Cartographer's Toolkit

Map Making Tips, Tricks, and Inspiration

Friday Thoughts on Cartography

July 18th, 2014

Today a few of us decided to create a new organization called Emotional Cartographers Anonymous. While I am decidedly not an emotional cartographer–in fact there was another faction arguing for a Rational Cartographer’s Guild or some sort that I would be a reasonable fit for–I think it would be rather fun to attend an ECA meeting. I imagine there would be lots of shouting concerning the acceptability of halos on labels, old-school vs. new-school color schemes (think light vs. dark), and of course an open source vs. proprietary discussion in which someone inevitably brings up child labor. Or something.

And when we’re done with the meeting we can all gather around and have some map cake, which won’t make us upset at all.

USA Cake

All kidding aside, I also managed to publicly declare today that: You really have to understand the infrastructure underlying your map to be an effective cartographer. This statement received a fair bit of attention on twitter. The reason I’m pointing it out is that it may seem like a departure from my oft-repeated stance that to be a good cartographer you have to learn the fundamentals of cartographic design independent of the software tools.

If you think about it though, these are not two opposing ideas. It is true that excellent cartography is based on a sound foundation of basic principles as well as application of both analytical and creative forces to the data and design. None of that has to do with software and shouldn’t be constrained by software.

If you want to create a certain visualization that is perfect for your purpose and you don’t have the ability to do that within your normal day-to-day software then you should seek software that does offer that functionality (or, if you’re a dev type, build it). In other words, I don’t have to teach software in order to teach cartographic principles.

Figure-ground differentiation, label-font hierarchy, balance of margin elements, choropleth color maximums, and many other principles remain the same regardless.

However, what I perhaps have not emphasized enough is that there’s also a need for the cartographer to understand exactly how features and maps are created, stored, styled, modified, updated, and published in order to have a maximum of control over stylistic changes. In short, if you can’t operate your map stack technology then you’ll be relying on others to do it for you, which will represent a significant delay in getting edits published. It also leaves a gap in your knowledge of what the possibilities/capabilities of your stack are.

So, learn cartographic principles. That’s key. Also learn data analysis, general design, and creative skills. Finally, learn your software, whether that’s traditional desktop GIS or an entire map stack comprised of a map server, a statistics package, a web mapping client, a tile cacher and so on.

This is a lot and you probably can’t be an expert in all of it. In fact, team effort is fully warranted, particularly if you are serving up complicated maps. For sure a lot of speed is garnered from a team that has a server expert, a styling expert, a design expert, a front-end developer, and so on. But a cartographer should be familiar enough with all these pieces to be able to at least ask the right questions and coordinate the experts to provide a substantial, informative, and timely map product.


Map Curmudgeon

July 2nd, 2014

It’s been 4 years since I started writing this blog. So that means I’m now old and curmudgeonly. This was startling apparent today when these three things occurred to me:

  • If you edit a publication with a circulation around say 1 million, and you include a picture of a person squatting on a table in what is ostensibly supposed to be a business-setting, then shame on you for sloppy work. As my highschool yearbook teacher would say, “nothing is illegal about printing that picture, but ethically, you will want to think hard about including a picture in a publication that might make the person in the picture embarassed.” Or maybe everyone thinks squatting on tables is perfectly accceptable business practice these days. Beats me.
  • In the same publication an article by a pre-eminent cartographer shouldn’t be composed of 5/6 ridiculous non-meaningful chatter about why maps are great and 1/6 description of why the author is great. How about giving us some real ideas about how to be better cartographers? At the least provide us with a modicum of value. Please.
  • Finding a dataset on something as simple and as ever un-changing as the Oregon Trail shouldn’t be difficult. Instead, you try to find, say a shapefile of the Oregon Trail (a single line, or perhaps a single line with a loop at the western most end) and you’ll wind up in a maze of government web pages where it as if each page is a government employee passing off the request to another (i.e., a link), who then immediately passes you off to another employee as if it isn’t their problem. That’s how hard it is to find a dataset with a single line of the Oregon Trail. And before you tell me that it’s available in ArcMap as a dataset you can get through their online service, I’ll tell you that indeed you can but it is utterly useless because you can’t make a local copy of it and you can’t even trace it with the tracing tool.

And because I’m not ever going to be eternally sour, let’s leave this rant with a triple set of tips on how to make your maps better:

  • Learn some digital cartography, I don’t care if it’s big-name online or open-source online, your clients/customers/constituents need you to know this. I know you’ve got your expertise in your niche. Maybe you are an expert in parcels for the county, an expert in salmon (raising hand), or a geologist who can use GIS to find the best archaeological sites, you still need to know how to make compelling (or at least usable) digital, zoomable maps. It’s actually quite difficult to learn this skill if you’re not a dev. But it’s doable (raising hand again) and pretty necessary.
  • Give us something other than sensational maps. Pop maps have had their day and we now crave intellectual, even sophisticated, if you will, maps that teach us what’s important today around the world.
  • A two-hour sequester of 2-4 people brainstorming how to take your county’s parcel map from passable to extremely useful is not to be underestimated.

There are lots of tips to impart but I also want to be wary of pedantry. There are plenty of absolutely amazing maps out there changing the world today. Let’s leave with the London Tube Map in 3d:


Cartographer's Toolkit

Map Making Tips, Tricks, and Inspiration