices are not presented to us in the usual GIS fashion. Instead of layer names with checkboxes, the three layer choices are presented as clickable icons.

The Google Crisis Map has channeled GIS design by incorporating a multitude of layer choices, all presented with check boxes. While I believe this could have been presented better, there are many people who appreciate this approach for its wealth of information.

Con Edison gives us a map of power outages in New York City. This one also has the similar-to-a-GIS feel, but we are nevertheless impressed with the fact that we have any information on this subject in real-time.

Similarly, National Grid also has put up a power outage map for its customers in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

A comprehensive overview of the path and several other map layers can be found at Weather Underground.

Here is a gas infrastructure map showing refineries, wholesale fueling stations, and pipelines in Hurricane Sandy’s path.

Here is another great one from The New York Times: New York City Evacuation Zones. This reminds me of a recent NYC crisis map with evacuation zones delineated — it was in PDF. This interactive one is a huge step forward.

In this webmap, Esri provides us with a map of the evacuation zones in New York City as well as some social media layers telling us the density of mentions via Twitter, Flickr, and YouTube.

Esri also provides us with an entire map gallery devoted to interactive Hurricane Sandy maps created by ArcGIS Online users.

Keep an eye on the wind map for a visualization of wind patterns in the storm’s path.


Projections Demonstration

October 27th, 2012

In yesterday’s workshop we had a projection demonstration. We took an inexpensive inflatable globe, drew a couple of secant lines, cut open the inflated globe from the poles to the secant lines, and flattened it.

You can discuss how the areas above and below the secant lines would have to be stretched if you don’t want a disconnected projection, or you could keep them disconnected but sacrifice continuity. This is also a great visual for discussing the six things that will be either compromised or preserved in various projections: area, distance, direction, shape, bearing, scale.

Notes on the demo: You might want to have a volunteer do the cutting to make things more fun. The globe was $7.00 so this could get to be too expensive if you were doing it all the time. You might just get two inflatable globes and show the cut-up one next to the inflated, in-tact, one instead of buying a new one for every demo (though that isn’t quite as fun for the students.)

Why Learn Cartographic Design?

October 22nd, 2012

Cartographic design skills are acquired through a 50/50 mix of study and practice. Anyone who is making maps is practicing whether they realize it or not. Every map you make is better than the one you made before it. So, if you are putting in the requisite practice, why study?

One of the answers is that studying the principles of good cartography will make you more cognizant of the variety of maps that are possible to make in our current environment. We aren’t just talking about static versus dynamic. We’re talking about cartograms, temporal animations, micromaps, illustrations, flow arcs, and polar views, just to name a few. The variety of maps has increased in the last few years, especially with the influx of developers trying their hand at interesting data visualizations. Keeping up with the latest developments in this realm is possible through a number of study methods, but by far the most effective is watching the cartography twitter streams. If there’s a new way to make a map, you will see it there first, and if that map is any good, it will be retweeted many times before you see it profiled elsewhere in the GIS or cartographic literature.

Another answer is that studying cartography absolutely leads to faster and greater gains in your design skills and thereby your ability to impart useful and elegant information to your audience. By taking cartography classes, reading books on map making technique, and reading your online GIS and cartography magazines, you’ll be able to absorb more of these techniques. Don’t just rely on a slow absorption rate, however. Make a bigger design leap by carefully curating a portfolio of ideas that can be easily accessed.

Remember, learning cartographic principles and staying abreast of the latest technique means:

  • Your work gets noticed more.
  • Your message is more easily understood.
  • The product is distributed more frequently.
  • The product is distributed to more people.
  • More potential for the boss to understand the map (promotion?!)
  • Getting more consulting work than those who’s maps still look like they’re from 1999.
  • Having more tools in your toolbelt so you can fit the right map to the right data.

And the biggest reason? 

Your skills can truly enable you to improve someone’s quality of life. Whether its making more readable navigational maps, or elegantly conveying correlative and causative variables in crime data or health data to the general public, or providing more useful park information maps, studying cartography enables you to produce maps that are informative, inspired, and original.

What You Need To Know To Be A Cartographer in 2012

October 17th, 2012

A recent job ad for a cartographer listed the requirements for the perfect candidate. In this bulleted list were 6 items pertaining to software development knowledge such as processes and specific technologies. One item pertained to design. Not a single item pertained to an applicant’s ability to manipulate data in meaningful ways. Unfortunately, the lack of emphasis on data and design probably stems from the fact that the firm is primarily made up of software developers. Naturally they are going to get specific about those things which they know the most about like particular IDEs, languages, and so on, and not so specific about design and data, which they know less about.

What they really need is someone who is very strong in data and design because these are obviously the areas they need the most help with. The candidate only needs to be so-so with programming, since this is already an in-house expertise. If they can get someone who is strong on all three counts then they need to throw a party, because there really aren’t that many candidates, currently, that have expert level knowledge of all three areas.

But we need to change that.

The diagram shown above explains how the software development aspect is a “new” component of the core knowledge areas that a cartographer needs to be an expert on in 2012. Students, in particular, need to realize that they will have to take classes from several different departments in order to gain enough skill in all three areas. Professionals need to make sure that they are actively improving on whichever skill they are weakest in.

Those professionals coming from the sciences, GIS, and cartography camps need to increase their software development skills: HTML 5, JavaScript, and Python to start. Take Harvard’s free, online CS50 course. Learn Python at Watch Julie Powell’s ArcGIS viewer for Flex tutorials. Download some data and build a free map with TileMill and a free MapBox account and learn the basics of CSS while you’re at it.

Those coming from computer sciences need to be improving their design and data skills.* Read Nathan Yau’s popular book Visualize This. Learn the difference between choropleth maps and heat maps, how and when to normalize, scale factors, and myriad other topics in the cartography literature. Read Cartographic Perspectives.

*Hello to normalizing by population density!

Cartographer's Toolkit

Map Making Tips, Tricks, and Inspiration