Cartographer's Toolkit

Map Making Tips, Tricks, and Inspiration

In Mapping, Don’t Let All Your Hard Work Go Unnoticed

July 18th, 2013

A few weeks ago I was having a meeting with a client. At the beginning of the meeting he was telling me about his recent efforts in home renovation as well as the fact that he’s been doing the buy/fix/sell thing for quite a while. He pointed out that he was in the throws of the hard work, the work that nobody notices that you did including the clean-up, structural modifications, electric, and plumbing. He intimated that it’s a bit difficult to have done months of back-breaking work on that aspect of the renovations when all that anyone will notice will be the pendent lamp that you hung in the kitchen. :)

Well, it just so happened that Kris and I had built Dale a great application the previous year that was founded on sound coding principals and using scalable technology so that we could easily deploy to mobile applications just as soon as we were ready for that part of the work. It took a bit longer this way, and certainly required more effort, than if we had gone an easier route. It is always important to us to get the back end right, even if it isn’t “seen” by the client. I pointed out the parallel to Dale:

Just as in home renovation, where the real structural, back-breaking work often goes unseen and unappreciated, so it goes in mapping and programming: while it’s absolutely crucial to the success of the project, in the end, your critics will question you not on the month of data gathering and database wrangling that you put in, but on whether or not you should have used fuchsia instead of the salmon color.

The lesson? Always state clearly the amount of effort put forth, the reasons for that effort, the benefits of doing it the “hard way”. If you don’t, they’ll never know.

One of Dale’s projects:



The Map Critic’s Ego, A Warning!

July 15th, 2013

In cartography, there are a few perfervid professionals who decry all newcomers with what amounts to public shaming of their “woefully” inadequate understanding of geography, design, projections, and the pronunciation of choropleth. I’m not exactly a saint in this arena, as I’ve done my share of critiques on this blog and elsewhere.

However, when a critique becomes more about the critic’s ego and less and less about bettering the cartography, we cross the line. And it should go without saying that a critique that is aimed at the mapper rather than the map is unproductive and unprofessional.

Critics, too, must always remain humble. Remember, what appears today like a map mess might* be looked at tomorrow as de rigueur.


*I said “might”! Certainly most map messes will remain messes in perpetuity. :)

A VerySpatial Podcast Interview

July 13th, 2013

Note: From time to time old posts are resurfaced on the blog. This one, from July 2012, references my interview with Jesse Rouse of the VerySpatial Podcast crew, covering the content of and inspiration behind my book: Cartographer’s Toolkit. You should also check out Frank’s Esri User Conference Plenary live blog, I’ve got it in the cue to read on the treadmill tonight.


My recent interview with Jesse Rouse on the VerySpatial Podcast, starting at about minute 8:

Alternatively, click over to VerySpatial to hear it.


The Week: A Wrap-up

July 12th, 2013
  • If you didn’t read The Economist this week then you missed out on a great two page article on infographics titled “Winds of change” and—you guessed it—featuring the Viégas and Wattenberg Wind Map as well as new books by Nathan Yau (@flowingdata), Simon Rogers, and James Ball and Valentine D’Efilippo. Near the end of the article we have admonitions not to let graphics obscure information and not to create “visual gibberish”. If you didn’t read it in print, not to worry, you can read the article here.

  • The Esri UC was a great conference. My most popular tweet for the week wound up being “Maps reveal patterns that would otherwise be concealed.”– James Fallows #esriucI didn’t set out to tweet the plenary events but occasionally there was a quote that I just had to tweet. and the Roosevelt High School students were the surprise hit, captivating the audience. Speaking of the audience, have you ever been in a room with 10,000+ chairs?

I picked up one of the Globe People at the Esri store to help out @Ladyofthestars. Her aim is to get pictures of it all around the world, from people who will post them on twitter and elsewhere with the #globeman hashtag. Hopefully this pic, taken as I was leaving the San Diego airport yesterday, helps the cause:

Speaking of the Esri store, it was great to see my two favorite cartography books on display…

  • In other news, I was in my first running race of any kind and attended my first ever professional sporting event. Never mind that I was slow in the former and had no idea what was going on in the latter, but just as in mapping, you have to start somewhere…


Take a Cue From Good Presenters: Allow Your Message to Shine With Great Design

July 8th, 2013

I finally got to San Diego last night after a delayed flight and am now happy to be reporting from the Esri User Conference!
There are lots of topics I could blog on today but the one thing I want to focus on is an observation about how conference presentations relate to cartography.

The presentations made at the two plenary sessions today–and no doubt in the plenary still to come this afternoon–were, without a fault, presented “well”. What does “well” mean in this context? The presenters had strong voices, fluent speech without the dreaded “ums”, well-rehearsed content, and fast-paced, well-timed visuals. Because all the presenters were outstanding in their presentation delivery skills, the audience could focus entirely on the content of the talks rather than be distracted by poor speech delivery.

How does this relate to cartography? You guessed it: an outstanding map is visual perfection; it makes map readers focus entirely on the content of the map, and the message that it is conveying, rather than obstructing them with bad design.

We all have mental “gate keepers” that disallow information from being stored if it isn’t presented correctly. Get past your map readers’ mental gate keepers by creating the most visually compelling, strong-voiced, well-researched maps that you can.

Activity and Experience Focused Design Are Paramount

July 6th, 2013

Jared M. Spool has some spot-on insights about design that he’s boiled down to 5 key design approaches:

  1. Unintended: nobody bothers to think about the design at all. “Organic” in every sense.
  2. Self: this one is intended design, but only such that it works for yourself or your team.
  3. Genius*: builds upon the previous experience of those creating the design. You hope that experience is good enough to produce a good design.
  4. Activity focused: usability testing is employed to figure out just how to best design for certain activities (in mapping, an activity might be navigation).
  5. Experience focused: looking beyond the immediate needs of the design toward needs that may not have even been recognized yet, but that become apparent once you research users.


For more information on these, check out Spool’s keynote from the 2013 Esri International Developer Summit:


*I would have called this one “experienced” focused and found another name for #5, but I’m sticking with Spool’s nomenclature here.

Cartographer's Toolkit

Map Making Tips, Tricks, and Inspiration