Archive for category Best Practices

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

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.


Top 10 Cartography Myths

The top 10 cartography myths:

  1. You have to know the full history and mathematics behind projections before you can choose one. While both of these are fascinating subjects they aren’t absolutely critical to mapping. When it comes to projections the concept of primary importance is distortion. That is, you want to recognize which projections are best in the following four categories: area, angle, distance, and direction and choose one that fits well with the purpose of your map. For medium and small scale maps the projection is less important (but not unimportant) than for large scale maps. In the case of small scale maps, in particular, aesthetics may be the ultimate influence for your choice.
  2. A robust knowledge of color theory is imperative to producing a harmonic palette. Just as with projections, while learning color theory is a worthwhile pursuit, your lack of knowledge in this area doesn’t need to preclude your success in creating a pleasing color scheme. In fact, there are many short-cuts that any introspective observer can use such as keeping an eye out for paintings, websites, posters, fabrics, and other inspirational media that have good color schemes and borrowing them for your map.
  3. All elements on a page need to be clearly separated from the other elements. Negative. The more the elements flow together the more cohesive the design appears. Separation doesn’t have to be completely absent but judicious use of white space can go a long way to providing the needed separation without the gaudy effect that a plethora of boxes create.
  4. The map must fit into the allotted space, which is usually rectangular. Some of the best maps I judged in the GISCI poster contest last year were circular and one jutted into the rectangular margin where it had data that wouldn’t quite fit. Breaking through imaginary constraints in a visual way surprises the map reader and and shows a willingness to “think outside the box”.
  5. Mercator is the best projection for webmapping. Just because Mercator is the defacto standard for most webmapping APIs doesn’t mean that it is the best. The areal distortion in the polar regions is almost inexcusable when alternatives such as the Winkel Tripel exist that handle those regions much better. While, for the most part, Mercator is what we’re stuck with for now, stay tuned to the geo-channels for when this starts to change.
  6. Don’t use more than two fonts on a map. While this is a nice rule-of-thumb, the idea that you should only use one sans-serif and one serif font on your map is not always true. Maps that are annotation-rich may require several fonts for a proper hierarchy to be achieved. If you do use more than two fonts, you must take care to maintain a visual harmony among them, which is best achieved by trial and error. Remember, in the case of fonts, visual harmony doesn’t necessarily mean that the fonts should look alike. In fact, contrast within the same style (traditional or modern) may work best.
  7. Pare the data down to the most basic possible and declutter. Decluttering is good, up to a point. Remember Donald Norman says “people prefer a medium level of complexity”. You don’t want to make your map reader feel dumb or risk not giving them enough information but you also don’t want to overwhelm them. There’s a sweet spot to hit in the middle.
  8. Only people with a design background can make creative maps. Even if you are the most hard-core analytical person you know (and you know this because you’ve certainly analyzed everyone you know), creating a work of design genius is still within your reach. Analytical-minded people already have the ability to determine what the map needs to do as well as the patience to see a design through to its completion. The creative part of the equation is accomplished through practicing creative skills with any myriad of creative activities that don’t have to take up much of your time at all (see previous posts in this blog on creativity for more information on how this works).
  9. It’s all been done before. We might be approaching some kind of apex in map design or we might still be at the burgeoning stage of new and creative map design. Either way, there is most certainly room for improvement and an increase in variety of styles and means of getting our map’s messages across.
  10. If you don’t have the right software you can’t make a decent map. No longer do we need to fret the purchase of extremely expensive software in order to turn out a map. Much of the proprietary software now offers month-to-month licensing for those who aren’t in constant need but who do require professional software from time to time. Much of the free and open source software available today is as good as, or in some cases rivals, that of the professional software. You might have to use a variety of software to achieve your goal with foss but it can be worth that extra pain up-front.


Plating the Map

In cooking, the quality of the ingredients, the chef’s skill in putting good flavors together, and the chef’s knowledge of cooking technique and tools are all important and crucial. Even with all these elements in place, however, the chef must put effort into the presentation of the food on the plate to elicit the best reactions from the diners. If the food is sloppily presented, the diners often don’t even taste the food! Thus, the best chefs are those that put an extreme amount of effort into plating each and every order in the best way possible, no matter the cuisine.

In cartography, the quality of the data, the cartographer’s skill in putting good data together, and the cartographer’s knowledge of mapping technique and tools are all important and crucial. But the cartographer must also ensure that the presentation of that data is as readable and aesthetically pleasing as possible in order for map readers to glean the required information from the map.

Thomas Keller, the famous chef and restaurateur behind The French Laundry and Per Se, said, “You eat with your eyes—you use your eyes first, so something that looks elegant and nice also looks appetizing.” (Source: WSJ) I’ve written that, “An aesthetically pleasing map is also going to be a map that communicates elegantly.” Always challenge yourself to make the aesthetics better for maximum map-reader attention. I know my own mapping evolution has been continually strengthened by minding this one principle.

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Label Placement On Maps

We’ve talked before about label placement but here I wanted to present a map with many label placement tips all on the same image. This map is only loosely based on real geography and is meant for educational purposes. It is shareable under the creative commons license CC BY.

Let me know if there is anything you’d like added or if you disagree with any of the placements. We all know there is room for ambiguity in label placement rules. We also know that try as we might, geography will sometimes get in the way of our best label placing intentions.


Map Maker’s Wisdom

It’s time for map makers to map wiser.

Let’s take this series of maps, aka small multiples, published in the New York Times Travel section this past Sunday as an example of a wise map graphic:

Maps like these start with a vision. That vision springs from the cartographer’s ability to empathize with the reader’s needs first and foremost. Don’t minimize risk by going with the old-standby single map with everything crammed together. Don’t try for maximum whiz bang by producing a widget-laden interactive map with non-relevant functionality. Think about the user, the reader, before choosing a format and act accordingly.

The vision that starts the map design process is informed by a thorough understanding of the discipline of cartography. For example, without a doubt the map makers knew about the small multiples technique* and many others before embarking on this particular map production. They have those types of map products, those “patterns”, in their toolkits, ready for action.

You need the vision and you need the tools. After that it is just a matter of having the smarts to put them together and, often, the boldness to present your potentially novel solution to the boss or the client. If you wax poetic on the ways in which your product meets the exact needs of the map reader, the map will be an easier sell than you think.

See Tufte’s book Envisioning Information.


Allow New Ideas to Proliferate, Take a Moment

“Taking a moment”*, which can mean anything from a 30 minute period of strict meditation to a two-minute session of gazing out the window, is a very helpful practice that should be incorporated into a map professional’s daily routine. Especially if you frequently need to multi-task, exercise your creative muscles, or concentrate on a technical task.**

There’s been a lot of research on the usefulness of these kinds of breaks in recent years. See The Power of Concentration, an article from the NYTimes published yesterday, for a good summary of some of these studies.

Not long ago–maybe 50, 100 years–it would probably have seemed bizarre to focus research on mindfulness and meditation given that information barrage hadn’t infiltrated people’s every waking hour yet. However, it is so important today because of one big problem that most of us who work on computers have: a continuous need to scan the internet when we aren’t focused on other tasks. It’s probably not a long-shot to guess that most people who work on devices all day fill their downtime with facebook, twitter, email, news sites, blogs, and other continuously updated addictions.

It’s not bad to spend most of the day on the computer, of course, it’s just GOOD to add a few minutes of device-free time in to allow for free-form inference and reflection and the concomitant breakthroughs/solutions to tough problems that naturally follow. In fact, its pretty imperative to do so when working out creative solutions for mapping projects. See also the post on taking Mental and Physical Breaks.

*Of course, most of us are also taking a moment today to remember the victims of Friday’s tragedy. The Onion’s satirical article covers the national mood well here (warning: language).

**Yes, that seems to basically cover everything and everyone, so just do it!

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