Comparing GIS and Cartography Software in Two Minutes

There isn’t a lot of chat on this blog about specific software. Here are some reasons: (1) it would be a lot of work to compare and contrast all the software out there and it’s been done (wikipedia comparison) (2) the focus of the blog is more on design–it’s up to you to figure out how to get to that well-designed end-point, (3) the list of products keeps changing, and (4) everyone has their favorite workflow and they are all good.

If anyone can benefit from a quick, very rough, back of the napkin style analysis, then here’s an attempt at a two minute overview of various software options for making maps. Note that we’re talking about making maps, not GIS data creation, maintenance, or analysis. In the interest of expediency these are not complete sentences. It’ll be okay.

ArcGIS = Accurate! Not usually very fancy cartography output unless you try REALLY hard and even then there might be some difficulties (but I’ve done it).

Adobe Illustrator = Smooth, rich. Not accurate if you move things around. This software is difficult if you are used to ArcGIS. For example, you have to use a special button for selecting the artboard in order to move it, not the regular select buttons. But then, I’m biased.

MAPublisher = Get smooth, rich Illustrator outputs but with added ability to preserve accuracy via projections, edit features and tables while maintaining spatial integrity (i.e., edit your GIS data). For professional cartographers who do non-scientific style maps like tourist maps and the like, MAPublisher and Illustrator might just be the best bet.

Photoshop = You could export from ArcGIS to Photoshop to do some final styling, and folks who are very experienced with Photoshop (but maybe not with Illustrator) will go this route. Illustrator now has a lot of the Photoshop features so if you’re new, you might just head straight to Illustrator, which is better for print, typography and whatnot since it has vector capabilities. If everything you’ve got is in raster maybe Photoshop would be better for you. This doesn’t seem likely. But I’m not expert on Photoshop.

Global Mapper, Manifold, Freehand = Some people use these products to produce maps. Has Manifold had a recent release? As of a few months ago it hadn’t. Can’t say much about these software products except that some people seem to really like them. Worth checking out at any rate, if you are new or want a change, or need something cheaper.

Etc = QGIS is easy and free and has some okay carto-qualities. There are other options, this list is certainly not exhaustive and is entirely focused on print mapping rather than dynamic, digital mapping, for which there are a lot of open source tools out there. I’m keeping my eye on Kartograph too.

Add your likes and dislikes in the comments.

  1. #1 by Brian Kelly on April 18, 2012 - 11:11 am

    There’s also for the Mac which is like a map-centric version of Illustrator (but still without a GIS base).

    I started with Illustrator and moved to QGIS (I’m on a Mac and ArcGIS is expensive and I’m just a volunteer mapper… and yes I could use a VM). I miss the “smoothness” that illustrator gives me but I don’t miss having to manually “georeference” multiple layers of reference material with no real GIS base in the application.

  2. #2 by Brian Lewis on April 18, 2012 - 12:29 pm

    Typically I’ll use ArcGIS, export Illustrator and occasionally use Photoshop as well.

    Straight from Arc maps have a pretty hack look even when actually of good quality. You can usually identify them at a glance.

  3. #3 by Gretchen on April 18, 2012 - 12:41 pm

    Brian Kelly-Thanks for the Ortelius link. Looks interesting.

    Brian Lewis-“hack” is a good word for it.

  4. #4 by Brian on April 18, 2012 - 1:17 pm

    Very accurate and succinct.

  5. #5 by Rick Rupp on April 18, 2012 - 1:39 pm

    There’s also Canvas ( which has a GIS extension. It is probably analogous to the Illustrator + MAPublisher combination.

  6. #6 by Gretchen on April 18, 2012 - 2:08 pm

    Had never heard of Canvas. Interesting!

  7. #7 by Leigh Holcombe on April 18, 2012 - 3:04 pm

    Most of my work goes from ArcMap to Illustrator, but it’s not an ideal workflow. When ArcMap exports a raster to PDF, it slices the raster into rectangular strips, which are then difficult to work with in Illustrator. The raster colors are darker as well. Vector data translates well between ArcMap and Illustrator.

    Another great cartography program is GMT. It draws the most spectacular contour lines of any software I’ve seen. However, its command-line interface takes forever to learn, and its preference for ASCII data and NetCDF grids doesn’t integrate well with typical GIS workflows.

  8. #8 by Gretchen on April 19, 2012 - 9:05 am

    Leigh – Thanks for the GMT tip!

  9. #9 by Steve Scudder on April 23, 2012 - 11:44 am

    AutoCAD Map has the best of both worlds in terms of drawing and georeferencing.

  10. #10 by David Medeiros on July 25, 2012 - 3:55 pm

    ArcGIS: I know you know this, but to equate the software package with overall accuracy is a bit of a fallacy IMO. It’s the data that are accurate or inaccurate, and to be honest most GIS data I encounter on a daily basis are much less accurate than what I would have digitized by hand in Illustrator in my AAA road map days. Perhaps you meant that it’s capable of very high precision? Although here I don’t think it’s any more precise than Illustrator can be if care is taken to reference your workspace and draw at a large scale. In fact GIS produced maps are often much less precise when printed due to the poor line rendering available in ArcGIS.

    Adobe Illustrator: “Not accurate if you move things around”, same can be said for Arc if you edit and move features around unintentionally. And of course most software is difficult to use if you are unfamiliar with it.

    MAPublisher: Accuracy again, I don’t think having the spatial reference system imparts any special accuracy to the work, it just means you can easily overlay referenced data, which may or may not be accurately recorded from the real world. It does help preserve the spatial relationship between different data-sets though and automating the lining up of data helps preserve the spatial integrity of the map, but it all depends on the data accuracy. “For professional cartographers who do non-scientific style maps…”, this really caught my eye! Scientific (or analytical) mapping predates the creation of GIS and automated mapping by a good margin and Illustrator (with or with our MAPub) is actually very capable of this kind of work. If you have access the ESRI Map Books you may notice that quite a few of the maps shown list Illustrator under Software Used. A lot of research or analysis maps don’t use Illustrator for publication but I think that has more to do with necessity, time, money, training etc. than the software.

    Anyway, I hope you take this in good humor. As a cartographer who uses ArcGIS, Illustrator, and MAPublisher on a regular (daily) basis for analytical and graphic map making, I had to add my 2 cents worth!

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