Getting Along: The Objective and the Subjective in Mapping

In my morning reading I came across the following argument: people in fields where there isn’t a lot of debate about what the “right answer” is (e.g., math, chemistry) are nicer to one another than those in fields that are 100% subjective (e.g., art, architecture, music). In the fields that are 100% subjective, the only way to make your mark is to have an outsized ego, so the argument went, because a holier-than-thou stance on critique is the only way to get people behind your opinions. Loud and obnoxious wins in these fields. The corollary is that subjective fields of study are more competitive and less collegial than non-subjective fields of study.

Since our formula for map making is somewhere along the lines of

A Good Map = 0.5x + 0.5y, where

x = subjective items (aesthetic, feel, fashion, staleness, communicative ability, interpretation of data etc.)

y = objective items (projection accuracy, data precision and accuracy, spelling, normalization, etc.)

It stands to follow that we cartographers are justified in being 50% rude and 50% friendly to each other.*

Thinking back to some of my first attempts at public map making, here’s how this would break down. The subjective map critique would have been something like: I know Kitsap County is an awkward shape to map, but maybe you could do something different to make it more interesting. Tan for the land and light blue for the water, wow, how original! The roads look like the tentacles of an octopus. Those are some ugly suckers.

The objective critique would have gone more like this: The road shield images didn’t go through and the map has big red Xs where they should be. The color saturation on the water fades at the end of the map because the ink was starting to run out.**

Broadening the discussion from my sophomoric disasters to more general concepts, we have:

The Subjective Map Critique: Is the map a mess? In other words, are there so many extraneous details such as ridiculously thick feature boundaries, too many leader lines, a legend as long as an essay? Are there  harshly clashing colors, misleading colors, or out-of-fashion colors? Is there not enough information? Is the map boring? Is it confusing?

The Objective Map Critique: Are the color connotations correct for the audience? In western countries, for example, red is used most often to mean “bad” or “a lot.” Don’t use red to demarcate areas where the habitat for a fluffy-cute animal that everyone wants to save is located. Do the interactive components, if any, actually work? Do they include the information promised? For example, a recent digital map I viewed confusingly had social media links under the headline “legend.” Is the spelling correct? Is the projection reasonable? Was normalization of thematic data that has a strong population component included and described? And so on.

When critically reviewing your own work and that of others, you must think in both the objective terms and the subjective terms. Indeed, judging criteria for map contests is often broken out into these two categories, even if they aren’t expressly labeled as such. Often, the criteria include one or two elements of objective ratings and 3-4 elements of subjective ratings. Why the subjective gets more weight in these contests is an interesting question. We assume that the subjective is where the major differences are going to be when judging cream-of-the-crop maps. When judging run-of-the-mill*** maps, however, these should be given equal weighting.



**A short list because I’m a scientist, of course there wasn’t anything else objectively wrong…

***These idioms “run the gamut” from farm to factory.

  1. #1 by Kenneth Field on December 10, 2013 - 3:25 pm

    Nicely framed! The answer, as you point out, is that both objective and subjective work in harmony when done properly…but a potentially bigger issue arises not from who does the critique and their ego, but rather the ego of the person on the receiving end who rarely sees beyond it being some sort of personal character assassination. If they do it’s usually to just deflect the critique as being unwelcome and unhelpful. People are so rarely accepting of critique in whatever form it takes. Some shrug it off. Some get very defensive. Some get quite abusive. I see this a lot. There’s also some sort of negative correlation between the arrogance of such people and the quality of their work. Another formula perhaps?

  2. #2 by G.P. on December 11, 2013 - 10:53 am

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