Archive for September, 2015

How to Win a Map Contest


I’ve just sat down to organize my thoughts on what it takes to win a map contest. Some of these points are rather dour in that they don’t really serve the cartography world all that well. Designing a map to win a contest and designing a great map are not always the same thing. Some of these points are fairly congruent with cartographic best-practices, however. See if you can spot which is which. :) And feel free to let me know what I’ve missed.


  • The color scheme needs to be something that everyone is familiar with and comfortable with, ergo: white or gray background with a few modest colors, dark gray or black background with a few bright colors, or a multitude of colors, but all muted. The option not to choose: cacophonies of bright colors.
  • The content needs to be immediately understandable yet not so watered-down that the judge will feel like an intellectual light-weight for choosing your map. This is all about psychology. The judge has his or her reputation to uphold and doesn’t want to look silly putting a blue ribbon on a map that on the surface looks too simple. While I feel that posters with massive amounts of text are off-putting and undermine the purpose of a poster, these text-heavy posters may actually win contests more than map-heavy posters because they stroke the judge’s ego. See this analogous situation with regard to soccer penalty kicking in this excerpt from “Think Like a Freak.” (For the record, I’m not a fan of that book as several of the examples are very poorly argued, however, they nail it with the soccer goal example.)
  • Plaster drop-shadows on all the margin elements.
  • Drop a big picture into the background if it’s a world map. Something with a visual consistency throughout and meaningful to the subject like sand behind a World Deserts map.
  • Make the map about a subject that the judges are likely to feel is underserved. You know how we get a jolt of happiness when we give to others? Maybe that’s what your judge is looking for when he/she judges your Stop on Red map. This map may not win an award for style–typically blue isn’t used for land–but like I say, it may win because it is a non-controversial but hitherto unmapped cause. Voting for this will make a judge feel like nobody can argue with their choice.
  • Use an easily recognizable location like a U.S. state or a country. These seem to win more often than large-scale maps.
  • Incorporate graphic design elements like fade-outs or color-blending.
  • Neatly align all margin elements either strictly to columns or evenly spaced around the map element.
  • Place all text immediately on top of the page. Don’t use a text-block background color. Especially don’t use a garishly-clashing text-block background color.
  • Only subtly differentiate between adjacent features. Maps with thick black lines for county borders, for example, don’t win. They also tend to not look good. It might be nice to indicate where county borders are in a state-level map of course, but usually they aren’t the purpose of the map and only serve to undermine the visual weight of the other elements. Therefore, they should be indicated with, for example, a slightly more saturated color than the main background.

And sometimes you still won’t win. But that’s because judges are idiots.

One of the GISCI contest winners from 2014, credit Jonah Adkins:



A Cartographer’s Gifkit

  1. When the colors, typography, labels, and features harmonize perfectly on each page in the map atlas you just created.
  2. When one small change in the cartography causes a cascade of unintended consequences.
  3. Your reaction when someone in a frog suit tells you to make that color a little more peachy.
  4. When your first d3.js interactive map actually works.
  5. When someone tries to reign in your cartographic profligacy but you badass onward.


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