Cartographer's Toolkit

Map Making Tips, Tricks, and Inspiration

Adventures in Plant Hardiness Zone Cartography

April 29th, 2015

Yesterday I spent some time looking at hardiness planting zone maps in my pursuit to buy vegetable seeds and starter sets that may  actually germinate this year. My historic gardening flubs aside, I was astonished by the bad quality of the maps that were listed at the top of the Google search results.

The first result for Colorado hardiness zone map is a site called Plant Maps that looks to be “optimized” (this word is used very loosely here) for ad revenue. It is also de-optimized for anything that would resemble a pleasurable experience including the fact that you can’t actually figure out what hardiness zone you are in. Oh wait, yes you can. After much perusal a viewer may finally realize that the colored squares on the left-hand side of the screen are, in fact, a legend of sorts, for the map that resides in the middle of the screen (with a nice vertical ad bar in-between).




Part of the problem with this site is the obtrusive ads, but another problem is what appears to be feature-creep: the insidious and rightfully maligned process that tends to get engineers into trouble. For example, clicking on their last blog entry (notably from 2011) shows us that they last added an interactive map of drought conditions across the United States, when their focus might have been raising the quality of the features that were already present on the site.

If you google plant hardiness zone map without the Colorado bit, you are pointed to the much more official USDA Plant Hardiness Zone page, which by comparison looks downright cutting-edge. But even this one could be so much better.




For starters, I’m willing to bet that their analytics will tell them that most visitors to the site are wanting to view the map rather than read about it. They probably know this, which is why they’ve allowed the map to take up a little more than 50% of the screen space. In reality, though, it should fill 75% or more of the screen space. The USDA logo, the text about how it’s the first time they’ve published a hardiness zone map, the Stay Connected buttons, the six tabs including the Help* tab? They all must go!



Clicking on the individual states pages brings up a new map, as expected, though zooming it to the current map would be better. But here we see that a bad symbology choice has left Colorado looking like blood-shot eyes. Are rivers a necessary addition to the map or could people know what they are looking at without the rivers? I’m going to wager a guess on the latter. Additionally, I wonder if the choice of blue works here, or does it suggest that Colorado will be inundated when the glaciers melt? Just wondering. :)




So when I read the first sentence on Stephen Few’s blog today, it seemed apropos:

We are overwhelmed by information, not because there is too much, but because we don’t know how to tame it.

In the case of the Plant Map website, I think we can conclude that in some ways it must be functional…for the owner of the website, who is apparently collecting enough revenue from its egregious number of ads to make it worth hosting despite the fact that the last update was in 2011. Perhaps this space is ripe for some disruption. A pared-down site along the lines of the wind map**, for example, with a few ads to sustain the maintenance costs and perhaps even provide a modicum of profit for the host would be just the thing.

Maybe I’ll just stick to indoor gardening.


My real-life hydroponic garden / mini-jungle

My real-life hydroponic garden / mini-jungle


*A map meant for the general public that requires a Help section means it’s not good enough.

**The Wind Map gets a higher google ranking (#1) than Weather Underground’s (#4) — which is not too bad but has quite a bit of feature bloat.


Edited to add some additional hardiness zone mapping resources from readers:




When do you call yourself a cartographer?

April 23rd, 2015

Q) When do you call yourself a cartographer?

A) When you

  • Spend sufficient time on revising that it is as if your reputation and your finances are at stake (whether they are or not).
  • Study modern and historic maps on a regular basis for both general insights into the creative process and practical ideas about color, font, layout, and symbolization.
  • Begin with the design idea and then look to see how it can be achieved.
  • Constantly dabble in or otherwise familiarize yourself with new technologies that can expand your mapping repertoire.
  • Keep track of new data that can support projects in the pipeline and beyond.
  • Learn to decouple the data from the design at the end stages of a cartography endeavor on one-off design-heavy masterpieces (e.g., use Illustrator or Inkscape).
  • Create and follow a shop book that contains typefaces, color palettes, and feature size, shape, and width guidelines. Examples of maps that follow common guidelines include most of the largest news outlets including the New York Times and The Economist. (There are exceptions.)
  • Realize that in cartography there are exceptions to the rules. There are always exceptions.
  • Understand that cartographic feature symbology defaults are almost never adequate from a design standpoint (e.g., what size should the points in a user-supplied dataset be? It depends on the number of points, zoom level, background map, and so on.) Someone will probably come up with an elegant algorithm to solve this in the near future. But until then generalized defaults have to suffice.
  • Compile a portfolio of your work and have hundreds of finished maps to choose from.
  • Know that finished maps are both personal to you, and personal to your map readers.

4/24/2015 Edited to add twitter commentary from ever faithful readers:




As a result of all this I’m going to add one more bullet point:

  • You can call yourself a cartographer when you are a NUT.

Cartographer's Toolkit

Map Making Tips, Tricks, and Inspiration