Maps in the Kitchen

I teach introductory cartography from time to time, and over the years I have developed an analogy that I share with students on the first day of class.

The Analogy: Cartography is like Cooking

In cooking, you use various tools (knives, pans, etc.) to transform ingredients into a finished dish. In mapping, you use various tools (usually software) to transform data into a finished representation.

You may well think “that’s cute and clever, but what’s the point?”

Why Use This?

In my pedagogical practice, I often worry about students feeling intimidated. I want to show them inspiring examples of beautiful maps made by my colleagues, because I think there’s value in seeing what cartography can achieve. But, I know from experience that it’s easy to look at something like Tom Patterson’s map of Kenai Fjords and think, “I have no idea how to do that and probably will never be able to.” Especially if you’re still only barely able to open a GIS program.


So, I want to inspire students while still making them feel like they can eventually get there. And I think this kitchen analogy goes a long way toward breaking down the mystery of cartography. Students who are new to the field likely haven’t thought much about what goes into mapping, and my hope is to put the cartographic process into familiar terms so that it seems more achievable.

To do well in the kitchen, you need to have technical skills (knife skills, knowing how to sauté something, etc.), and you need some ideas for recipes. You start out simple, just copying other people’s recipe ideas. As you go on, though, you start to feel more comfortable and creative, and can experiment more and more with greater success, developing your own recipes. And along the way you’ll develop the technical skills and knowledge of ingredients that will let you execute those recipes you have in mind.

It’s the same sort of process for cartography. As I tell the students, the only thing that separates them from someone like Tom Patterson, or any one of the other accomplished cartographers whose work I show them, is technical skills and recipe ideas. With enough step-by-step breakdown of what buttons to click in the software, anyone can learn the technical skills to imitate the Kenai Fjords map.

Then there’s the recipe: knowing when and why to click those buttons without someone telling you to do so. Just as you go to a restaurant and find foods you like and want to work with at home, you can look over other people’s maps and get ideas for things you want to create (and the internet is full of people sharing both map and food recipes to get you started). Experience and experimentation lead to eventually breaking away from formulaic, cookie-cutter work and developing your own ideas.

All of this takes time, of course; years. But, I use this analogy to emphasize to my students that it’s not magic. It’s not that some people are capable of mapping and some aren’t. It’s like learning anything else: someone tells you what to do, and eventually you get enough experience to iterate on what you learned and develop your own way. Cooking is something that at least some of my students are familiar with (and, if they haven’t cooked much, they hopefully still understand a little of what goes into it). Explaining cartography with this analogy, I hope, makes them feel more confident in their ability to eventually figure it out, if they are willing to invest the time.

2 thoughts on “Maps in the Kitchen

  1. Y’know, if I went into the kitchen to cook up another Kenai Fjords map, it wouldn’t be quite the same. I loosely follow recipes but also let whimsy take its course. A bit of unpredictability is something to savor when mapping.

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