Good Cartographic Design: A Review

My good twitter pal @DonMeltz sent me a link to a map that was made in a GIS and did not exactly espouse the cartographic ideals that we so strive for here. For some reason, the link doesn’t work anymore. :-)*

While you can’t see the map you can learn from its mistakes. It contained many common pitfalls that we need to review from time to time.

#1. The map looked like a first-draft. It was where one of my maps might be after about 30 minutes of trying. You have to try harder than this. You must not leave it at “that looks good enough.” You must leave it at, “That could win awards.” Why? Because your career is a competition and you must strive to constantly update and refine your skills if you are to remain in the race. Plus, the profession deserves better than what some people put out as a professional product.

#2. If there are a lot of different categories of non-overlapping areas then seriously consider eradicating the outline around those boundaries. For example, let’s say you have a parcel dataset that you have split into 5 categories: farmland, park, residential, business, and transportation. You probably do not need those parcel outlines cluttering up the display if your only goal is to show where the different categories are. It is okay to have the categories show up as large blobs and will be much easier to read.

#3. It is okay to show political boundaries that reside outside of your map’s focus area but make sure they don’t look like tentacles coming out to grab the map reader. That is, make them subtle – something the reader will discover on a minute examination of the map – not something they see first thing.

#4. In general, sprinkling margin information all around the map in every nook and corner is not a good idea. Keep your title, legend, and other supporting information grouped in a few places – perhaps all along one side, or at most put the title at the top and the other information in a convenient nook. Also – suppress the need to put boxes around these elements. It is okay for the title to stand out on its own without a white box behind it. It should be integrated but visible. And here’s something you haven’t seen me write before: consider not putting a title on the map at all. Can your data stand on its own? An interesting thought!

#5. Make the central theme pop. If you are highlighting something make sure it is obvious. Yes, it seems obvious (ha!) but it had to be said.

#6. Go over every element and ask yourself: is this necessary? It isn’t that you need to make your map dull, boring, and devoid of information. It just means that a streamlined approach is almost always best. For example, the map that was the inspiration for this post had a list of data sources at the bottom. They were numbered. But there was no reason to number them – the numbers were not linked to anything else on the page. I’m sure the numbering seemed like a good idea at the time but it is something that a good and thorough review would have identified. I do stuff like that all the time – create elements that make sense but after I’ve completed a draft I realize that they need to be modified or removed.

*Oh yes, I like the emoticon

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