Archive for category Critique

Elitism in Cartography

The elite feel there is only one way to do something: their way. It’s true that there are better ways and worse ways but no one way to make a map.

At the workshop I taught at CSU last year we put out about 5 different map designs, all showing the same data but in different ways, and asked the students to stand by the one they liked the best. There were definitely some maps in the group that didn’t measure up. Everyone agreed on that because nobody stood by them. However, there were two maps that were of the same caliber design-wise and the students split themselves more or less evenly between those two. With the two maps it all came down to color scheme. Some liked the bold, more “youthful” color scheme while others liked the more traditional, subtle palette.

Both maps were equally effective in communicating the information. A critic’s job (often self-appointed) is to nit-pick, to deem something worthy or unworthy of your time. They don’t make maps. You do.

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The Map Critic’s Ego, A Warning!

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. :)

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Another Anonymous Map Critique

I’m looking at the product documentation for a major geodata company right now. The very first map in the documentation is a showcase of what their data looks like when it is all put together. You would think that this map would appear as though it came from this decade since the document is updated on a regular basis, and also since this comes from a company that ostensibly makes it’s money by selling the exact data that is shown on the map. However, it’s bad. It’s very bad.


The resolution is so low that it’s pixelated.

The labels are in a pinkish red color surrounded by massive white halos.

There’s an interestate label that is bigger than the city labels and in a generic rectangular road shield instead of the standard interstate shield that most maps are going with today.

The ferry lines are too bold and the dashes are too long for such a minor feature.

Random administrative artifacts are present, overlapping with major water bodies.

The roads are cased, which could have been nice if the map were zoomed in to a large scale. But given the medium scale of this map, the cased roads make the map appear to be like an unsolvable maze.

There is a textured and multi-colored background that goes unexplained.


Thankfully the written documentation is done at a much higher standard than the maps but I can’t help but wonder how many potential customers are turned off by this sloppiness.



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When Infographics Go Bad

A certain scholarly technology magazine, which shall remain unnamed, in its current issue, contains a startlingly confusing and downright irresponsible infographic involving floating map pieces coupled with statistics. Now, I’m not your typical overly picky academic-type when it comes to infographics, but this one just blows the mind.

As always, critiques are meant for the betterment of mapping—or in this case infographicking—and aren’t intended as personal attacks. With that in mind, I created this infographic so that it resembles the one in the magazine, but is not exactly the same. All names have been changed to protect the innocent, etc. etc.

So the infographic looks something like what you are looking at above. Here are the problems:

(1) Each state is stretched or shrunk to fit into the grid. Area is not only not preserved, it isn’t even close! Kentucky appears smaller than Connecticut.

(2) The statistics would likely make more sense with respect to where these states are in their context—the U.S.—rather than floating in space.

(3) There isn’t actually a reason to show the states. The infographic could have done just as well to show the percentages next to the state names without the associated geometries.

Those are the three major problems with the infographic. It’s a small list, but each point is pretty important and obvious.

The major lesson here: don’t inject maps into infographics without any reason whatsoever.


Map Critique, How to Avoid Bad Advice

While I often espouse the need for critique in this blog, I don’t usually go into detail on how to conduct a successful critique of your work. First, how do we determine if a critique has been successful? In simple terms, critical feedback must make the map better.

And, the more people you have critiquing the work, up to a certain point, the better. Something like this:

But you also want to make sure that the critique does no harm. You could be on the receiving end of bad ideas as well as good ideas. How do you identify them so they can be eliminated?

Eliminating errors is especially difficult when you already have a favorable opinion of the critic’s ideas and/or the critic has already given you an idea you consider to be quite good. This is the halo effect.

The halo effect applied to a cartography critique goes like this: (1) If a known expert, perhaps your cartography professor, gives you a bad idea, you are likely to think that it is a good idea. (2) If an unknown critiques your work and you consider her first idea to be really good, then you are much more likely to think her second idea is really good irrespective of its merit.

To prevent the halo effect from biasing the results of your critique, you want to decorrelate error. Decorrelating error is achieved by getting a large amount of critical feedback from many people. This will tend to move you toward a good design because the good ideas will be suggested by multiple critics while the bad ideas will be outliers, on an idea vs. quantity chart.

This only works if your critics are giving you feedback independent of one another! If, like in a typical architecture critique, the critics are grouped together in a room, shouting out their likes and dislikes, they will most certainly influence each other and you will not have uncorrelated errors.

In summary: For the best map design, get as many critics as you can, and ask them for their feedback independently of the others.*

*A good description of the halo effect and decorrelating errors is found in Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow.”

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Map Misery

About 11 years ago I had my first child. There was a point during the birth that things went horribly wrong and the only thing I could do or think was to hope that someone would put me out of my misery.

Your goal is to not have people want to be put out of their misery when they look at your map.