On the importance of rapid information transmittal

While reading this news piece on bitcoin this morning I came across this chart:

Just the top portion of the chart

Just the top portion of the chart

Since this was some quick pre-work reading on a subject I follow from time to time but don’t study in-depth, I spent only about 5 seconds looking at the chart before I determined that it would be too much effort to understand. I thought to myself, “I know this chart is probably revealing some amazing truths and is well-done, because I trust the New York Times Graphics Department, but I’m not going to take the time to understand it this morning.”

This was a huge reminder to myself that this is precisely the way that 99% of map readers react to complex maps that they see. The lesson? If you want the majority of the readers to understand something at a glance, keep it as close to a normal, popularly familiar, map style as possible. But, you say that you are a leader in the cartography field who’s job it is to come up with fancy new visualizations?

While it may be true that only the lead dog sees the landscape (hat tip Alan Weiss), the lead dog has to navigate and interpret that landscape for its pack. Likewise, a cartography leader needs to make sure that his/her followers understand the map quickly and clearly.

Here’s a map-based example. I think that the map shown here is a little too strange to invite a quick interpretation for the reader overall. Furthermore, the legend info pertaining to the colors is actually found in the article text whereas it would have been nice to have it also accompanying the map:

Tax map

Tax map


(Please note: I never want to discourage innovation nor do I ever want to discourage individuals from publishing for fear of getting critiques like this. While I am critiquing the amount of time it takes to interpret this map I do like the varying transparency, the subtle background color, the thin white lines to unobtrusively denote county boundaries, and the use of orange as a counterpoint to the blue. There are many successful things about the map and I always think to myself that it could just be me having trouble with the other bits and that there’s a possibility everyone else completely understands this thing at a moment’s glance. TLDR: this is just one persons opinion and likely to be wrong.)

So what do you do if you still want to use one or many innovative visualization techniques in your cartography?

Answer 1: That’s perfectly okay if the map can be interpreted very quickly despite the fact that it looks different than what we’re used to. Hint.fm/wind comes to mind as an excellent example of a new technique that was actually easier to understand than any prior techniques for showing wind.

Answer 2: Leave the more complex cartographic innovation for media that invites longer perusal such as, but not by any means limited to:

  • Map focused books
  • The Sunday magazine instead of the regular paper
  • Scholarly articles
  • Twitter map nerd feeds
  • Advanced conference tracks
  • Github repositories
  • Educational tutorials



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