On Faith

My work is driven by small miracles.

People pay me to come up with ideas, but I am not certain where they come from. I meet with a client, and they tell me what sort of information they want to convey, and why. They hand me some data, and maybe a sketch or two. I promise that I will meet their needs by a certain deadline, and then I leave the room, having no clue what the end product will look like.

This is the life of a creative professional. I know how to make perfunctory maps, but to make something good and unique? That requires magic. I cannot will it into existence, but must wait patiently for it to occur. First you’re working on something that looks terrible, and then the Idea appears that fixes it and makes it good. Or maybe it doesn’t, and things keep looking terrible for a little longer. Each of us has our own rituals and practices to make the Idea more likely to come around — meditating, looking at other people’s art, talking to friends, or, if you’re Don Draper: napping, drinking, and movies.

It can be frustrating, and it can be worrying, to sit there staring at the blank canvas and hoping that you will not fail to deliver on your promises. To be without a set of clear, well-defined steps to reach excellence. To keep moving forward requires faith. To understand that you have the tools to succeed, and that the correct combination of synapses will eventually fire in your brain sooner rather than later.

Not all of mapmaking is so dependent on magic, to be sure. There are many tasks which are rote and uncreative, and there are clients who simply want you to produce something you’ve already done before (or to follow their specific instructions). In truth, that’s most of my work. But occasionally someone says, “it should look scholarly and modern,” or “these data sets should be shown in an entirely new, cutting-edge way,” and those aren’t really instructions. Now you must have faith that the Idea will come to you.

Having faith is about more than just the Idea, too. Even if someone comes to you with a specific style example to copy, it may be something you’ve never done before. I’ve never gone from A to B before, but now I need to decide if I want to commit to taking an unfamiliar path, by a certain deadline, and do a good job along the way.

This is a business, like many others, that requires faith in oneself. That you will figure it out; that you will eventually stumble upon that Idea; that you will figure out software or the data or whatever is necessary to deliver on what someone asks of you. That you have it in yourself to succeed at ill-defined tasks.

This sort of faith and confidence has long been a weak point for me, but becoming an accidental freelancer has been very good for teaching me that I can figure things out. My work is a constant source of self-surprise. Almost nothing I’ve made is something I would have imagined myself as making just a short time before. But as time goes on I have learned to have faith in my ability to get through each new task, and to be open to the right moment of inspiration.

It helps, as well, to be surrounded by a network of helpful and friendly colleagues, without whose aid I would much worse off. They show me the way from A to B when I am not certain how. And sometimes, when I am waiting for the Idea to come, it visits them instead, and they share it with me. Having such support helps give me the confidence to look clients in the eye and say, “Yes, I can do that for you.” Even if I don’t know how just yet.

As Bradbury said: Go to the edge of the cliff and jump off. Build your wings on the way down.

The Most Important Thing

Longtime readers will know that I have had the privilege of serving as one of the two Editors of the Atlas of Design for the last few years. Now, however, my term has come to an end, and I am stepping away from the project. It’s been an amazing experience, and I hope you will indulge me in a little reflection.

My involvement is entirely due to the patience and generosity of Tim Wallace. In 2010, he was serving as the student board member of NACIS, and was tasked that October with coming up with a plan for NACIS to publish an anthology of great maps. Nick Springer had previously created two editions of Cartography Design Annual, and NACIS was hoping to pick up where Nick had left off.

Tim and I were both students in the University of Wisconsin Cartography Lab, and as he began to work on the book idea, he would share his ideas and updates with me. I was very interested in the project, being in love with printed materials and also having previously had work featured in Cartography Design Annual #2. After a short while, I started giving Tim a lot of unsolicited suggestions, and not-so-subtly hinting that I would like to be a part of the action. He handled this with graceful patience, and in February of 2011 he offered to let me help.

Now officially aboard, I kept spamming him with ideas and involving myself in the decision-making. When I get excited about something, I can turn into a wall of mental force. After the first month, Tim, quite rightly, reminded me that this project was his charge, as I was starting to get a bit carried away. Soon, though, we “hit a rhythm” (as Tim puts it) and formed a partnership as co-Editors.

My excitement barrage notwithstanding, we had a great working relationship. When we joined forces, on this project and others, Tim and I were more than the sum of our parts. We inspired each other to new heights as we passed ideas back and forth. Being able to work on something you love with people you love is basically the best experience life has to offer.

By April 2011 we’d put together a vision for a new publication, a beautiful anthology of contemporary cartography intended to inspire professionals and educate laypersons. A global honor in cartography. Something important. We had big dreams and were excited to see them through. A high percentage of our meetings consisted of statements like “This is going to be amazing!” “So excited!” “Wow!” I’m sure we used a lot of exclamation points.

We plugged away on and off for the next 12 months, figuring out what it took to actually make a book. We ran a competition, received 150+ entries, recruited judges, made final selections, got quotes from presses, worked out page sizes, bindings, and materials, and many other things. It was an amazing experience and a lot of fun to learn about the publication process.

AoD Workday

Hard at work.

The NACIS Board of Directors had a rough idea of how much this book would cost, which was based on the idea that it would be printed and bound inexpensively. But Tim and I felt like the materials of the book needed to be high-quality, to reflect (and respect) the quality of the contents. So, we aimed higher, and in April 2012 we asked the Board for about three times as much money as they had been contemplating spending. I remember being very nervous prior to the meeting, and Tim and I brainstorming in the days beforehand how to convince them to fund our dream. It was a sort of shift. Initially, this was something the Board had asked Tim to do. Now it was something we were asking the Board to do.

I called in to the meeting via Skype. I laid out our vision, and then told them how much we wanted to spend. I remember hearing at least one person gasp. Tim and I had figured some scenarios in which we could do things cheaper, though at lower quality, and we figured on maybe getting funding to do one of those, but we had decided to start with a go-for-broke request for everything we wanted. But, to my surprise, everyone completely supported our higher-cost vision. The treasurer started shuffling money around between parts of the budget to accommodate our unexpectedly-high request. What I remember most is that people started offering money out of their own project budgets, and I started getting teary-eyed as people kept stepping up to help make our dream happen. I’m not sure, but that may be the only instance of tears of joy/relief at a NACIS Board meeting. I remember reporting back to Tim that we had won the lottery. The Board took a big risk on us, layout out a very large fraction of its money to print a book that no one was certain would sell.

Then it was back to work, to make the book in time for NACIS 2012, that October. We designed the layout, got copyright releases from contributors, did copyediting, figured out fulfillment channels, wrote an opening essay, and plenty more. I got to visit the press while the book was being printed, which was really cool. Finally, the book was finished, bound, and ready to send to us. Actual quotes from emails between me and Tim:

“Yessssssssss!!!!! Aaaah! I love paper!!!!”
“OH MY GOSH, FELLAS!” [“Fellas” being a nickname, of obscure derivation, we had for each other]
“Aaaaaaaaaasaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah! Goooooooooooooooooooooooooo! Yesssssssssssssssssssssssssss!”
“I’m freaking out!”

Editing a proof

Editing a proof

The book was done a Friday, but the driver wouldn’t bring it to us until Monday. I was so excited that I asked the printer for a sneak preview — could they take some photos of the book for us? They did one better: someone came to my house and hand delivered a copy to me Friday night. As I told her at the time, it’s rare to have a vision for how something will turn out, and for it to in fact come out exactly that way. But that’s what it was: everything I’d hoped for. All that work and dreaming had turned into a solid reality, and to some degree it was anti-climatic now that it was in my hands, but it was also very satisfying.

The book debuted in October 2012 at the NACIS Annual Meeting and was well-received. When I got back to Madison I went about the business of taking orders, packing books up, and shipping them around the world (which was also kind of fun to learn about). Some of our customers were libraries, and eventually it got put on WorldCat.

Seeing my name, alongside my friend Tim’s, in a library catalog entry for a book we made together is one of the highlights of my life.

Editing the first two volumes of the Atlas of Design is probably the most important thing I’ve done in my career thus far. It’s been an immensely satisfying and, at times, deeply moving experience. It’s a bit difficult to move on, and to let the project live on and change under the direction of others. But I know it is left in the good hands of the current editorial team of Sam Matthews, Marty Elmer, and Ginny Mason. I look forward to seeing what their dreams are.

Flowing Bicycles

Here’s a fun little symbol design that I did back in 2013 and quite liked. At the time, a colleague of mine was mapping data from a bike rental program. Among many other things, he wanted to plot how many bikes were checked into and out of each of the city’s docking stations over the course of a day. I suggested the following:

BCycle

The length of the red arc shows the number of bikes docked at the station, and the blue shows biked checked out of the station. In this case, many bikes left the station during this time period, and few entered.

There are plenty of ways to convey a data set like this. You could do a little chart with varying bar lengths, or you could do proportional circles that change in size based on activity. You could even just write the numbers near the stations.1 But, I like this solution because it carries a sense of movement and flow to it. The feather effect on the red and blue sections gives a sense of connection to the base map. Bikes are flowing from the surrounding area into the station (represented by the grey dot), and flowing out again. It feels more natural than a simple, static, proportional circle or bar chart. This symbol lives in the community, rather than sitting on top of it.

It’s also nicely non-specific about location. People who dock bikes at this station are coming from many different places, and people who take bikes from the station will have many different destinations. The symbol is drawn to look like it’s taking in flow from a wide area, and distributing it across a wide area. It’s less specific than, say, using arrows. It would be easy to draw a black dot with a red arrow coming in and a blue arrow coming out, to indicate bike check-ins/outs. But I think those arrows would feel too specific, suggesting bikes only came from one way and went out another. The symbol I designed above is not perfect: the red is on only one half of the circle and the blue on the other. But, I think it’s a little better than the alternative.

In the end, the colleague ended up going another direction, but instead of letting this symbol languish in permanent obscurity, I thought I’d put it up here, in case it provided anyone with some ideas or inspiration. It exemplifies the sorts of little details that cartographers spend a lot of time thinking about, and which map readers ultimately don’t think about at all.

1 That’s probably a good idea no matter what symbology you use.

Design is Human

This post is adapted from a UNIGIS u_Lecture webinar I gave earlier this year.

Design is human.

It’s a simple statement, but to me a very useful one. When I set out to assemble the talk upon which this blog post is based, I hadn’t realized how many of my thoughts about doing good design can be boiled down to those three words. I’d picked it as the title for my presentation, well before I had any actual content. But as I began to assemble coherent thoughts to go along with the title, I realized that it’s a pretty good summary of where my thoughts are at right now, as well as a refinement of statements I’ve made in the past (on this blog, in presentations at NACIS in 2013 and 2011, and in the classroom).

Humans are Natural Designers

Let’s start with the big question: what exactly is “design”? I could consult a dictionary or something, but that seems like a lot of work and not as much fun as making up my own definition. So, just like my Introduction to Cartography students, you’re stuck with my personal opinion on this one:

Design is making decisions in order to reach a goal.

It’s simple, and very broad. You have something you want to get done, and then you use your knowledge and experience to figure out how to accomplish it. It’s also an empowering definition, because it means that we are all designers. We design all the time in our daily lives.

Here’s a trivial example: I’m hungry. My goal is to be not-hungry. So, I decide that I will fix some food and eat it. Once I act on that plan, I’ll stop being hungry, by design.

It’s a silly example, but it illustrates just how much design we all do every day. We’re constantly planning and making choices based on the way we want the world to be. Design is natural to humans, and our ability to make these sorts of plans is one of the things that separates us from most of the rest of the animal kingdom.

This is something I try and hammer home in the classroom, and which bears repeating: we are all designers. It’s easy to become discouraged or overwhelmed when we see beautifully-designed maps, furniture, or other objects, and to think that the ability to design is out of reach, reserved for a special group of people with appropriate job titles. So it’s important to me to spread this empowering definition, and to remind everyone, student or otherwise, that design is human — it’s something we do naturally.

Some people design breakfast, and others design maps. It’s the same process, but the difference is simply in the goals, and the knowledge and experience being employed in achieving those goals. Here’s a lovely map by Eduardo Asta (which can be found in the 2nd Atlas of Design!)

Asta Mapa do Trafico

The map is built upon a series of good decisions. He wanted to show the movement of drugs, so he made the decision to use arrows. He wanted to present a serious subject in an appropriate mood, so he chose a dark background. He wanted us to understand what the color meant, so he included a legend. And it goes on and on, with hundreds of decisions going into the map. Many are obvious, and some we might disagree with, but we can still boil much of the map down to choices that were made in service of a final goal. What separates someone who can make a map like this from someone who can’t is the knowledge and experience informing those choices. It’s not some inability to design.

Making a map is just like making breakfast, except with different goals, options, skill sets, and resources. So, completely different. Except for the design part; that’s the same.

A Human Designer

By the description above, design requires intent. We have a goal, and we make decisions which are intended to move toward that goal. Design cannot exist in the absence of thought and planning. A random choice is not a design decision. Imagine if, in the map above, Mr. Asta had chosen colors blindly, or put random words on the map instead of region labels. The map wouldn’t be poorly designed, it would be non-designed. It would be senseless, with no connection between the appearance of the map and its aims. If we rush through our work, making choices with little thought, we run the risk of producing something non-designed. And when we fail to design, we run the risk of producing cold, inhuman results:

Mississippi Tributaries

Ledge Wind

The top map is of the tributaries of the Mississippi River, and the other is of noise predictions for a wind farm (previously seen on Cartastrophe). They’re both a mess, and neither give a feeling like there’s a human behind them. When we fail to design, we produce something that lacks thought, and our readers detect this. If a map is a medium of communication between humans, these ones feel like there’s not a person on the other end. We look at them and think: “What human would make such decisions? There must be no one there.” The result is what I call uncanny cartography.

When we put our thought into our maps, our intelligence shows through in the final product, and it allows an empathy to travel through the map. Look again at Eduardo Asta’s map:

Asta Mapa do Trafico

There’s no doubting that a lot of thought went into it. I can immediately perceive that an intelligent being created it, in a way that’s not so apparent with the uncanny maps above. I get a sense of another person (or persons) with an aesthetic taste and preferred style. It feels more comfortable to interact with, because I’m in dialogue with another human, not a mysterious map-producing algorithm that I can’t empathize with or understand.

We also fail to think, and therefore design, when we rely upon defaults. Software defaults are the antithesis of design. Our word processors start with a default typeface and font size. When we open a GIS program and load in a shapefile, our polygons get styled in a pre-set semi-random color. This is, by and large, a useful thing — it would be an annoying chore if we had to set our display parameters before we were allowed to see the data we’re loading in. But these defaults are not design.

I made a map!

I made a map!

Defaults are not choices. I didn’t choose the pink color for the land above, nor the purple rivers. The software made the choice, and the software doesn’t have my specific goals in mind when it picks colors or line weights or whatever. Therefore, by our simple definition, defaults are not design. Some software engineer years ago and thousands of miles away made a guess as to what your goals might be, but they’re pretty likely to miss. To accept a default, without thinking, is to abdicate our responsibility to design.

Again, defaults are not evil. They are useful, but we fail to design when we don’t think about them. Smarter defaults are great; it would be wonderful if I had software that always made good guesses about what I wanted to do, and put together a great-looking map without much input. But I would still need to look over what it’s done, think about if those choices align with my goals, and then accept them. Default becomes design only once you’ve given that human nod of approval. Remember that the software is a tool. It should ease our labor, not our creativity.

To rely on a default, or otherwise not think about our work, is to fail to design, and to create a product which lacks humanity. This is the second way in which design is human: it requires a human on the generating end, because design expresses humanity. When there is no design, there is no humanity. And that produces alienating works that no one wants to engage with (and if you want to communicate with a map, you’ve wasted your time if no one wants to look at it long enough to learn your message).

Design For Humans

Here’s another map that has a lot of humanity. It’s by Owen Gatley, for the website Rad Pad, showing rental costs in Los Angeles:

Gatley Rad Pad

There’s a strong sense of a person on the other end, not a set of automated defaults. But what’s also interesting to me are the non-informational parts of the map. The surfer, the palm trees, the brush strokes, etc. The parts of the map that don’t really tell you any geographic information. What’s the point of including them? They appeal to the senses, and they entertain. Doing good design requires paying attention not only to what is necessary, but also what is unnecessary-yet-pleasing. This is something Don Norman talks about in his book Emotional Design.

Humans love unnecessary things, and this is what makes us fairly unique and awesome. My favorite example is how, in the 1960s, the US government spent an insane amount of money to send people to the moon. There were political goals, and scientific ones, but ultimately, we did it in order to take pictures like this:

Apollo_15_Scott_Salute

Another day at the office for Dave Scott.

Project Apollo is arguably the most amazing thing people have ever done, and it was quite unnecessary. It didn’t reduce poverty or violence or deal with any other crisis. It was about taking awesome pictures (to grossly oversimplify it). And it cannot be explained without understanding what is beautiful about humanity: that we are not driven solely by instinctual necessities of food, shelter, and reproduction. We find the purely functional to be unsatisfying.

Here are two maps of protected areas in the United States:

14 - Kenai Fjords

Kenai Fjords National Park

Vermilion Cliffs National Monument

Vermilion Cliffs National Monument

Both maps have the necessary information — trails, campsites, amenities, terrain, etc. But one of them stops after telling you what you need to know, while the other one goes well beyond that to paint a beautiful, satisfying picture of the landscape.

Which place do you want visit? Remember these are representations; neither landscape really looks like that. But aesthetics matter, and they influence our perceptions of these places we’ve never been. Design without appeal to human aesthetic and emotional senses is frequently empty.

To design maps for a human audience, therefore, means not simply encoding data. It means paying attention to the palm trees. This is the third way in which design is human: design requires understanding humans, and their taste for unnecessary, but satisfying, extras.

So there you go. Design is natural to humans, requires a human at the originating end, and works best when we remember there’s also an irrational human at the receiving end. Three thoughts about design, which I happened to be able to conveniently wedge under the title of “Design is Human.” I do not argue it’s the ideal structure to place them in (the third one doesn’t cleanly tie into the definition I gave), but it works well enough for now. Please feel free to take these thoughts and refine/remix them into a coherent view that satisfies you.

Type Knockouts in Illustrator

Continuing my trend of recording tips & tricks that I am commonly asked about, I thought I’d share my method for creating type knockouts in Adobe Illustrator (please note that I have no idea if that’s a proper use of the term, nor do I know what other people call them).

In the above image, the situation at left happens all the time. You’ve got some type on the map, but it’s hard to read because all of the other stuff on the map is getting in the way. The solution, on the right, is to selectively erase bits of the map in order to make the type more legible.

There are a few ways of going about this, each of which has some limitations (including the one I’m going to show you). Two common solutions are deleting linework and adding halos. The problem with the former is that it’s destructive. If you move the label and want to put that linework back, you’re out of luck — it’s gone (though you could keep it backed up in a separate layer, or pull it from an older file, but these are time-consuming). Instead, you could try adding a halo. It’s a great idea when the type sits on just one color, but it doesn’t work if a label has multiple background colors.

Haloes

So, when I can’t do a halo, I make use of a different method, which relies on…

Opacity Masking

In Illustrator, we can make objects more or less transparent. When they are completely transparent, they become invisible.

CirclesBut, it also lets us make parts of objects transparent as well. And that’s what we’re going to do. We’ll make just pieces of those map lines completely transparent, so that they are still there (in case we ever need them again), but cannot be seen.

To do that, we need to use opacity masking, which is a way of telling Illustrator how transparent to make things. The terminology gets a bit confusing here, as Illustrator has two ways of describing the same thing. Objects can have varying transparency (how see-through they are), which is sometimes instead called opacity (how not-see-through they are). Both words get at the same idea, just from opposite perspectives.

So, let’s set up an opacity mask, and I’ll explain as we go along what it is and how it works. To start, we need to first select the map labels that are hard to read, the ones that need the features underneath to disappear. Copy those to the clipboard with Cmd-C (or Ctrl-C, if you happen to be on a PC for some reason; mentally replace “Cmd” with “Ctrl” for the rest of this tutorial and you’ll be fine). We’ll make use of them in a while.

LabelsNow, find a layer of map features that needs to be knocked out, then select its appearance. That means clicking the little circle next to the layer name. This tells Illustrator you want to do something to affect how the whole layer looks. Like, for example, changing its transparency.

AppearanceNow open up the Transparency panel. Notice that there are a couple of little squares that appear in the panel (if you don’t see them, click on the icon in the upper-right of the panel and select “Show Options”). The one on the left shows a little preview of everything in the layer. The one on the right is greyed out and usually marked with something like a symbol for “nothing going on here,” depending on your version of Illustrator. If you have an older version, there won’t be a square on the right at all, just an empty space — this is fine. All the things I’m describing exist in the last several Illustrator versions, but they may look a little different.

TransparencyPanelDouble-click on the square on the right, or click “Make Mask.” Unless you’ve messed with some defaults, you’ll see the square on the right turn black, a box marked “Clip” will get checked, and all the artwork in the layer will disappear.

ClippedYou’ve just created an opacity mask. Here’s how it works: this is a special kind of layer, which exists parallel to your “real” Illustrator layer, and which tells Illustrator to make certain parts of the real layer transparent or not.  If part of your opacity mask is black, that tells Illustrator to make the corresponding part of the real layer invisible. If a part of your opacity mask is white, the corresponding part of the real layer is given no transparency. And you can go in-between: if you put some grey in your opacity mask, it makes the corresponding part of the real layer partially, but not fully, transparent.

Right now, the opacity mask is completely filled with black, and that tells Illustrator to make the corresponding layer completely invisible, which is why it disappeared. Uncheck the box that says “Clip,” if it’s checked. Your mask turns white, and your art reappears, because white means “0% transparency,” while black means “100% transparency.”

Alt-click on the opacity mask (the square on the right). Now, your map disappears and you’re taken into the mask, which is currently empty. Now to draw a black circle, and put it in a spot where there’s some artwork in the real layer. Notice, on the transparency panel, you can now see that black circle appear in the preview on the right.

CircleNext, let’s Alt-click on the square on the left of the Transparency panel. This takes you back to your real layer. You can Alt-click on these two squares on the Transparency panel to alternate between the layer and its mask. When you return to the layer, notice that part of your artwork has been made invisible, exactly where you drew the circle. The black circle in the opacity mask is telling Illustrator to make the corresponding area in the layer 100% transparent, meaning invisible.

KnockoutCircle

Alt-click on the opacity mask to go back to it, and delete the circle. Now, you could painstakingly draw little black circles or boxes everywhere you want to hide the linework, but that’s kind of annoying. Instead, let’s do this smarter. Remember those labels you put on the clipboard? Let’s use those. Paste them in place using Cmd-Shift-V. This is different from pasting with Cmd-V. Pasting in place makes sure the labels appear in exactly the same position as they were when you copied them, so that these labels you’re pasting in will line up exactly with the real labels.

Now, make those labels black, and give them a black stroke. I usually make the stroke around 2pt thick, and give it rounded corners. Your labels, inside the opacity mask, will look something like this:

LabelMasks

Now, Alt-click out of the mask. You’re done! Your linework on this layer is now knocked out. The opacity mask has black areas, in the shape of your labels, plus a little extra (from the stroke you gave them), and that means your linework has turned invisible in the area of those labels, plus a little beyond.

KnockedOut

It’s important to understand that you now have two copies of these labels — the real ones in your map, and a separate copy in the opacity mask. If you move a label in the map, the copy in the opacity mask doesn’t change. You’ll have to re-do it.

MoveLabel

This is a similar problem to having to fix things if you were deleting linework, but it’s a little less hassle to fix and it’s non-destructive. Also note that you’ll have to repeat this process for each layer of artwork you want to knock out.

Advanced Techniques

If you want to work a little more efficiently, you can actually draw/copy/paste/etc. inside the opacity mask while still viewing the art layer. Instead of Alt-clicking to go into the opacity mask, just plain click on it. You’re now editing the contents of the mask, but you’re seeing the layer. So, if you can keep them mentally separate, it’s a nice way to see how you’re affecting your art while working in the mask.

Instead of completely knocking out a layer, you might also instead try making it partially transparent, as I did in this example:

PartialTransparent

Here, I set an opacity mask with a copy of my type, but I didn’t make it black. Instead, I made it grey, which tells Illustrator to make the art only partially transparent. The darker the grey, the more transparent, until you get to black, which is 100% transparent.

Finally, in case you were curious about the “Clip” checkbox, that just tells Illustrator to set any areas of the opacity mask where you didn’t draw artwork to black. So, at the beginning, when we made the mask, there was no artwork in the mask, and so everything was turned to black. If we’d drawn a white circle in the mask with the “Clip” box checked, the circle would stay white, and everything around the circle would remain black.

So, that’s opacity masking for type knockouts. It’s not a perfect solution, but I find it pretty workable, and it’s pretty quick once you get used to it. Hope this writeup helps!

Natural Modernism

Since at least the time I started my river maps project, I’ve been interested in presenting the natural world in a more stylized visual language. It started with just rivers, but I’ve also been working on-and-off for the last couple of years on a map that also tackled terrain and vegetation. So, here it is. My beloved homeland of Michigan, in a highly generalized and stylized form.

Natural Modernism Main View

Click to view a PDF


Natural Modernism Detail View

I’ve straightened everything out into 45º angles, and used Tanaka lines to show the elevation. The green dots are actually based on land cover data. I’ve made them kind of sparse so that the rivers can be seen.

File this one under, “stuff I spent a lot of time making, and now don’t know what to do with.” The best I could think of doing was blatantly commercializing it by sticking that “buy” button up there. But, you can also just download the PDF above for free, which I hereby release under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license. Note that in-browser PDF viewers may make the colors look pretty washed out.

I think of this project, along with my river maps, as fitting under an idea I call “natural modernism,” in which the natural world is presented in the same sort of highly-abstracted, geometrically-precise visual language that we often apply to the constructed world on maps. Think of metro systems, rectangular street grids, perfectly circular dots representing locations of cities, etc. When it comes to nature, though, we usually embrace the organic and chaotic shapes that it holds. This is probably a good idea, and I don’t propose that natural modernism become some sort of standard practice. It’s a fun way to look at things, though, and I find, increasingly, that a lot of my work boils down to presenting things in new and unusual ways.

Penrose Binning

Some months ago, I came up with a little joking idea: what if, instead of hexagonal or square bins, cartographers used Penrose tiles?

A Penrose tiling is a form of tessellation. It’s fun and unique in that it fills the entire plane, but has no repeats. Wikipedia has more detail about how these things are cool. Mostly, I thought of them because they look interesting and are sort of regular, without being too regular.

So for fun, I made a couple of maps using Penrose bins.

Density [Converted]-01

Population Density

US/Canada Atlas of Design sales

US/Canada Atlas of Design sales

Land Cover

Land Cover

I can think of no proper cartographic use for Penrose binning, but it’s fun to look at, and so that’s good enough for me.

To create the tiles, I found an SVG of a Penrose tiling here: http://faa.hu/new/english/parquet1/index.php. Then I pulled it into QGIS and resized it to fit appropriately on the US and part of Canada when in an Albers Equal Area conic (CM: -96º, SP1: 20º, SP 2: 60º). Then I did zonal statistics in ArcMap (for population density and land cover) or a spatial join in QGIS (for the point data of Atlas of Design sales).

If you want to give it a try yourself, I’ve put the shapefile here: https://www.dropbox.com/s/soakfi8z5cp7by6/Penrose%20Tiles.zip?dl=0.

While I can’t think of a use for this presently, who knows what the future will hold? Silly little experiments like this sometimes become valuable later on.

The Immanent Textbook

I use Twitter mostly, so this is my only medium in which to share thoughts that exceed 140 characters. I usually only put self-contained, finished pieces here, but today I’m going to just toss out a few random musings (also I’m sick and have not slept much for 4 days, so forgive any incoherence).

What if we made a cartography “textbook” based almost entirely on existing online content?

Most days, I find some cool mapping-related thing on my Twitter feed. Practical mapmaking advice, bigger-picture criticism/analysis of cartography, etc. Something which aims to educate and enlighten (I like to think that a few of the posts on this blog could likewise be described this way, too).

There’s all kinds of good sharable stuff out there, and it got me to thinking: what if we compiled it all into an intro cartography guide? I get emails from people who ask me how they can get started learning mapping, and I never have a useful answer other than, “go to a university like I did.” But that should not be the only answer, especially when we look at, for example, how many people learn coding by reading free online resources.

The advantage to using existing content is it means that no one really has to write anything new. I suspect that, scattered around the Web (blogs, free online journals like Cartographic Perspectives, Wikipedia, etc.), there’s pretty much everything someone needs to know to get a decent start to quality mapmaking. It just needs to be curated and compiled.

Specifically, it needs experts from the community to:

  1. decide what subjects should go in the textbook, in what order;
  2. track down existing writings that address these subjects;
  3. occasionally flesh out the skeleton by writing a small amount of material to connect pieces together, or introduce broad themes; and
  4. maybe come up with some practical exercises so that people can put this stuff into practice.

I don’t know, maybe this has all already been thought through and is underway somewhere else. There are certainly various useful lists of map resources out there that I’ve seen, but I don’t think any of them cover everything needed to go from zero to “capable of making a variety of decent maps.”

Certainly, the end result won’t be the same as a coherent text written by a focused author (or group of authors), and the student must be willing to put up with the patchwork nature of the guide, but I think it would fulfill a need nonetheless. Plenty of people want to learn mapping but don’t have access to formal channels.

Also, this idea seems like a lot of work, and I am overburdened already and likely can’t do most of the lifting myself. Maybe just provide counsel and big-picture input. But someone awesome should take this on and perhaps brand it as a revival of my forgotten NACIS Initiative for Cartographic Education. I feel like if we all get together on this, it wouldn’t be a lot of work.

Anyway, scattered thoughts from the mind of a convalescent.

Adding Shaded Relief in Photoshop

I’ve had occasion, from time to time, to show my colleagues in the UW Cartography Lab the technique I use to combine shaded relief with other map layers in Photoshop. After a recent request to share the technique again, I decided to make a video, so that people can watch at their own convenience. So, if you’re interested in this:

Equation

then watch this:

(make sure to view in HD, so you can see the details I’m talking about). If you’d like, you can also follow along with the same file I’m using: https://www.dropbox.com/s/6teczksvgajrxdb/ReliefTutorial.psd?dl=0

Tricks from the Historical Atlas of Canada

I’m constantly assembling, in my mind, a toolkit built out of little tricks that I see other cartographers pull off. I take pleasure in the small things. The big picture is important, and certainly we need to focus on telling a clear story that looks great, but it is the details that always interest me most: a well-done coastal effect, great typography, or a smart tweak to an old, standard symbology.

In that spirit, I’d like to take a minute to promote a couple of nice ideas which come from the Historical Atlas of Canada. Geoffrey Matthews served as the Cartographic Editor for its three volumes, the last of which was published in 1993. During my introductory cartography course, the instructor pointed to it as an example of one of the final great works of the manual cartography era, and I have found things to appreciate in it ever since.

There are three nice things I’d like to share…

In-Situ Insets

In-Situ 1
In-Situ 2

In-Situ 3

In-situ insets” is a term I just made up to explain what’s going on above. Maybe it has a real, accepted term already. Perhaps you could call it “lensing” instead? It is as a magnifying glass, dropped over the terrain. Instead of separate inset maps that zoom in on areas like Vancouver or Toronto, the authors expand these areas and then plop them right down in the middle of the map, covering part of the basemap. For comparison, here’s a map of Canada all at the same scale that I swiped from Wikipedia.

Political_map_of_Canada

Admittedly, the geography of Canada helps the authors here. There’s not much going on nearby that needs to be shown for the stories they’re trying to tell, so it can be safely covered up. Creating in-situ insets requires some fortunate circumstances, but when they come together, I think it’s a fabulous idea. I think forcing people’s eyes to shift to a separate inset map is disruptive and reduces their appreciation for the spatial context you’re trying to show. Keeping everything in one place, on one map, is more coherent.

Non-boxed Insets

Sometimes, instead of an in-situ inset, the authors do something like this:

Inset 1

Inset 2

The greyed out section of the main map and the arrow to the inset create a strong, nice-looking connection. So often, when we want to make an inset map, we end up putting it in a box, separated from the main map by a line. But I’m wary of introducing extra dividing lines into a map layout; I think it’s done way too often, and it prevents the various page elements from being seen as a coherent whole. The setup above is a nice way to have an inset without having to separate it from the main map. It is seen more clearly in its spatial context.

I’m not sure how I feel about the extruded, pseudo-3D perspective, but I expect this idea would work just as well in 2D.

Gridded Proportional Symbols

Finally, something nice that has nothing to do with insets. I like the Historical Atlas of Canada‘s use of proportional symbols that are gridded, so that they can be be easily broken down into countable units. Here’s an example:

Gridded

In many maps, these would simply be treated as proportional squares or lines, but in the Atlas, they’re broken up into units (I’ve seen the New York Times do similar). So, a reader can look at the whole and make a quick comparison, or they can take a moment to actually start counting if they’d like to dig out the actual number. Normally it’s very difficult for a reader to get an estimated value from a proportional symbol, but the grid makes it much easier. I like to call these “aggregate symbols,” as they’re proportional symbols built out of many individual pieces.

Here’s a second example, which we saw in the last section:

Gridded2

This map takes things a step farther and color-codes the units, adding another layer of data that, importantly, doesn’t interfere with the big picture. If you want to see the overall pattern, you can just look for the tallest stacks. If you want to dig deeper, more data are there, but they’re not in the way. It can be read at multiple levels, which is quite an excellent goal to aim for.

So there you go! A few nice tricks from a great product. They’re little things, but I think that small details is what a lot of good mapmaking comes down to.

 

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