Interviewing the Map Audience

One of the first things you do when tasked with making a new map is to find out what the audience for the map needs to see in that map. It sounds simple enough but, incredibly, this step is skipped in a lot of mapping projects. Your audience – whether it is one person like your boss or client, one organization, or the readers of a magazine in worldwide circulation – needs to be considered. With most audience types you can either talk to the person who will be receiving the map or you can poll a cross-section of potential map-readers.

You might think that you need to come up with a list of questions to ask the map audience, and you’d be right. But here I want to focus on the thing you can do at the very beginning of your interaction with the map audience, before you start in on the detailed questions. You need to ask them:

What questions should the map answer?

So here you see that instead of giving you answers, per se, they are going to give you questions! Some example questions that the audience may give you are:

  • Where is X most prevalent?
  • Does the spatial distribution of X correlate with the spatial distribution of Y?
  • What landmarks are along the route?
  • What direction does X line feature flow?
  • How does X relate to its surroundings?
  • and so on

Now, the best part of this technique is that it gets the audience to focus on what really matters with the map: it’s story. It might be a bit cheeky, but it would be nice to ask at the end of the interview: if the map answers these questions, will you consider it a success? Now, you don’t have to actually ask this question but what I am getting at is that you’ve gotten the audience to focus away from the design-aspects of the map and toward the real meaning of the map. This leaves the design choices, which the audience sometimes gets very side-tracked by, up to you. Perhaps you can make it clear, up front, that your design choices (font, color, layout, and so on) will support and enhance the map in relation to those questions.

Once the map is completed, you must always listen with a careful ear toward any criticism that it may receive. However, if you feel that your design still has merit despite, for example, a criticism on the use of color, you can defend the choice in relation to how it helps to answer one of the questions gathered during the initial interview. For example, “I used that color in order to call specific attention to the landmarks, which was one of the things you asked for.”

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