Archive for category Inspiration

The Song Dynasty and the First Topographic Map

Thanks to Rachel Stevenson’s tweet here:

I purchased and have begun reading The Geography of Genius, which is so far a very good book (though I’ve had a few questions concerning some contradictions I’ve found in the author’s musings but I don’t need to get into that here).

The book’s second chapter concerns the Song dynasty, a time period and place which I didn’t know much about at all, and in that chapter the author explains that the very first topographical map, shown below, was created during this time period*, as well as the compass as a tool for navigation. The time period? 960 to 1279.

The Yu Ji Tu, or Map of the Tracks of Yu Gong, carved into stone in 1137, located in the Stele Forest of Xi'an, Shaanxi, China. This 3 ft (0.91 m) squared map features a graduated scale of 100 li for each rectangular grid. China's coastline and river systems are clearly defined and precisely pinpointed on the map. (From Wikipedia)

The Yu Ji Tu, or Map of the Tracks of Yu Gong, carved into stone in 1137, located in the Stele Forest of Xi’an, Shaanxi, China. This 3 ft (0.91 m) squared map features a graduated scale of 100 li for each rectangular grid. China’s coastline and river systems are clearly defined and precisely pinpointed on the map. (From Wikipedia)

*Stone carvings count as “print”? :)

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Putting the Cartography in Art, Quotes to Work By


Enough of this clever little wordplay of “putting the art in cartography!” Let’s go the other way round. In many cases “cartography” or “map” can be substituted for “art” or other art-related words like “painting” or “photograph” in oft-quoted inspirational text. Here are a few instances:


“Art is not what you see but what you make others see” ~Degas
Always consider the audience. Do you mainly want them to enjoy the aesthetics of the map? Do you want them to discover for themselves certain thruths (that you yourself may not have even considered) by presenting complex data in a well-organized map? Do you want to hit them with a single noteworthy point? The answers to questions like these steer the mapmaker in the right direction.


“Every artist was first an amateur” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson
And, I might add, we all remain amateurs in some realms of cartography. There is no possible way to become an expert at design, programming, every GIS, web, and design software product on the market, analysis, and the subject matter(s) that you’re mapping. You must try for solid achievement in one or more areas and continued learning in the others.


“A good painting to me has always been like a friend. It keeps me company, comforts and inspires” ~Hedy Lamarr
If the maps that you or your department are turning out are not comforting you or inspiring you then it’s time to rework them.


“I really believe there are things nobody would see if I didn’t photograph them” ~Diane Arbus
What seemingly unsightly realities would people be confronted with if you truly made the public aware of certain things in your data? If you took the time to explore hunches? If you produced some solid eye-opening statistics and explanatory maps to match?


“My imagination can picture no fairer happiness than to continue living for art” ~Clara Schumann



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The Art of Illustrated Maps: A Book Review

Note: I received an advance copy of this book for free from the publisher. I offered that I would review the book if I liked it.*

I was first introduced to HOW books through Jim Krause’s excellent, and snazzily “flexibound,” Color Index 2. This publisher knows how to design books for designers. They’re also pretty well known for producing HOW magazine.

So when they asked me to take a look at the brand-new book, The Art of Illustrated Maps by John Roman, it was not far fetched to think it’d live up to a high standard and, happily, it does so and more. It includes a multitude of illustrated maps, both historic and contemporary, from a variety of mapmakers. This would be enough to make the purchase worthwhile, but the text goes beyond that with a healthy dose of history, how-to material, and explanatory text about the showcased pieces.

Art of Illustrated Maps

Roman covers a lot. He indicates that anxiety at the onset of a project is normal and an incubation period is needed to counteract that anxiety, whether or not the intricacies of the project are pondered consciously. This is absolutely in accordance with how my own creative process works and with what I’ve previously preached on this blog.

If you are a person who likes to approach map design with a clear methodology, you’ll be interested to read about the hierarchy of design, which Roman explains as the listing of A-B-C items where A items are uppermost on the hierarchy, B items are one step lower, and C are the lowest. Because of the sheer density of information in a typical illustrated map, Roman cautions that these can be subtle when you start to look for them. The concept is valuable nevertheless, and I’m reminded of some egregiously bad maps I’ve seen recently with regard to hierarchy (hint: a transparency slider should not be in the prime visual space of your interactive, public-facing, map).

The contemporary illustrated maps in the last section of the book are perhaps the most useful from my perspective. It’s fascinating and instructive to see how different artists approach things and is a great reminder that there are no hard-and-fast rules in cartography and that we need to be supportive of the rich and varied nature that the form can take.

bookpic2Is it lavishly illustrated enough for the coffee table? Yes. Does it provide plenty of design ideas such as color palettes, layout concepts and typeface inspiration? Yes. Does it have a well-written chapter on the history of illustrated maps? Yes!

“Unlike technical cartography…the structure of illustrated maps, like jazz and creative nonfiction, grants the artist permission to improvise with facts without setting limits on the styles or techniques employed to relate a visual story–a true story.” ~page 3

John Roman graciously answered a few questions expressly for the readers of this blog:

  • What was the impetus behind writing the book?

    Having been an illustrator who specializes in “illustrated” maps, I longed for a book, any book, on the subject of my unique specialty. None existed, however…so I felt there was a need for a book on this form of conceptual mapping. The field has grown enormously over the past ten years or so, and I believed the time for an in-depth look into the history and psychology of this branch of cartography had arrived.

  • What is one of your favorite historical facts about illustrated maps?

    Two facts, actually: 1) That maps of the “mind” were the very first type of map and that “geographic cartography” as we know it today, grew out of that original, conceptual form of mapping…and

    2) That “illustrated” maps actually had a name about two thousand years ago. In 150AD, Claudeus Ptolemy gave illustrated maps the name “Chorography”…a name that has been lost over the centuries. (In fact, at the same time, the name “Cartography” was also born.)

  • In your opinion, what should my readers—who are primarily cartographers—do when they are feeling discouraged about a project?

    To keep in mind that historians refer to mapmaking as the oldest form of art. With this thought, all of us working in the mapping trade can feel assured that our need in society has always been there…and always will!



*And speaking of disclosures, the book links here are affiliate links, which really just means that if you were to buy something through one of the links, I would be able to purchase about 1/10 of an exorbitantly priced healthy smoothie that I really should just make at home for much cheaper.

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2014 Holiday Map Gift Ideas

I was recently asked what I would recommend for map decor and had a fantastic time looking up old favorites and discovering a few new offerings along the way. Since it is nearing the holidays and many will be looking for some gift ideas for the map-enthusiasts in their lives (or, ahem, for themselves), I thought it would be good to list my finds here for everyone to peruse. Please feel free to add relevant map gift ideas in the comments as well!

  • David Imus’s map of the U.S. Get it framed and hand-signed by Imus for an extra-special gift! Purchase site.
  • Exquisite maps of major cities, made almost entirely with words. Purchase site.
  • Fans of Disney World’s Jungle Cruise will appreciate Jonah Adkin’s fun map. Also, Illinois and the Noland Trail maps. Purchase site. (Edited to add link to his new $5/off offer.)
  • The globe chair. And yes, it isn’t just a projected map un-projected onto a globe! It’s accurate (which is more than we can say for this). Created by Hans van der Maarel of Red Geographics. Purchase site.
  • Etched wine and pint glasses on etsy. Purchase site.
  • The 2015 Geohipster wall calendar. Disclosure: my company made the map on the cover. Make sure to specify Jan 2015 as the starting date. Purchase site.
  • And though this book is more about data visualization than about maps per se, it is a book that’s on my Christmas List so I’m hoping this hint makes it to the right person…The Functional Art by Alberto Cairo. Purchase site.

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Top Ten Cartography Books


Update 1/5/2016. This post was the most visited post of 2015 even though it was written in January of 2014! There have been quite a few great new books published since this post was originally written. You may want to check out The Art of Illustrated Maps, Designing Better Maps 2nd Edition (watch the blog for a review of this book–my copy is supposed to arrive in the mail today), Great Maps (Dk Smithsonian), and please keep an eye out for my new book (co-authored with Anita Graser) QGIS Map Design.


I’m in the process of curating my links page. I’m deleting a lot of items that are old or that I just don’t feel are worth your time anymore. I’m also adding in new links and books that have come out since the last update. It’s a long process because it’s a long list. However, I thought I’d pause and do a simpler, more visual link page right here on the blog with a few books that I have and love. These are books that I feel are absolutely worth while to add to your collection.

To be sure, I’ve got a heck of a lot of other books…you can see a portion of them in this map stack I took a while back:




These are Amazon affiliate links, which just means that I get a small bit of pocket change every time someone clicks on a link and buys something, which helps my latte habit, which helps me write more blog entries. See, it all comes full circle. I’m excluding my own books from this group, because you can find those links in the sidebar for this site. They are by far the best books of the bunch, naturally. Also excluded are books that may be excellent but that I don’t actually have. I like to stick with recommending what I’ve actually used.
# 10 The Map Book, Peter Barber, 2005

The Map Book is heavy, weighing in at 4.9 pounds, and large. And beautiful. Each double-page spread has a map on the right side and an explanation of that map on the left side. The top of each explanation page has a single sentence summarizing the map’s importance before going on with a more in-depth description. For example, page 170 says at the top, “A map of the Empire of Germany, sponsored by Prince Rupert of the Rhine, from the first truly English world atlas, reveals a microscopic secret.” The maps are arranged in chronological order, with the year written in prominent numerals for easy reference. This is a coffee table book that won’t make it to your coffee table because it will be on your desk, next to your computer, where you can reference it at will.
#9 Maps, Lena Corwin, 2010





Corwin’s book isn’t available on Amazon (click the image to go to her direct purchase page) but it is definitely worth getting. The book is a treat, from the cover and page material, to the pop art graphical maps that all have the same look and feel yet manage to capture the essence of each included city. I actually took an exacto knife to my copy and mounted some of the maps onto handmade paper to make a very unique poster. How Martha Stewart. The best thing about these maps? They make cartography look easy.
#8 The Modern Japanese Garden, Michiko Rico Nose, 2002

The reason for including this relatively obscure book that seemingly has nothing to do with cartography is to challenge you. Find a design subject that you like to read about and explore it to glean unique ideas for your own maps. It’s not that you need to buy this particular book, just something in a design genre that inspires you. Japanese gardens, for example, are extremely instructive in the principles of asymmetry, focal points, subdued color, pattern, and repetitive composition. This particular book is rich in photographs illustrating these principles and has a place in my at-hand reference library.
#7 Thematic Cartography and Geovisualization, Slocum et al, 2009

I used to not recommend this book because a) the paper it’s printed on smells bad and b) it’s written in text-book speak, which I loathe. However, I’ve come around and find that it’s okay to recommend it, especially if you let it sit outside to air out the first week you get it. It’s definitely a comprehensive book. Get it for the chapter on projections, alone, if you want to delve into the math a bit. The multivariate mapping chapter is also excellent, with lots of examples to get you through. While one must wince a bit at the fact that there are “color plates” (who calls them that anymore?!) at the back, which the publishers did to save on printing costs, we can try to get past that and appreciate it for what it is: one of the most comprehensive cartography manuals out there.
# 6 Envisioning Information, Edward Tufte, 1990

A classic book that can’t not be mentioned.* It’s not a cartography book, per se, but it features a lot of maps (pages 36, 40-41, 74-76, 80, 83, 91, 93-95, just to name a few). I think the reason that this book resonates with people, and all of Tufte’s books really, is that it kicks you in the pants. When you read it, you feel as though you want to–you need to–incorporate his principles in order to not let the guy down. It’s not simply a “here’s what works” type of book. It is a compendium of Tufte’s own analytic explorations of everything from the vast variation in copies of a cave drawing to dance annotations that Tufte says “bring about and enable the joy growing from the comprehension of complexity, from finding pattern and form amidst commotion.” It’s a book to both gaze at and study.
#5 Creativity Today, Byttebier et al, 2009

Creativity Today is absolutely chock-full of inspiration. It details the creative inspiration process, talks about why people are afraid of new ideas, shows you how to talk during design charettes (e.g., “can you explain it to me?”) to get the most out of them, and throws in some brain teasers along the way. I honestly have no idea why this book hasn’t done well in the marketplace. It hasn’t gotten much attention though I’ve found it to be useful enough that bits of it have made it into my talks and blog posts since I first bought it in 2009. I’ve used its ideas to help a client come up with alternate URLs for their company, and I’ve used its doodling ideas to jump start my brain prior to creative map exercises.
#4 1000 Fonts, Martin et al 2009

What can I say? The book has a thousand fonts! If that’s not enough to excite you, I don’t know what to do. :) The fonts are split into serif, sans serif, display, script, and monospaced categories. Each has a little blurb about it, a letter chart, and a Latin dummy text paragraph for each of the main styles and weights. A small, fat, reference book that will help you appreciate the sheer variety of typefaces out there that can make your next map a knock-out.
#3 Thinking With Type, Ellen Lupton, 2010

What 1000 Fonts doesn’t give you is what Thinking With Type does give you: a comprehensive font use guide. I’ve read through this book from cover to cover at least twice and re-read parts dozens of times. The cover is curled up from so much use that I now always put it face-down, so the curling doesn’t bug as much. It explains all the essentials about typefaces: from terminology (what’s a serif and what’s a sans serif?), to a discussion about The Well Designed Comma, to spacing and meaning. Richly illustrated and lovingly crafted. An inspiration in both form and function, just as our maps ought to be!
#2 Strange Maps

Strange Maps is entertaining. Page 106 bears the title, “The Aroostook War (Bloodless if You Don’t Count the Pig).” You may not find specific inspiration for your maps in this book but you will broaden your image of what maps can be used for–The Land of Oz anyone? I’ve always found the Strange Maps blog strangely compelling and have never had a problem being similarly compelled to pick up this book during times of ebbing enthusiasm as an effective pick-me-up.
#1 How To Lie With Maps, Mark Monmonier, 1996

How To Lie With Maps has been a staple on cartographer’s bookshelves for years and years, and regularly hits #1 on the Amazon Cartography bestseller list. It’s a slim volume that entertains and educates at the same time. Monmonier discusses how cartographers can mess up census statistical mapping, how they can use colors to both attract and detract, how maps are used for political propaganda, and other topical gems. Besides, anyone who can come off well using the Midwestern word “tickled” that my grandmother used to use (e.g., “…residents of both places are tickled to see their towns mentioned.” page 65) is a hit with me.


*You know it’s good when it brings out the double-negative in me.

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New Map Roundup

  Significant Climate Events via @NOAA @NOAANCDC


  Ethnical Dot Map of the American People via @adenas and rvanews and University of Virginia


  Biggest Chain Restaurants by State via @LaughingSquid


  Fictional Map for “The Companions: The Sundering”. Map by Mike Schley, book by R. A. Salvatore.


  “The History Of…” most common word in Wikipedia via @GISbuzz by Martin Elmer


  Dymaxion Map of Global Forest Densities in Wood, by Woodcut Maps via @clearmapping and dezeen.

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