The Power of Appearances

The other day I managed to pull off a fairly complicated Illustrator effect that I was rather proud of, and I wanted to share it today with all of you and talk about how I did it. While you may not ever want to reproduce this exact effect, hopefully it will give you an idea of the power and flexibility of a couple of my favorite parts of Illustrator: appearance attributes and knockouts. I talked about these two particular things in a recent post, and so if you’d like a little background, head on over there first. Here, I’ll be working from the assumption that you’re familiar with these concepts.

Quick Background

I have been working on a series of ecological maps for a client, and one of the things they show is the range of various species: either their total annual range, or their range for a given season.


The client then asked me to develop a way to show both at once, where the seasonal range edge overlaps the total range edge. So, this is what I came up with, and what I’ll break down here.



Let’s start with a blue dashed stroke. It my case, it’s 16pt, with 10pt dashes and 5p gaps. And I’ve set the dashes to align to corners and ends so that they look a little tidier.


I really only need an inside stroke here, rather than ones that goes on both sides of my path. But, you for some reason can’t do an inside stroke in Illustrator if you’re also using the “align dashes” setting. And I do want to keep the dashes aligned, because they tend to look a little nicer and more even in my opinion.

So, to work around that, I will add another stroke on top (9pt), this time solid and outside.


Then I’ll set it to 0% opacity, and turn on Knockout Group for the whole object appearance. So, now the outside portion of our dashed line is gone. If any of this is unfamiliar, I would again recommend reading this post, which will give you a hopefully-adequate sense of how appearance attributes and the Knockout Group setting work.


So, now I’ve got the blue portion of the stroke finished. Let’s add the grey portion on the outside. I’ll add another stroke, this one grey, 4pt, and with the same dash pattern.


Only the portion that’s inside the path shows up. The outer portion gets knocked out by that outside stroke we set up, above.

Here's what it looks like with the outside stroke turned off.

Here’s what it looks like with the outside stroke turned off.

Now, I want a little gap between the two strokes. Let’s start by creating a new, 0.5pt stroke. Color doesn’t matter, but I’ll make mine red to stand out.


Now, I use the Offset Path effect to shift this thing inward by 1.75pt.


And then I set it to 0% opacity. Since we’ve got Knockout Group on, it knocks out the stuff underneath, leaving a 0.5pt gap between our grey and blue strokes.


For the final portion, I want to make these dashes fade away as they get toward the center of the shape. I like the softness of the look, and to me it also imparts the idea of “the species stays on this side of the line,” which is important when the shape is large enough that the reader might not always be able to see the whole thing at once.

I start by adding a fill on top of everything, and offsetting it inward (2pt in this case). This means the fill doesn’t start until just after the gap. Right now it’s covering the blue stroke.


Next I apply a 4pt feather to the fill to cause it to fade at the edges. Make sure to add this feather after (below, in the order of appearance layers) the Offset Path effect.

And then I set the fill to 0% opacity. Because of the Knockout Group setting, the blue stroke fades out as the invisible fill fades in.


And that’s the effect! Here it is in use on an actual map:


It does not always look great when going around hard bends or corners, but I don’t generally have those in the situations where I’m using it, so I don’t mind. Dashes often get pretty tricky in those situations.


The nice thing is that this is all one object. You could achieve a similar look by creating multiple paths all stacked on top of each other, but by doing it all on one object, it’s more flexible. If the shape needs to change, you don’t need to update multiple copies, each with its different stroke styles.

Again, I imagine that you probably won’t ever need to reproduce this exact style. But I hope this step-by-step gives you some ideas as to what sorts of cool things you can do by messing around with appearance attributes, knockouts, and effects.

A #PractiCarto Archive

For the past few months, on Twitter, I’ve been posting brief practical cartography tips every Tuesday using the #PractiCarto hashtag. You can click on the tweet below to read a thread with my whole rationale, but the short version is: by keeping it short, it makes it easy for me to share, and it makes it easy for the reader to pay attention — and thus, I hope, there are more chances to share knowledge.

This blog post is simply meant to collect my own #PractiCarto tweets all in one place. A few colleagues have also made use of the hashtag, which is great and exactly what I was hoping for.

Stephen Smith has put together a little notifier that will send you an email every time someone uses the hashtag, so that you’ll never miss out on useful mapping advice.

My #PractiCarto Archive

Even Fancier Type Knockouts in Illustrator

As longtime readers may know, I’m a big fan of label knockouts — see my previous tutorial on the subject here. I’d much rather have stuff underneath a label gracefully vanish vs. stepping on it with a halo. However, the downside with the technique I usually use is that you actually have multiple independent copies of the label: one you can see, and one (or more) that’s being used to make the linework invisible. If you move/change one, you have to do it with all the others.


Note how the waterlines vanish to make room for Ardebil. Note also how I moved the visible label for Rasht, but didn’t move the copy of the label that was being used to mask the waterlines.

I’ve lately figured out an improved technique in Illustrator that lets me make labels that knock out map features underneath them, instead of requiring a second, separate knockout object. This means you can move a label, retype it, etc., and it automatically clears its own surroundings.

This technique actually doesn’t wholly supplant the technique in my previous tutorial, as it can’t be used in every circumstance (as we’ll see). But it’s pretty great when you can get away with it.
Before we look at how to do this, there are two pieces of Illustrator that we need to understand: the Knockout Group setting and appearance attributes. You can skip ahead if you’re familiar with these already.

Knockout Groups

Perhaps you’ve seen this little checkbox on the Transparency panel and wondered what it did.


May need to click (more than once) on the icon next to the word “Transparency” to get it to appear.

When you have two objects overlapping in Illustrator, it has to figure out which parts you can see, and which are hidden. So, we don’t see the entire red square below, because the blue circle is covering part of it. Illustrator has knocked out (made invisible) part of the red square. Remember, we’re not dealing with real physical objects, so for one thing to hide another, Illustrator has to figure out how to make a decision for each pixel on the screen (or page): “do I show red, blue, or some combination?”


If I turn the blue circle partly transparent, Illustrator figures out that part of the red square should show through, and then does some math to determine what color the overlap should be. If I turn the blue circle completely transparent, Illustrator realizes that the red square should completely show through.


The order of operations here is:

  1. Look at transparency settings for each object
  2. Then decide if any of the red square needs to be hidden, or have its colors mixed with the circle

Turning on Illustrator’s Knockout Group setting reverses this order of operations. First, Illustrator decides that the blue circle should hide part of the red square. And then it looks at transparency settings. So, if we made the blue circle completely transparent, Illustrator first hides part of the red square (due to the overlap), and then makes the blue circle vanish.

The end result is that the red square is being hidden by something that’s invisible.

I must credit Illustrator guru Mordy Golding for my understanding of how this stuff works. I don’t remember if it was a blog post or one of his tutorials that I saw which taught me this, but I’ve been getting a lot of mileage out of Knockout Group for years thanks to him.


So, Knockout Group is the first piece. The second is the Appearance Panel, of which I am a big fan (as anyone who has ever watched me work in Illustrator will attest). This thing is the heart and soul of Illustrator, and I really think it should be introduced on Day 1 of Illustrator 101. But most people I know encounter it much later on, as I did.

All your art in Illustrator has appearance attributes. Fills and strokes are the most common, but there are many other possibilities: drop shadows, transparency, blurs, etc. Anything that affects how your vector paths look is an appearance, and you’ll see it in the Appearance Panel.


You know those little circles in the Layers panel, one next to each object and layer? The ones that you probably thought were used to select things? They’re actually for selecting and viewing appearance attributes.


The reason there’s one for the layer is that you can apply appearance attributes to an entire layer at a time, in addition to whatever attributes its contents have. For example, I can draw a bunch of blue squares.

Mysterious Squares: Our Misunderstood Friends (I stole this joke from Marty Elmer)

Mysterious Squares: Our Misunderstood Friends
(I stole this joke from Marty Elmer)

Now, if I click on the appearance circle for the layer they’re in, I can choose to add a new stroke from the panel menu (or use the “new stroke” button on the bottom of the panel) and add a stroke to them.

And now my squares all have a stroke. If I select each one, Illustrator will say it doesn’t have a stroke — because the actual objects do not. The layer does, and it’s applying that stroke on top of whatever’s going on with the stuff inside the layer.

This distinction of applying appearance attributes to objects vs. layers is super useful once you get the hang of it. I’ll leave you to explore a bit (since I don’t want to drift too far from our initial purpose here), but here’s an example:


On the left, a drop shadow was applied to each object. On the right, a drop shadow was applied to the whole layer, instead.

Knocking Out Labels

Ok, so let’s put these two pieces together: appearance attributes and knockout groups.

Let’s make a layer for some labels, and type some labels inside of it.
Now, let’s select our layer’s appearance (that little circle by the layer name) and go to the Appearance Panel and add a stroke to our layer and make it any color you want; I’ll go with black.


That worked, but now a stroke is covering up most of each of our labels. So, go back to the Appearance Panel (don’t forget to re-select the layer appearance if you deselected it — I forget to do this all the time, even after doing this for years) and take the stroke and click and drag it until it’s below the word “Contents.” “Contents” means the stuff inside the layer. We’re telling Illustrator to draw this stroke, but draw it below the contents of the layer (all of our labels). The Appearance Panel has a layer order to it, and you can rearrange what stuff draws on top of what. So now everything looks good.


Now, let’s make another layer underneath our labels layer, and draw some lines or something in it. This is the stuff we want our labels to knock out. And finally, let’s put both of these layers into a master layer, so that we have one top layer and two sublayers (one for labels, one for the map stuff).


Select the appearance circle for the master layer, go to the Transparency Panel, and find that “Knockout Group” checkbox. Click it until it turns into a check mark. It’ll turn into a dash first, likely, but skip past that. I don’t adequately understand what the dash setting does, but I am led to believe it has uses which are very, very rare. So we can ignore it.


Now we’ve turned on Knockout Group, so that activates that reverse order of operations. The labels are on top of the other stuff, so Illustrator figures out which parts of that stuff are hidden by the labels, and then afterwards it will calculate any transparency. Since nothing is transparent at present, this has no effect. So let’s change that.

Select the appearance for the labels sublayer and go to the Appearance Panel. We want to turn up the transparency on that black stroke. So we need to select carefully. We don’t want to change the transparency for everything (including the labels). So in the Appearance Panel, click on the entry for the stroke to highlight it. And then go to the Transparency Panel and set the Opacity of that black stroke to 0%. It vanishes (as we would expect when something is totally transparent).


Not only did the stroke vanish, but so did the artwork underneath it. If you want to get much mileage out of this technique (and figure out your own variants and other uses for these tools), you’ve got to understand what’s going on. So let’s go through it again (since it can be tough to wrap your head around).

All of our labels have strokes around them because we edited the appearance for the label sublayer and added a stroke. Then we made that stroke invisible (0% opacity). But, since the top layer had Knockout Group checked, Illustrator looked first at the labels, figuring out that they were on top of and hiding the artwork underneath, then erased those portions of the artwork. Then, and only then, did it calculate transparency and realize that the stroke couldn’t be seen, and so made it vanish. It’s still there, acting as an invisible buffer that knocks out stuff underneath.

And it’s all live. The stroke is applied to the label layer, so it affects whatever is in that layer. If we add labels, or move them around, the knockout still works. We can also go in and change how big the knockout is. I can go back to the stroke that I added, for example, and make it thicker. I also usually choose the rounded corner join, as well.



So, that’s a little trick for labels that knock out the stuff underneath. It can’t be used in every situation. I have maps, for example, where I want some labels to knock out some map layers and not others, and some labels to not knock out anything at all, etc. That would be pretty tough to arrange using the above technique, and so I generally use my opacity mask technique instead. But for simpler situations, this is a really handy trick to pull out.

One additional quick example of this technique. My transit-style river maps have double lines for all the water courses.


To do this, I went to the Appearance Panel and applied a thick blue stroke to my paths, then a thinner black stroke on top, then made the thinner black stroke invisible, then turned on Knockout Group (in this case, on the transparency for the object, not the layer, since all of this is happening within one object). The thin stroke hides the middle of the thick stroke, and then vanishes.

I hope all this helps. The Knockout Group setting has a ton of applications, especially in conjunction with cleverly-set appearance attributes, so if you take a while to mess around and get an understanding of how it works, it’ll pay off in the long run.


Last May the deadline approached for submissions to the Map Gallery at NACIS 2016, and I didn’t have anything interesting to share. I could have simply let a year go by without showing something off, but that thought instilled in me the irrational (but recurring) fear that I was becoming professionally irrelevant and that my time in cartography would soon be over. So, instead, I submitted a map title and dimensions, and made it Future Daniel’s problem to create something that fit the description I had promised.

On and off over the next few months, the looming deadline spurred me to put together something I’d had a mind to make for a couple of years.


The State of Metropotamia: as Proposed by Thomas Jefferson

In 1784, a committee headed by Thomas Jefferson proposed dividing the Northwest Territory (as it would later be called) into a set of future states. These recommendations were never carried out, however, and instead of states like Saratoga, Sylvania, and Chersonesus, we ended up with the more familiar Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin. But I thought it might be fun to pretend that Jefferson’s ideas had been carried out, and so I decided to map his imagined state of Metropotamia.

Notes on the Data

The map is set in a present-day alternate reality, in which very little is different from our own. I drew mostly on 1:1 million-scale data from the US National Atlas and Atlas of Canada.


The only state boundaries/names that have been changed are the ones covered by Jefferson’s proposal. All others remain the same1. Jefferson’s proposed divisions are based on lines of latitude drawn every 2º, and lines of longitude drawn from the Falls of the Ohio (modern-day Louisville) and the mouth of the Kanawha River.


1 Jefferson proposed a state of Washington, and so the state in the Pacific Northwest would probably not be called that. But it’s not shown, so I didn’t think much about it.

Incorporated Places

All incorporated places and urbanized areas are unchanged. Probably some of them would have developed differently based on the alternate state boundaries. But I didn’t have a good way of simulating that. In our own reality, plenty of metropolitan areas cross state lines (see: St. Louis; Washington, DC), so I didn’t worry much about it. Constraints on my time worked to tone down my natural tendency to obsess.


I took the real-world counties that fell within Metropotamia and mostly left them untouched. I renamed Lucas County to Victory County because I’m bitter about the Toledo War. Counties near the border were sometimes odd sizes/shapes because of how they got clipped by the Metropotamia border, and so I sometimes combined counties or adjusted their borders to make them more sensibly-sized.



I left the Interstate and US Highway systems untouched. I constructed a new state highway system based on the existing Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio state highways. I was going to simply use the original networks, but each state has somewhat different densities to their state highway systems, and it would have been noticeable. So, I thinned some here, densified some there, rerouted a bit there, to get something that looked a little more consistent.


Aesthetic Choices

In general, I wanted to take this opportunity to make a map of a variety I hadn’t really worked with before. Something in the same zone as a page from a Rand McNally or a National Geographic atlas (though, due to time/momentum, rather less detailed than either of those exemplars). I think these inspirations are very much evident in the style.


I did most of the type in Mark Simon’s Mostra Nuova, which is a typeface I fell in love with years ago, and eventually decided to splurge on. It’s inspired by Art Deco posters, and for the most part I haven’t really had many projects on which to use it. In truth, there’s no particular reason to employ it here — this is not a map which needs to harken back to the interwar period. But Mostra Nuova is awesome-looking, and didn’t feel out of place, so I went with it. The map doesn’t really have a lot of other elements that give it a strong non-generic character, otherwise, so the distinctive typeface is really carrying it here.

For physical features, I went with Sorts Mill Goudy. It’s classic and understated, and leaves Mostra Nuova to take the stage.

I tried to keep the hierarchy for the settlement labels simple by only using three label sizes, but alternating between the regular and bold weight of each one. Most maps that typographically distinguish population sizes will introduce bold at some point in their hierarchy, and then stick with it as population increases. Someone else has probably done this, but offhand I couldn’t think of any maps that turned bold on and off as population increases. Maybe some people will find my scheme confusing or non-intuitive, but it seems to work for me, at least.

Facts & Flag

In the sidebar, I added a couple of facts about the state, and its flag. The statehood date is the average date of the Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio statehood dates. The population data come from the US Census, in which I just grabbed all census tracts that had their centroid inside the state.


The flag design is not something I spent a lot of time on. Most states have terrible-looking flags, and so I figured I couldn’t really go wrong. The colors of the American flag seemed like a good starting point. Metropotamia means The Mother of Rivers; many rivers originate in the (relatively) high elevations in the middle of the state and flow outward in multiple directions. On the flag, these are represented by the white bands flowing east into the blue Lake Erie, or off to the west to the neighboring state of Assenisipia. So, the flag is a map (which probably doesn’t surprise anyone). Also one thing I didn’t plan, but which worked out: the blue and white form a sideways “M.”


I designed highway shields for the various states. In reality, some states use very detailed shapes for their highway shields, but I wanted to keep it simple. That’s the great part about mapping fictional places: you can make things easier, at will. I went with generic shapes like triangles and circles. For Metropotamia, though, I used a bowtie shape that’s reminiscent of a capital “M.”


Tint Bands

I don’t get to use tint bands much, but they were important for the atlas-y look here. One challenge they presented was how to layer them with respect to the other map features. It looked odd, for example, to put them on top of the water features, but also kind of odd to put them below, I thought. I went with the latter, anyway, so that at least the rivers would match the color of the water they’re running into.


What Now?

As said, I made this solely so I’d have something to display at NACIS 2016, and so beyond that it’s just another item to be filed under “things I made and now don’t know what to do with.” So, like always, I’ll stick this on Zazzle in case anyone wants to buy a print. You’re also free to just download it and print it out yourself.


Terrain in Photoshop: Layer by Layer

Last year, I successfully used this space to prepare a version of my NACIS 2015 talk prior to giving it, and if you’ll indulge me, I will do so again this year. Turns out it’s helpful to write your thoughts down before delivering them to a roomful of 150+ people.

For the past couple of years, I have been mapping the terrain of Michigan. Though the phrase “past couple of years” may be misleading: I worked on a first draft for a couple of months in 2014, and a second draft for a month in 2015, and now it’s still sitting there, almost-but-not-quite done. When it’s properly done, I’ll post more about my rationale for making it & some design decisions, but in short: it’s a love song to my home, a chance for me to explore and understand its landforms more intimately, and an opportunity for me to build some terrain mapping skills—putting into practice all of the lessons I’ve absorbed over the years from colleagues at NACIS.


There are some odds and ends yet to take care of (some of which I’m only noticing now as I write this post), but this is mostly how it’ll look.

I’m often intimidated by the complex maps of others, feeling like I could never achieve the same thing. But seeing how a piece was made—besides being educational—often helps dispel that feeling. So, let’s break this down in Photoshop, layer by layer. This is more of an overview than a step-by-step of what buttons to click; I think it’s more valuable to explain why I beveled something, and leave the Internet to explain what buttons to click to actually apply the bevel effect. Oftentimes I feel like good mapmaking is just a matter of fumbling around, trying to copy others, so that’s what I’ll try and put all of you in a position to do. It worked for Bob Ross’s viewers, after all.

Intertwined in all of this is a story of the people who made this map possible through all of the wisdom they have shared over the years with me, in personal conversations and through presentations I’ve attended. So, you can try and copy me while I tell you about all the people I’ve copied.

Let’s start at the bottom, with land cover. We open with a simple light green fill. This will stand in for most of the non-woody vegetation in the state: grasses, crops, etc.

01 - Base Color.png

To that, we’ll add some trees in a darker green. To do this, I make use of a tree cover layer from the National Land Cover Database. It tells me, per pixel, what percentage of that area is covered by tree canopy.


(Aside: NLCD only covers the United States. This map covers part of Canada; for the most part, I’m not going to talk about dealing with the Canadian “Circa 2000” land cover data because it was a frustrating distraction from what I want to convey here. I’d probably look at using a Landsat-derived source if I were doing it over; maybe for Draft 3.)

To add this to my map, I use it as a opacity mask on a darker green fill layer. So, places where our data show more tree canopy get more of this darker green blended in.

If we zoom in, you can see that I’ve used the Dissolve blending mode. What this basically means is that it’s using the tree mask to control the density of the green pixels, instead of their transparency (as we might expect an opacity mask to do). So the green fill gets sparser or denser based on where the data say there are more trees.


I like this because it gives a little texture. If you want the texture rougher, you could merge these two layers and run a median filter.


Now that we have some basic vegetation, let’s add some other land cover types. Again, all from NLCD data (for the US, at least). Let’s start with wetlands: plenty of those in Michigan. I give them a blue-green color, and put them on top of the vegetation using the Multiply blending mode. This treats the layer sort of like stained glass: it darkens & modifies the vegetation colors underneath, so now we have some waterlogged vegetation.


Setting layers to Multiply in Photoshop (and Illustrator) is a simple but invaluable trick, and it also introduces to us the first character in our story: Tanya Buckingham. Tanya runs the UW Cartography Lab, and has been my mentor since my student days. And she loves setting things to Multiply. I’ve forgotten the origin of so many of the little things I know how do to, but I remember picking up a love for Multiply from her; I use it all the time in mixing colors. In the bigger picture, Tanya is the reason I started going to NACIS, and therefore is indirectly responsible for most of the rest of the stuff I’ve learned that she didn’t teach me personally.

Next up is impervious surfaces: cities & roads. NLCD has some handy data that show not only if an area is mostly concrete, but what percentage impervious surface it is. I blend that in to the landscape again using the Multiply blending mode, so it darkens what’s underneath without totally greying it. I don’t want these areas to stand out too much; just enough to see that they’re there. Some people make these red or purple or otherwise pop them out of the landscape, which makes sense for some applications, but in my case I’d like to keep the cities from distracting us from the vegetation.


Finally I take the Bare Land classification from NLCD and add that in. This land cover type represents areas without vegetation, which could mean it’s bare rock, but in Michigan usually means it’s sand: the state has some of the world’s finest sand dunes, and they’re a big tourist attraction. I give this layer a sort of sandy color using the Color Overlay effect, which just replaces all your pixels with a selected color (which makes it easy to change it layer). Then I drop it on top of everything.


There’s only last piece to the land cover puzzle here, and that is void data. In Canada, there were some spots where the land cover data I had simply listed areas as “unknown.” Since they were small, and they were outside of the map’s subject area, I did what any lazy good mapmaker would do: I filled them in with made-up data.

To do this I used Photoshop’s Content-Aware Fill ability. And herein we introduce another character: Alex Tait. Alex is the Geographer at the National Geographic Society, and among other things he co-founded Practical Cartography Day at NACIS, which is where I picked up a lot of my most useful cartographic ideas. So, like Tanya, he’s indirectly responsible for a lot of what I know. At NACIS 2010 he gave a presentation on “Photoshop Tips for Practical Cartographers,” in which he showed off using Content-Aware Fill to remove pesky clouds from satellite imagery, and so when I saw these void areas in my land cover, I thought back to his talk.

In short, CAF looks around your image and finds a similar-looking area and uses it to fill in your selection. So, I select my voids and tell it to look at the rest of the map and use those patterns to fill them in. After that, there’s also some spot checking and manual adjustments to these made-up areas.


(Aside: I filled these voids in 2014; since then I’ve become aware of other land cover products that I’d probably use instead to avoid this problem, or at least patch in the gaps. But I keep this section here because I think it’s useful to show off Content-Aware Fill.)

So now we have a land cover layer (except water) that will be the basis of the map’s colors. Some people do this with a lot more classes: they might use a separate color to show crops, or show deciduous forests differently than coniferous ones, etc. NLCD has all that data (they have 20 land cover types, in fact). But for my purposes, this was the right balance. It gives the basics, without being too busy. And I like building a color layer from land cover data because it has some realism without being as noisy and cluttered as satellite imagery. It’s a simplified, but recognizable, version of the truth. Good generalization is a caricature, and that’s what cartography comes down to.


Next up comes a little color adjustment: making the land cover more green. I do this here because I sent an earlier draft of this map to Tom Patterson, and he suggested making it more vibrant. As a general rule, I do what Tom Patterson says, because his reputation as one of the foremost cartographers of our era is well-earned. But also I agree with his critique in this instance.

I met Tom at my first NACIS conference, in 2009. I’d admired his maps as a student at UW–Madison, and had already started to idolize him before seeing him in person. I remember walking up to him and basically interrupting his conversation to introduce myself. Which, given that I’m a very shy and introverted person, indicates how badly I wanted to meet him. Since then he has been a great mentor, colleague, and collaborator. I have learned a great deal from his presentations, his articles in Cartographic Perspectives, and our personal conversations. He’s a very friendly and helpful guy and you should definitely all get to know him.

So, he was nice enough to give some feedback on an early draft, and because of that I made things a little greener. The difference is really subtle, but it’s there.

There's a difference, I swear. It's more noticeable when you turn the layer on & off. My career mostly involves tiny tweaks that make things better without anyone noticing.

There’s a difference, I swear. It’s more noticeable when you turn the layer on & off.

(Aside: you’ll see that all the land cover work done up to this point is flattened into a single layer. I did this to save computing power because I was working with giant, 2–4 GB files.)

Atop this, I add a hue/saturation adjustment layer. It’s got a mask on it, so that it’s only affecting the areas outside of Michigan. I use this layer to make everything a little greyer, a little lighter, and a little bluer. This helps create a distinction between subject and non-subject area.

Next up is the one major piece of land cover we’ve been missing: water. It’s actually built out of 3 pieces.


First off is the water layer from NLCD, combined with vector water bodies from the National Atlas, shown above in white. That covers the lakes pretty well.

Next up is streams, which are often too narrow to appear on NLCD, so—like the water bodies—we need to supplement with vector data. The National Atlas has some great 1:1 million-scale stream data, and that’s where the black lines above come from. I don’t want the map to be dominated by streams, though, so I break them into two classes: major & minor. The minor ones are thin enough that they’re more in the background: on the final map, you can see them if you look close, but they’re not prominent. On the other hand, I want the major rivers of the state to stand out. The problem is the the National Atlas data doesn’t have a way of sorting major from minor. So, here I turn to another data source: Natural Earth.

Natural Earth’s vector data is spearheaded by our 4th character, Nathaniel Vaughn Kelso, a longtime NACIS member with a passion for developing tools and resources to help others make better maps. Most of you are likely familiar with Natural Earth, a data library that underpins a great deal of present-day cartography by providing free, clean, consistent vector & raster layers that align with each other. NVK & Tom Patterson worked together with an army of volunteers to make possible so much of what mapmakers have done since then.

Natural Earth is actually too coarse for what I want (their finest data are at a 1:10 million scale), but it is perfect for telling me which parts of the National Atlas data to use. If a river is significant enough to appear in Natural Earth’s 10 million data, I take the 1 million National Atlas data and mark it as “major” and give it a thicker stroke. I also taper the strokes a bit in Illustrator before bringing it into Photoshop.

Finally, I make all of those layers look more water-like by appling two layer effects in Photoshop: a color overlay to simply turn them all light blue, and a bevel effect. The bevel effect is something else I got from Tanya Buckingham. Adding it gives a little depth to the water by putting a thin shadow on one side and a highlight on the other, embedding the water into the land. Like most good effects, you can’t really tell it’s there on the final map, but you can tell when it’s not.


Next up is the shaded relief. This is a map about landforms, after all. I got my DEM from the National Elevation Dataset, which fortunately covers Canada as well.

Tom Patterson is the shaded relief guru, and my admiration for his work is one of the major reasons I got into doing terrain mapping. He’s got a ton of great advice on his website, so I won’t repeat most of it here. But among other things, I took his advice to keep the relief from being too detailed by downsampling my DEM so that it was about half my intended print resolution.

The relief I’m using was generated with Blender, and I’ve got a discussion & tutorial about it here, so I won’t go into detail. In short: it’s a program I started working with because I think it produces much more natural-looking shadows.


Mixing relief with a color layer can be tricky. I used to have fairly amateurish ways of doing it through simple transparency overlays that muddied my colors and/or darkened everything too much. In recent years I have developed better methods, which owe much to advice I received from both Tanya Buckingham and Tom Patterson (you’ll note I come back to them a lot). Each of them has their own slightly different way of doing it, and mine is a sort of modified hybrid of their approaches. I have a full tutorial here, but I’ll give you the short version.

Basically, I take two copies of my relief and use Levels adjustments in Photoshop to leave just the shadows on one copy and just the highlights on the other.


I then set the shadows to the Linear Burn blending mode, which causes them to darken the land cover underneath (in a way that preserves the color vibrancy better than using the Multiply mode), and set the highlights to the Screen blending mode, which lets them lighten the land cover. So I’m left with a land cover layer that’s lighter and darker as the relief dictates, but still has the same color palette.


Finally, atop that, I use Levels to lighten up the relief in the areas outside of Michigan. Here I’m using that same state-shaped mask that I used to lighten the landcover.


There’s one more piece of landform puzzle, and that’s to add a texture shade. Texture shading is a technique developed by Leland Brown, a mathematician and hiking enthusiast in Los Angeles. It basically helps emphasize edges and small textural details in the landscape.


A raw texture shade is cool to look at, but it’s most valuable when paired with shaded relief. Here, I use the same Linear Burn/Screen method as described above to mix it in with the relief & land cover.


Leland’s work has been a boon to mine, and everyone else who does terrain mapping. He first presented texture shading at NACIS 2010, where he came from outside the world of practicing cartographers. His presence at that meeting was partially due to Tanya Buckingham, who organized the conference that year. She wrote the Call for Participation that found its way to Leland, and her invitation made him feel like his participation, as a hobbyist rather than a professional, would be welcome. NACIS is Nicest, as we say.

At that conference, he met Tom Patterson, with whom he started working on promoting texture shading and making it more easily available via a standalone application. Through Tom’s connections to Brett Casebolt of Natural Graphics, texture shading is now a part of Natural Scene Designer.

So, Tanya helped encourage Leland to come to NACIS, where he met Tom (& me), and because of all that I can now use texture shades on my maps.

As with the relief, I tone down the texture shade outside of Michigan using levels. Notice also that I also have a mask on the texture shade shadows—this mask contains the shaded relief. The basic idea is: let’s not darken the same area twice. If it’s already darkened by the relief, the texture shade is made much more subtle, to keep things from getting way too dark.


Finally, we have the bathymetry, to give some texture to the Great Lakes.  I downloaded data from NOAA that had lake depths (as well as incomplete land elevation).

I use a mask to confine the data to just the Great Lakes, and then adjust the levels so that I have a black-to-white gradient.


Then I use a gradient map to change the color scheme. This is a simple tool in Photoshop that lets you turn a greyscale layer into a color one, by simple mapping each level of grey onto a color gradient. So, here I turn the white areas to light blue and the black to a darker blue. It’s all editable on the fly, so if I want to change colors, it’s quick and easy.


And that’s the basemap! If you’re playing along with our home game, the total layer stack is:


It’s a lot of pieces, and the final result is complex, but by breaking it down piece-by-piece, hopefully I’ve shown that it’s often composed of conceptually simple parts. A little green here, a little bevel there, etc. I did not conjure this fully-formed from nothing. It’s just built up from a lot of little operations, and so hopefully I’ve demystified some of this if you’re intimidated like I probably would be.

The final piece of the finished product is the labeling. I went with Minion Pro, because I liked the swash capitals. I won’t get into details about the typographic choices here. Instead, I’ll just highlight a couple of things.


First off, I add a white outer glow to my type, which is based upon a concept I picked up from Tom Patterson a few years ago at a presentation he made to the UW Cartography Lab. I like glows because they’re less heavy than adding a vector halo around the type. Again, I’m trying to do things that people don’t notice are there, but would notice if they weren’t. The glow is modulated a bit by a mask: they show up stronger when the map base gets darker. They hardly show up at all when the type is against light areas and it’s not needed.


The other thing I want to point out is a challenge that I don’t normally face in mapping: what to name things.

There are plenty of interesting landforms in Michigan, but they often have poorly-documented names, or no names at all. The US Board on Geographic Names had some things pretty well covered, but there were plenty of hill ranges, uplands, and more that lacked official toponyms. And even when a feature had a toponym (official or otherwise), I sometimes found only vague or conflicting information about the actual extent of the feature. I spent a lot of time digging through various websites and old maps, and sometimes making gut decisions about what to label things. Hopefully when this map is released it will prompt people to send me improved information so I can prepare a more authoritative draft.


I looked at a lot of maps, including these, and documented my sources and choices in a spreadsheet.

One particularly valuable source was some work by Randall Schaetzl, a geographer at Michigan State University. Among other things, he published a paper dividing the state into a number of physical regions, from which I drew a lot of label inspiration. Co-author on this paper is another NACIS colleague, and co-organizer of this year’s Practical Cartography Day, Carolyn Fish. I’d known her for years through NACIS before stumbling upon her name in this unanticipated context.

Since I was making a lot of semi-arbitrary (but research-backed) decisions, I asked for feedback from yet another colleague I met through NACIS: Leo Dillon. He works at the State Department, and is also a member of the US Board on Geographic Names. He primarily works with foreign names, but he was kind enough to review my domestic naming decisions and run them by some Michigan natives in his office. I also asked for feedback from Tom Patterson, as well, but you’ve already heard enough about how awesome he is.

And there you have the current map. It’s in a second draft; will need one more draft someday when I get around to it, but it’s mostly there.


There are some practical mapmaking takeaways here, and hopefully I’ve inspired some folks to dig into how some of these tools work, or give new techniques a try. But the bigger takeaway is this: the connections I have made to all of these people are what enabled this work far more than any particular knowledge of programs & tools. This is a profession driven by who you know, but not in the traditional sense of “who can get me a job,” but instead “who can keep me growing and learning?” I have been grateful to find that cartography is absolutely brimming with people who want to share, who want to help, and who are willing to dedicate the time to help their colleagues do better work. I owe so much of the quality of my work to these people, and I know that I am not nearly unique for being in that situation. We all depend on each other to keep growing.

I doubtless owe unacknowledged debts on this project, and I apologize to those of you who taught me things that I left off. As the years go on, the sources of my knowledge sometimes fade. Feel free to chime in if you’re responsible for something I’ve done =).

A Career Built on Side Projects

I am asked, from time to time, how I have managed to make it as a freelancer (so far). For those who are unwise enough to rely upon me for advice, I generally offer two major comments: first off, the network of comrades I have developed via my participation in NACIS has been a big piece of the puzzle—they send work my way and help me out when I’m stuck on projects.

But the second big piece of advice I give to students and other inquirers, besides getting actively engaged in the carto-community, is to make a lot of stuff that no one is paying you for.

At present count, there are 29 projects in my portfolio. Of these, only 4 are paid client work. The other 25 are a mixture of pro-bono projects and, mostly, random things that I wanted to try making. I have unfurled lakes, I have diagrammed rivers, and I’ve messed around with Penrose tiles (that one’s not in my portfolio, though maybe it should be). Some of these are afternoon projects, but several of them have been significant undertakings, eating up dozens of hours spread out over months. Usually when I’m done with one of these projects I have no idea what to do with it, since no one asked for it.

In sum, my portfolio represents a large amount of unpaid and unasked-for effort. But these various “side projects” (a potentially inaccurate label, given how much of my time they have taken up) have probably been invaluable to my career, for a number of reasons:

Artistic Freedom

The problem with client work is that, while it pays, it doesn’t always feed the soul. The particular needs of clients don’t always permit me the creative freedom to do something that I find personally pleasing: they want me to use this set of colors, wedge this logo in there, add that probably-unnecessary scale bar, etc. And, of course, sometimes I have an idea that I think will look cool, and the client wants me to go in another direction.

But with unpaid projects, I have no one to answer to. I choose the area, the data sets, and the techniques, and I can make whatever I can envision. Sometimes (or, maybe, often) it doesn’t work out, but when it does, it’s usually very satisfying in a way that client work does not often match.

The constraints which clients place on me can offer fun (or frustrating) challenges, but in either case, sometimes I want to make something that fits my taste and wishes, rather than someone else’s.


From time to time, one of my side projects spreads around a bit on social media or news sites. The result is that more people find out about me, including potential clients. Added bonus: more people, in general, become aware that “cartographer” is a real job and maybe think slightly more about how their maps are made.

Client work can, of course, turn into free advertising, as well, and I’ve certainly seen this happen to colleagues. But, unpaid work is perhaps more likely to, simply because I have the flexibility to make more broadly appealing maps. Clients often ask me to make straightforward maps of mundane subjects, like real estate properties, or episcopal sees in Poland (this one comes up much more often than I would have expected). These maps are often in greyscale, or otherwise simple in style. They’re valuable in their own context, but also less likely to attract random passersby on the Internet. With unpaid projects, though, I have the option to stretch my wings and produce something grander, bolder, and on a subject that may draw more eyes.

A note of caution here: all this makes sense if you’re doing the work for yourself. You may run into unscrupulous types who want to instead get you to do work for them for free in exchange for the benefit of “exposure.” Sometimes this even takes the insidious form of a contest—”hey designers, create a new transit map for our agency and we’ll use the winning map for free and tell everyone your name!” Don’t give other people free work. But, if you’re not doing anything else with your time, and no one is going to pay you to do the cool thing you want to do, then getting some exposure out of it is a positive.

Trying New Things

Sometimes, I see someone demonstrate something cool at NACIS—a new piece of software, a trick in Illustrator, etc., and I want to try that out. Or maybe I’ve got a weird technique idea of my own that I’d like to experiment with. Unpaid projects give me the opportunity to learn new skills. It’s nice if I can get paid to do it, but that’s not always possible; I often don’t feel like waiting for someone to happen to need this idea I’ve been wanting to test.

Side projects give me a chance to mess around with ideas without the pressure of having to succeed. For example, I spent many hours exploring shaded relief in Blender, trying to figure out how to make it work and what the right parameters were. It is unlikely I would have found a client who wanted to pay me for all the time needed to figure out how to do that, just so I could stick a subdued relief background on their map. And, if I decided to learn the software without charging them the extra hours, I still would have been under time pressure to learn new software and solve unique problems while getting their map made by the deadline. By doing it on my own, I now have the knowledge and experience to make use of it whenever it’s needed without having to worry about whether or not I can learn it fast enough.

My side projects are investments in my skill set. When clients come calling, I have a bigger toolkit I can draw on, and that makes me feel more confident in telling them, “yes, I can do this for you.” Instead of pacing around trying to come up with The Idea that solves their problem, I’ve got a lot of existing options to try out, some of which I’ve only used before on side projects. Sometimes the clients even make it easy by pointing out such a project in my portfolio and saying, “make it look like that one!” The unpaid work can make the paid work easier and faster (note to self: stop charging by the hour).

Filling the Shop Window

Having a good portfolio online is important to getting work, since a lot of people who want to hire me would understandably like to see what I’ve done before. This is as true for freelance work as it is for finding regular employment.

Side projects are an important part of my portfolio. As I mentioned, they’re presently 86% of what I’m showing off there. First off, not all of my client work can be shared—sometimes the information contained therein is not for public consumption. But also much of it is simply not that eye-catching, as I mentioned above. I’m not trying to demean those projects. I appreciate solidly-executed, no-frills mapping. I make a point of including some of those items in my portfolio (and, as I reflect in this post, I should really put some more of them in there). But I’m also trying to impress people in order to convince them to give me their money, and so I want a lot cool stuff in there; my unpaid work is often my most interesting (“how about I make this  thing that no one would ever need, and therefore never pay for, but which is awesome?”). And, because I’m often experimenting with new ideas and techniques, these unpaid projects also give me a chance to show a wide range of cartographic styles, so that a potential client is more likely to see something in there that looks like what they want. This also ties back into the creative freedom aspect, above: I want to show clients the sort of work that I want to do.

Print Sales

Despite these being side projects, some of them do end up earning me money. I’ve put a number of projects on Zazzle over the years, which is a print-on-demand service. I upload a file, and then they send me money sometimes. It’s pretty easy. I never produce these maps with the expectation that they will make money (and often they do not), but sometimes they do and that’s a nice way to get a little something back for the investment of time.

Over the last several years as a freelancer, I’ve had a lot of time periods in which I had no clients. But these intervals have not been downtime. I have used these spaces in order to try new techniques and satisfy creative urges, the results of which sometimes earn me client work or, rarely, a little money in print sales. So, my unasked-for advice to you, if you’re underemployed in cartography, is to fill the spaces: find something you’re passionate about and make maps for yourself. It may well pay off in the end.

(Of course, this sort of approach means I have a zillion unfinished projects, some of which have been lingering for years—but we won’t talk about that)


Advertising the Physicality of Old Maps

This morning, thanks to the magic of Twitter, I was alerted to an article on Slate about the maps at the Osher Map Library, at the University of Southern Maine. One of the things that the article points out, and which was the focus of Gretchen Peterson’s tweet about it (and, as I later realized, was the article’s alternate title and suggested Twitter text), was that not everything important about a map survives the digitization process.

“As soon as you turn a primary source into an image, you start to lose something,” Edney suggested.

Second (and more difficult to reconstitute on a computer screen) are the physical details of an object—its size, its smell, the grain of the paper. These are the features that can help us situate an object within its vanished lifeworld, showing us what it meant to those who made it, along with the ways it helped them make meaning from the world more generally.

If you know me at all, you won’t be surprised that I would agree with these sentiments. I’m always rambling about artsy aesthetic things, and I love print materials. But the article also made me wonder if there’s a way to recapture at least some of what is lost. The Osher Map Library, as the article points out, tries to photograph things like ragged paper edges or book bindings, which is a great idea.

I think it would make sense if a digitization project also included multiple photographs of each object, including wide and detail shots. Here, I’m thinking about the model used for selling prints online. Have a look at the way Axis Maps includes detail shots of their typographic maps, for example:


And here’s how National Geographic shows off its wall maps:


Potted plant sold separately.

Marketers want people to get a sense of the object they’re buying. Not just its informational content, but how big it is, what it’s made of, and what it’s going to feel like when it is in your hands or on your wall. They’re trying, insofar as a photograph will let them, to convey the physical aspects of the object. The focus on popular map sales is often aesthetic, rather than informational.

This sounds to me like the exact antidote to the Slate article’s comment about losing “the physical details of an object.” Nothing will substitute for seeing the real thing, to be sure, but it would certainly help to see a detailed scan of an old map alongside beautiful shots that highlight the paper grain, the impression made by the press, and how large it is — and here I am thinking about the part of the article that says,“researchers are still sometimes shocked when they request an item only to find that ‘you have to put eight tables together to unroll it.’” It’s tough to get a sense of the size of objects when they’re all on screen, and sometimes being able to imagine details like that are actually important in a research project.

Photography like this will help to stimulate viewers’ imaginations, helping them fill in the blanks imposed by not being able to hold the object in person.

Maybe some map digitization projects already do something this; I’m certainly not an expert on the subject, but at least so far all of the digitized maps I’ve seen have been single shots, capturing the object flatly. That’s certainly the most critical kind of imaging to do. And, of course, these libraries are usually on very tight budgets and are often lucky to get money to digitize maps at all. But, hopefully we’ll someday reach a point where some more effort can be applied toward imaging the map as a physical object, in addition to an information container, perhaps by borrowing a few pages from the advertising playbook.

On an unrelated note: this blog used to be pretty heavy on tips, tricks, and showing off map projects. It has, over time, begun also involving more idle and sometimes uninformed musings like the above. But I have no intention of abandoning the old type of content; merely supplementing it.