A Cartographer’s Story

In the years since I wrote On Salvation, I have received a number of comments about how it’s resonated with other people in the field (and without). I’ve long felt we, as a community, need to hear more stories like this. In any creative field, including cartography, there’s a lot of emotional investment in the work, and learning about that is just as important as learning technical skills.

So, John Nelson and I are launching a new project: A Cartographer’s Story. Drop by and read stories from your fellow mapmakers about the personal & emotional relationships they have with their work. And please share yours: we could all befit from hearing about your own journeys.

An excerpt from the website:

Every act of creation is personal. Behind the cartographic theory, tools, and techniques, there is a human being who struggles, who triumphs, and who is driven by more than just a need to earn an income.

While our community has a rich culture of sharing project walkthroughs and clever tricks, our colleagues also need to hear about the personal and emotional relationships we have with our maps. We invest ourselves in creating works that are meant to stir the hearts and imaginations of others—and in return our works invest in us. What are your stories? How has mapping moved you or changed you? Did it encourage you through a tough time? Teach you something about yourself? Represent a significant relationship in your life?

None of us is alone in finding empowerment, redemption, or salvation in our work; this is the gift of working in a creative field. Please consider sharing that gift by telling us stories about the power your maps have had within your own life.

We’ll see you there.

Financial Transparency

Note: This post has been updated to reflect my situation at the conclusion of 2017.

As a freelancer, I often wonder how I am doing financially as compared to my colleagues. Not out of a sense of competition, but just to answer the persistent question: is this normal? Am I earning a “typical” living? Do I get an unusually small or large amount of money from selling prints? Things like that, born of curiosity. I can look at the great work of a colleague and think it’s valuable, but the big question is: does the rest of the world value their skills the way that I do?

I find the financial opacity of the freelance world a bit intimidating, and I suspect that some others do, too—particularly those who are interested in freelancing, but haven’t yet jumped in. So I’d like to do my part to lend transparency by laying out my financial picture for all of you. Maybe it’ll be valuable for someone, and if so, I’d be interested to hear about that in the comments.

Freelance Earnings

I have been freelancing since I took my Master’s degree from UW–Madison in May 2010. I pretty much exclusively make static maps. Perhaps someday I will become interested in making interactive maps, but for now I’ve focused on an ArcMap/QGIS and Illustrator/Photoshop workflow.

I had only a scant few projects before 2012, and in any case my pre-2012 records are a bit disorganized, so let’s start after that. My gross earnings from freelance cartography have been:

2012: $12,016.34
2013: $20,352.75
2014: $8,508.58
2015: $10,881.25
2016: $22,795.00
2017: $48,775.38 [$45,000 from one big contract, so it’s a bit atypical].

I have also earned money from some other non-mapping freelance work. I do editing and layout for Cartographic Perspectives, and I’ve done some bits of paid writing, other design work, etc. This income isn’t terribly relevant to those who are wondering about the mapmaking business, but I’ll include it here for the sake of completeness:

2012: $1,128.08
2013: $1,528.00
2014: $7,014.00
2015: $10,194.00
2016: $2,000.00
2017: $9,925.00

These bits of side work, as well as my teaching (below), have been very helpful in leaner years.


I teach from time to time at UW–Madison, covering the Introductory Cartography course. Again, not too relevant to the subject of freelance earnings, but perhaps interesting if you’re curious about what adjunct teaching pays. My pre-tax pay for one semester of a 40% appointment is $7182.18 (formerly $6954.39 from 2010–2015).  This number seems to compare favorably with what I’ve seen posted at other institutions, or heard from colleagues elsewhere.


I do have some subtle donation links located on the pages of my river maps, and every once in a while, someone clicks one. In 2018, I’m thinking about expanding donation options and making that opportunity to clearer.

2012: $37.00

Sales of Prints

Finally, the last piece of the puzzle is sales of prints. Instead of making maps for clients, I sometimes (or often) spend time making maps for no one in particular. And then I’ll put them up on Zazzle in case anyone wants to buy them. I’ve also occasionally printed maps locally and sold them through an art store or by word of mouth. But Zazzle is where almost all of my sales happen.

My earnings from sales of prints:

2012: $772.39
2013: $678.68
2014: $270.19
2015: $116.52
2016: $797.54
2017: $342.78

I don’t usually do any sort of marketing other than a tweet or two, plus a link on the blog leading to the Zazzle item, so those figures could potentially be higher if I tried harder.

And, if you’re curious as to what sells and what doesn’t, here’s a breakdown of Zazzle sales:

Again, if I tried to market these, I might be able to push a few more. Getting them into local stores can be tough because printing costs are pretty high unless you want to order them in quantities of hundreds, and thus stores either have to accept a tiny margin or offer the posters at comparatively high prices.

Fame and exposure are generally free, and often much more plentiful than actual payment. It takes a lot of clicks before someone actually buys—I have also seen this behind the scenes with the Atlas of Design. I often see colleagues whose work gets a lot of attention, and who are offering cool prints, and wonder if they are receiving lots of praise with little money behind it.

Concluding Thoughts

I never really intended to be a freelancer, because I dislike instability, and the numbers above fluctuate wildly. But I fell into it accidentally anyway, and it’s been great, though it’s definitely not a life I would have been able to choose if I had to worry, for example, about dependents. I’ve also had the advantage of a safety net, in that I had a partner who earned much more than I did and, in the early years, carried well more than her fair share of our joint expenses.

I also haven’t been able to save for retirement very much these last few years, as I’ve been focused on more day-to-day expenses. But, things have been looking up lately, and I’ve started putting at least a little bit away again.

I hope all this stuff above offers some useful insight as to one freelancer’s life. I’m sure some others earn more, and some others earn less. I’d encourage others who are comfortable doing so to share their own financial information, to make the picture a little broader.

An Arrangement of Islands

As per my usual modus operandi, here’s two versions of a little something I made for no other reason than love:

Classic Overview.png

“Classic” version — click to view a PDF


“Hip” version — click to view a PDF

It’s a very large poster — 24″ × 36″, in fact. So, I recommend clicking those images to browse around the PDF versions. Or just look at this quick pair of detail images, instead:

Details of the two styles

Details of the two styles

Notes on the Design

  • A few people have asked me if this poster shows all of the islands in the Great Lakes. The answer is no. There are roughly 35,000 others which I did not have space to include. I have shown the largest.
  • They’re not quite in order of size. I did a little shuffling within rows, to help things look a little more visually even.
  • There’s some room to quibble over what is an island in the Great Lakes. Wolfe Island is at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River as it enters Lake Ontario. Walpole Island is formed by the delta of the Saint Clair River, and in any case isn’t on one of the five Great Lakes proper. I erred on the side of inclusion.
  • Despite that inclusive stance, I did not include Copper Island, which owes its island-ness to a canal.
  • I love the three stages of waterline perception on the Classic version. From far enough away, it looks like a simple stroke around the islands. As you get closer, it looks like a shadow, instead. And closer still, you can see the parallel waterlines.
  • I started out with a very minimal design concept in my mind, then quickly started loading it up with unnecessary stuff. “Hey, what if I add towns, roads, parks, rivers, etc.?” Then I slowly, and thankfully, started dropping each of these elements, sometimes because it seemed like a big hassle, and sometimes because colleagues urged me to keep it simple and clean. Which was the entire point, as I had forgotten.
  • Lake Erie does have islands, but the largest, Pelee, was just a bit too small to make the cut. Perhaps I’ll someday do a “Part 2” poster, featuring the next group of islands in the size sequence.
  • I used Adobe Caslon for the Classy version because I knew it had great swashes.
  • I used Mostra Nuova for the Urban version because I paid too much for those fonts to not use them in every single project.
  • I used CanVec 250k data for Canada, and for the US I used TIGER/Line data that I simplified to match the Canada data.
  • Fun/annoying fact: I could not easily obtain land polygons, so I used waterbody polygons instead, then inverted everything to get land shapes.

As per usual, I’m putting these up on Zazzle, in case you are in the extremely small group of people who want to pay money for something like this (if you’re curious, I usually get zero sales from these projects, but I’m not really in it for the money so it doesn’t much matter). Or you can just go grab a PDF above and print one out yourself.