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 on 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-climactic 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:


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.