Cartographer's Toolkit

Map Making Tips, Tricks, and Inspiration

Slow Carto

May 7th, 2018


It’s okay to work slowly. Thoroughly. Tangentially. Thoughtfully.

Faced with programming problems that seem to need immediate solving, cartographic deadlines, and server configuration conundrums, what motivates is usually the end-goal: the map product to be served up to the customers. Needing to get to that goal as quickly as possible isn’t everyone’s hang-up but it is mine, and might be yours too.

Giving oneself permission to pour a cup of tea, listen to slow music, and simply explore the issue for an hour or even a day provides such a richness, a broadness, of education, that it could be likened to the learning experiences absorbed when vacationing abroad rather than close to home.


Perfection is attained by slow degrees; it requires the hand of time. -Voltaire



Map credit:  Regional Food from  Capital Country Villages , by illustrator Tiffanie Brown



Map Take-Aways

April 20th, 2017

One key to cartographic success is employing a deft mixture of subtle and forthright elements in order to achieve that most difficult of harmonizations: effortless yet highly informative communication. Here’s an example that came up in my twitter thread just a few moments ago:

Here we see several elements that help to achieve the right balance:

  • Masked basemap: focuses reader attention on the area of interest while also providing geographic context.
  • Gray titling: “DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA” is in a light gray color, which minimizes its appearance despite its being diffused across the legend box. You see this often with titles in all-caps.
  • Black titling: “LAND USE PLAN” is what the map author really wants you to read first, so this is both in black and all-caps.
  • Legend box in light gray: since the light-gray text elements could blend with the light-gray masked basemap, the legend box is needed in this case, but it is kept subtle.
  • Bold colors for the landuses: landuse plan maps are notorious for their cartographic difficulty in that the combination of landuses and basemap information can make for an entirely cluttered aesthetic. Making the landuses the number one focus point was a good idea for this map.
  • Polygon boundary colors in slightly darker shades: slightly darker polygon boundaries in the same hue as the polygons helps to define the boundaries of the polygons while not overwhelming the map. Black boundaries on all polygons would not have served well here.

On the importance of rapid information transmittal

June 30th, 2016

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. 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



Visual thresholds for cartographic features

December 4th, 2015

I was surfing posts on GIS stack exchange, as one does, when I came across this post featuring a French textbook figure on cartographic visual constraints. It’s a handy little reference piece on minimum point sizes, gap widths, line widths, area differentiation thresholds, and so on, so I translated it to English to share with you here.


I’m not by any means a French speaker so if you see any problems with the translation please let me know and I will fix the graphic. (Edited 12/10/15 as per Bennett’s comment below.) I’ve left the commas instead of replacing them with periods, due entirely to laziness and my faith in your intellectual agility.


Because Halos

December 18th, 2014

Mostly, halos around labels on maps look bad. Especially when they are large and in high-contrast with the background. For example:

Halo Example Mega Size



We typically prefer what has been referred to recently as masking halos. These are fairly thin and match the background color. For example:




Any questions?


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.

Cartographer's Toolkit

Map Making Tips, Tricks, and Inspiration