Cartographer's Toolkit

Map Making Tips, Tricks, and Inspiration

New Contest to Win A Copy of City Maps

April 27th, 2016

******UPDATE: Both books have been won.******

I’m doing a new contest this week to give away two copies of City Maps: A Coloring Book for Adults!

Last week’s contest was a trial, and I apparently set the odds too low (1 in 100) and nobody won. So this time the odds are set at 1 in 10 and there are two books to give away. That means you have a really good shot to win one! All you have to do is click the link and then click the bouncing box icon to see if you’ve won.

As per last time I am only publicizing this on the blog for now. If there are no winners by the end of the business day I might publicize it on twitter too. The contest runs for 24 hours.

Please click the link below to enter the contest. Also please consider reviewing the book on Amazon (positive or negative) because every single review helps me out enormously.


Thoughts on UI For Webmaps

April 26th, 2016

Webmap design is a lot different from static map design. Yet, writing a book about webmap design is difficult since the tech is changing so rapidly. (There is a book, called Web Cartography, that is worth having but I still don’t think it goes into everything we want to know.) Indeed, there are a lot of unknowns surrounding the idea of what good UI for webmaps even is.

Some people are using google analytics types of software to analyze how people are using their webmaps (e.g., maptiks) but I don’t see a lot of A/B testing out there, which is probably the ideal way to harness the power of webmap analytics results.

Certainly we can still make some guesses at what works. For example, we can guess that tools and functions that have been on webmaps for at least a certain amount of time, say 5 years, are well ingrained into the public’s knowledge base and probably don’t need a lot of explanation on your map. Zooming in/out, panning, and even the ubiquitous (and not often needed) measure tool are all pretty familiar concepts to most webmap users so they need only be indicated with the usual plus/minus/ruler buttons. Brand-new tools for navigating the map, such as oblique tilts, probably will slow your user down until web GL is more common. These tools may require user education, perhaps in the form of a pop-up info box on first use.

Let’s talk about disclaimers. These could really benefit from testing. Typically, an organization will require a long-winded disclaimer to be presented to the web user before they have even seen the webmap. I’d really like to know how many users leave the site without clicking “agree.” Furthermore, I’d really like to see if clicking “agree” really does hold the organization free from liability in court, or if not having a disclaimer could allow prosecution of the organization for some users’ misuse of the data. My guess is that a reasonable judge would allow neither of these but I’m no lawyer.

What if we A/B tested disclaimers specifically? One site shows the user the disclaimer on the page, and the user has to click “agree” before the webmap will load. Another site shows the disclaimer on top of the webmap such that a faded view of the webmap is visible so that the user gets a glimpse of the webmap. Lots of guesswork here, but the hypothesis would be that the B test would result in more users.

Now let’s take a look at the freshymap. I believe that their use of these three small buttons on the top of the map make it easier for first-time users to pay attention to the main attraction–the map–before they get bogged down in the details–the layers. This one small button can be discovered at some later date, when the user is already familiar with the site.


Contrast that with this Puget Sound Watershed Characterization Project map (that’s a mouthful). Once you get past the disclaimer, which by the way happens to mention a two volume rules guide!, and then figure out how to actually get into the webmap (I’ll let you brave souls go figure that out yourselves), you find yourself on a webmap.

I think you’ll see right away that there are a remarkable amount of superfluous details on what is, essentially, trying to be a cataloging of their data holdings. In other words, it is trying to be all things to all people. We don’t need share, print and find location buttons at the very top of the page. We also don’t need the words “interactive map” at the top of the visual hierarchy (aka top-left) because we already get that it is an interactive map. In fact, that’s something that goes under the category of “user is used to this–we’ve had interactive maps for more than 5 years now,” and there is simply no need to explicitly use up good page real estate in telling them what they already know. The layer transparency slider also being at top-left? Nope, probably not needed, or at least not there.


It’s not a bad webmap at all. It’s actually very interesting once you really take the time to explore it. I do like the basemap switcher on the right (not shown on the above screenshot), which seems much easier to deal with since it has little pictures rather than words (though Timoney states that basemaps switchers are used very little of the time, in one rare case of actual user testing.) I’d just like to see more testing of these things. In a way, it’s a grand place to be in because there’s a lot of room for people to really be creative and come up with some amazing new ways to present webmaps to users that have a lot of potential to really shake things up.

Even the little things can be improved, like the titles we use on webmap legends. For example, I spotted the title, “Explore & Compare” on a legend title today and thought that they were a good choice of words, a call to action for the user, if you will. Again, only some testing would prove if my instincts are correct on that.

Amazonia map hat tip @stamen

Amazonia map hat tip @stamen

Until we get some more expert guidance on this, the best we can do is to keep our eyes peeled for the ways in which people are making webmaps easier to use and try to incorporate the best UI features in our own designs. We can also push back against our bosses or our fellow scientists when they ask for everything but the kitchen sink in one single webmap. Perhaps a series of webmaps for each intended purpose could be proposed instead. Good luck with that.



Today’s David Rumsey Talk on Pictorial Maps

April 21st, 2016

Today was the second day of events celebrating the opening of the new David Rumsey Map Center at Stanford University. I was fortunate to be in the area already, giving a cartography workshop, and took the opportunity to go down and hear Rumsey give a short lecture on pictorial maps through the ages.

As soon as the talk began I took a quick picture for twitter, which was immediately seen by the guy in front of me. And thus BurritoJustice and I finally met in real life. Funny how things work out like that.

In his talk, Rumsey went over a plenitude of historical pieces at break-neck pace:

And used the term “visual culture,” which seemed a very apt phrase and well worth noting for future use. He explained that the era between 1915 to pre-World War II was especially rich with pictorial maps, created primarily for adventure, travel, and humorous purposes. He concentrated on pictorial maps from America, Europe, and Japan and remarked that 1926 in particular was an “amazing year for pictorial maps.”

The David Rumsey Map Center is located in Cecil H. Green Library, Bing Wing, 4th floor, Stanford University. Hours are Monday-Friday, 1:00-5:00 pm.


*Win a free copy of City Maps*

April 18th, 2016

*contest over–thanks everyone!*

Over 1,000 copies of City Maps: a coloring book for adults have sold in three weeks. This is pretty amazing for a self-published book and it is all due to my fantastic following on twitter, all you savvy Facebook users who have been sharing it around, and these articles from CityLab, GISLounge, and Curbed.

To celebrate, I’m trying out Amazon’s newish feature called Giveaways. Please be my guinea pigs for a chance to win a copy of City Maps!

I am only publicizing this contest right here on this blog. If I tweeted about it, all 100 entries would probably be taken in the first few minutes. This contest runs for 1 day only, there are a maximum number of 100 entrants, and 1 book to give away randomly among those entrants. In the future I will probably do bigger giveways with more books to win but for now we’ll start small and see how it goes.

Here is the contest link, click it to enter. (link removed, contest over)

By the way, Amazon is not the only place where you can get City Maps! You can buy it at several other online retailers, linked to below. You can also ask your local bookstore to order it for you.

Buy City Maps at Barnes and Noble online
Buy City Maps at Powell’s online

Regardless of where you get the book, I would really love it if you could help me out by writing a review–positive or negative–on the Amazon page. This book is self-published, so the book is in desperate need of this kind of word-of-mouth to keep things going. Thank you in advance and thank you to everyone who has already commented!

The Making of a Map

April 4th, 2016

I made this map a few months ago. At full size it’s 8.5″ by 11″ and meant as a handout. There’s a slightly different, but mostly matching, digital companion map at the bottom of the Hood Canal Coordinating Council’s Where We Work page that I made in conjunction with this. A discussion concerning different elements of the map follows.


HIGHLIGHT MAIN LOCATION A typical task in this kind of cartography work is to highlight the main area. This is usually done in ArcMap with a masking layer or in QGIS with an inverse polygon symbolization. Either way, you are essentially assigning a semi-transparent white symbol style to the area that is outside the map focus. In this case we have 5 overlapping polygons that represent the focus of the map so the solution was to merge all 5 polygons together so that the masking layer consisted of everything not in an HCCC watershed jurisdiction.

OVERLAPPING LINES There are several approaches one can take for the display of overlapping lines. One is to depict the lowest lines in larger width sizes and another is to offset the lines so that they are side-by-side. Neither of these solutions were appropriate for this map since there are too many overlaps. After much trial and error I settled on a transparency for the highest lines. When all lines overlap the net effect is for the overlapped area to appear brown, which is indicated in the legend. Note that the legend entries are stacked in the same order that the lines are stacked in the map.

LOGO Although I dislike putting logos on maps as a general rule, there is often no way around it when the client requires it. In this case the map looks just fine with the HCCC’s single-color logo placed at bottom-left, which is the location at the bottom of the visual hierarchy.

TITLE The title has a subtle drop-shadow created in Inkscape by simply copying the text, nudging the lowest text down and to the right, and copying the grayish land color for the drop-shadow color. The main title text color matches the client’s logo exactly.

COLORS The orange boundary is the same color as other orange features on the client’s website. All the boundary colors match the digital map on the client’s website.

LABELS River labels on the main fish streams are extremely important for this map. They were done by hand in Inkscape and in many cases the individual letters were hand-nudged at 200% so that they would conform as well as possible with the sinuosity of the streams. The tribe labels match the color of the tribe polygons. In the online version of this map linked to at the beginning of the blog post, the smallest tribe (in terms of area) isn’t visible at the scale of the other features. The solution for that problem was to depict the tribes as points at the lower zooms and dynamically change them back into their representative polygons at the higher zooms.

SCALE BAR AND NORTH ARROW The scale bar is a custom, simple, graphic to keep the emphasis on the map and the legend. “Miles” is not capitalized, which further de-emphasizes itself and is in keeping with some more modern practices. The north arrow is likewise fairly simple. Both match the client’s logo color. 

TEXT All text except the river labels is Museo Sans. Including the “miles” label in the scale bar, the title, legend, town labels, county labels, and tribe labels. (The river labels are in Georgia since natural features are typically labeled in a serif font.) I chose Museo Sans because it’s friendly, highly legible, and fresh. I’m going to go ahead and say it again: even the scale bar text was changed to match the map font. Don’t settle for defaults! Make your typefaces cohesive. Okay, getting off my soapbox now…

Those are the main cartographic decisions that were made, each appearing to be an easy decision but all were considered very carefully with regard to the audience and the matching digital map. Possibly 20 different color combinations were considered, for example. In all, you might be surprised at the length of time it took to make this seemingly simple map. 😉

Cartographer's Toolkit

Map Making Tips, Tricks, and Inspiration