A Matter of Perspective

Today I wanted to share with you a little project of mine from a few months ago, which may best be described by the question: What happens if you take the shoreline of a lake, cut it, and unfurl it?Unfurling Slide-01

The once-closed shoreline of the lake now becomes linear, providing a new perspective on a familiar feature. Warm up your scrolling finger, because here’s what happened when I linearized Lake Michigan:

Draft 5

Click for an even larger version. Take a while to browse around.

A drive around the lake becomes a reasonably straight line. Not only that, but the map is actually continuous — the roads running off the bottom of the map are the same as those coming in at the top. It provides a unique perspective on the way people arrange themselves around the lake.

I’ll get to the how of all this in a little bit, but first the big question: after seeing my map, most people ask me, “Why did you do this?” Actually, “What’s the point?” is usually how they put it.

Why Make the Map

Like many of my projects, this can be filed under “stuff I spent a huge amount of time making, and now don’t know what to do with.” Partially I did it to see if I could; I’m pleased with the technical achievement of having figured out how to construct the map. But the end result is not just an idle novelty, like the Penrose binning was.

I made this map because I wanted to show space referenced against a natural feature, rather than figuring locations based on the cardinal directions of north/south/etc. I think it’s a very human perspective, grounded in how we relate to the lake, rather than how it looks from space. Rob Roth just wandered by while I was writing this and said that this depicted “configural knowledge,” so there’s your search term if you want to read the academic side of this sort of thing.

As the idea took shape in my mind, it reminded me of a couple of other things that I’d heard about in the past. The first is the 1849 Petition of the Ojibwe Chiefs, sometimes attributed to Kechewaishke.


You can follow the link to read more about the interpretation, but the short version is that the map depicts the relationships of various natural features in northern Wisconsin. There is spatial information here, but it’s not presented against the grid to which we are accustomed. The vast expanse of Lake Superior is compressed into the thick horizontal blue line; its true size and shape is not relevant here. Instead, the map depicts understandings of relationships, rather than physical measurements.

While working on my map, I was also reminded of this Slate article on geocentric directional systems (thanks Alasdair Rae for reminding me where to find the story!). On Bali, you might find directions described not in terms of north/south/etc., but instead as to whether one is moving clockwise or counterclockwise around the island, or moving toward or away from the nearest major mountain. It’s orientation with reference to surroundings, rather than a superimposed grid.

I’m not sure if either of these were direct inspirations, but they were certainly in the back of my mind as I got to work, as examples of other uncommon ways of thinking about and depicting space.

Besides an opportunity to play around with a fun perspective, this is also a sentimental and personal project. I’ve lived almost the whole of my life on this map, in one part or another. Lake Michigan has been a dominant feature in my personal geography, and it anchors my understanding of my homeland. If I’d been raised in another context, out in the plains or along the ocean coasts, I don’t think I would ever have thought to do something like this. But, whether or not my upbringing figured in, this map makes perfect sense to me; it feels right. It also emphasizes just how far apart my current home (Madison, WI) seems from my former home (Kalamazoo, MI) when the only path between them involves driving around a vast expanse of water.

I’m certainly not the first to do something like this. Shortly after this post went up, I learned that Nick Martinelli sketched out a hand-drawn example of this linearizing idea earlier this year, in which he straightened out Oregon. I imagine there are other cool examples out there that I don’t know about.
Martinelli Oregon

Nick Martinelli’s linear Oregon sketch. Hand-drawn maps are just the best.

There are plenty of other linear maps out there that people have brought to my attention, though the comparison might sometimes be inexact. Works like Ogilby’s maps of British roads start with features that are already linear, rather than straightening out a closed shape.

Design Thoughts

Before I get into how the map was made, I have some random observations/thoughts on the design.

  • The whole concept behind the map is weird, and the end product looks odd. Because of that, I wanted to, as far as possible, “naturalize” this distorted perspective — to make it feel like it’s perfectly normal to see the world this way. The warm colors are meant to feel more organic, and also to feel like something you’d see in any run-of-the-mill map. It’s not drawing attention to itself or shouting “hey look I made a weird distorted perspective!” Attractive, but understated.
  • The brownish tones are a population density raster. I included it partly as a matter of visual interest, so things wouldn’t be so flat. I considered putting city boundaries instead, but showing the noisy distribution of humans in this way, rather than with hard political boundaries, has a more natural feeling to it. Again, trying to make the map feel more organic.
  • I didn’t include a legend for the density. I feel like readers can figure out quickly that “browner = more people,” especially with the city labels being on there. I didn’t like the distraction of adding a legend, especially since the actual density numbers are irrelevant. I have a (possibly annoying) fondness for not really putting much explanation on my maps.
  • I decided to go with Gill Sans for the city and highway labels, which I’ve not used much before. It feels a little older (because it is), and it’s a classic. Again, I think it fits the idea of an attractive, understated aesthetic. Using a typeface like this sells the idea that this is a normal and natural way to see the world.
  • I used Sorts Mill Goudy for the lakes, because a website told me to. Here’s a real typography geek secret: we often look online to see what other people think, and then if their opinion makes sense we might adopt it. I did a search for “what serif to pair with Gill Sans,” and went with a suggestion that made sense to me.
  • The map is formatted to print at the fabulously inconvenient size of 10″ × 60″
  • One of the most difficult decisions was how to rotate the map. I actually started with a horizontal orientation, with the land at the bottom and the water at the top. To me, that seemed to embody the feeling of sitting on land and looking out toward the water. However, then Evan Applegate pointed out to me that if I ever put it on a website, people would dislike having to scroll horizontally. So, I rotated it 90º and relabeled it. This is me surrendering to the tyranny of modern digital devices.
  • Where to center it was another concern. The map above starts with Chicago at the top, a familiar location. In print, I’d probably put Chicago near the center or just above. If someone’s looking over the whole object at once in person, I don’t think they’ll start at the top the way they’re forced to when they see the digital version in this post. And I want Chicago to be that familiar anchor that people see early on to begin to understand what’s happening.
  • All this boils down to: digital displays really limit your ability to appreciate this map, and it would be great if we could all go back to printed maps.

How I Made the Map

So, let’s get into how I made this thing. I began by compiling data in ArcMap, pretty much as though I were making an ordinary map: roads, population density, state boundaries, and hydrography.



US National Map Small Scale, and the Atlas of Canada 1 million National Frameworks. I selected just the roads that were Interstates, US Routes, or those that were part of the Trans-Canada Highway or Canadian National Highway System.


Same sources. There are a lot of rivers in these data sets, and I so I thinned the network heavily. I actually took just the rivers that were in the Natural Earth 10 million scale data. The Natural Earth linework itself was too coarse, but it was a guide as to which of the more detailed 1 million vectors to use from my other sources.


As above, plus two more detailed sets — TIGER and Canadian Census Boundary Files. The more detailed sets had three purposes:

  1. I wanted more detail on the Lake Michigan coastline, since a lot of attention would be drawn there.
  2. The more generalized Lake Michigan polygon didn’t always line up well with the population data, so using the more detailed coastline helped fix gaps. As I went along, I manually generalized the linework here and there where it was too detailed to look good.
  3. The coarser, US 1 million scale data were fine for most smaller lakes, but sometimes the lakes were weirdly in the wrong place, so I occasionally had to use the TIGER data to manually correct the position of the more generalized data. I also eliminated all lakes under 0.5 sqmi, just to keep things clean and simple.


US National Map Small Scale.

Population Density

For the US, I used Census data. Rather than join the Census data to shapefiles myself, I found some handy ones that already had selected demographics already in the attribute table. For Canada I grabbed some data from Statistics Canada.

As said, I wanted the population density layer to add some visual interest. I wanted it to be fairly finely textured, so I initially used Census blocks, the smallest geographic unit available. But there were way too many of them, and the files made Illustrator unhappy. But if I stepped up to larger units, like block groups or tracts, there was too little detail in rural areas. So, I used a mix: blocks in rural areas, and tracts in urban areas. I used the Census shapefiles for urbanized areas to make the distinction. Doing this drastically reduced my polygon count while keeping all the detail I wanted in rural areas. In urban areas, the downgrade in resolution was unnoticeable at my map scale.


I used my mixed census shapefile to make a sort-of-unclassed choropleth of population density. In reality, it’s got 50 classes, so it’s close enough to unclassed that you can’t tell (since I’m not aware of how to do a properly unclassed one in ArcMap). However, the classing is not linear. Instead, it shows the square root of the population density. I’m a big fan of giving unclassed maps a non-linear treatment (and drafted an unfinished blog post about it years ago). In this case, using the square root reveals small changes in low-density areas, details that would otherwise be washed out. In a linear choropleth, there would be major cities visible and not much else; the density of Chicago or Milwaukee would skew the color scheme so much that small villages and hamlets in the country would be unseen. Taking the square root of the data de-emphasizes the densest areas, helping fix this. Actually, I’ll tell you a secret: I showed the 2.25th root of density, not the square root, because I’m way too detail obsessive. That extra 0.25th of a root made a tiny difference that I liked and which you will never notice.
Nonlinear Density

Notice all the towns that appear once freed from the tyranny of linear color schemes.

Finally, before applying the classing, I clipped the top 1% of the data. So, the very densest places all look the same, and the colors only change when you’re outside of that, in someplace that isn’t in the top 1%. This was, once again, to keep the very densest outliers from skewing everything.

The Distortion

Now comes the fun part: linearizing the map. First, I drew a simple polygon around the lakeshore in Illustrator. Then I bisected each angle in that polygon to create skewed quadrilaterals going both inland and into the lake.


I drew the lines such that each one going inland was the same length. This created a sort of rough buffer around the lake, so that my final map would end up including all places within a certain distance of the lakeshore. For the lines going into the lake, I made them only long enough to cover peninsulae, nearby islands, and any other bits of land that fell on the other side of my original simple polygon.

To actually make the linear map, I needed to take each of these skewed quadrilaterals, un-skew them into rectangles, and then stack them up. But, how does one straighten a quadrilateral in this way?


This is where I drew upon the expertise of Christopher Alfeld, a mathematician/programmer friend, because the answer is: lots of math. I once briefly understood why we were doing what we were doing, but that knowledge has since vanished into the ether. What I am left with are the equations which he determined that I needed to use:

x = x0 t s + x1 (1 − t)s + x2 t(1 − s) + x3 (1 − t)(1 − s)
y = y0 t s + y1 (1 − t)s + y2 t(1 − s) + y3 (1 − t)(1 − s)

Here, s and t are the new coordinates of our transformed quadrilateral. After asking Wolfram Alpha to solve for those variables, we get:

Fortunately, Wolfram Alpha outputs equations as images, so I didn’t have to re-type all this. Unfortunately, Wolfram Alpha outputs equations as images, so I did have to re-type all of this when I actually wrote the code to make the map.

To implement this, I wrote a Python script. It loads in an SVG, applies the transformation, and kicks out a new SVG. I didn’t find an existing Python SVG parser that I could immediately figure out, so the biggest part of my script was writing a simple one.

Obligatory code screenshot. I should share the real thing, but I think it needs some tweaks first.

Once all that was settled, I could make the map. All I needed to do was:

  1. Go to the untransformed map in Illustrator and select one of the skewed quadrilaterals;
  2. eliminate all the artwork outside the quad;
  3. save as an SVG;
  4. run the script;
  5. load the newly generated SVG into Illustrator;
  6. stack the unskewed quads together in a new Illustrator document; and
  7. style everything.


There were a few wrinkles along the way. I had to increase the point density of the linework (e.g., a straight line between two points becomes a straight line between 4 points), so that the shapes could warp a little more smoothly. Also the equation for whatever reason didn’t work right until I first rotated the skewed quad such that one line was horizontal.

What would have been smart is if I’d done this in JavaScript and run it as a script within Illustrator itself, rather than sending it out to an SVG and back. So, that might be the next thing.

City Labels

Finally there was the labeling of cities. I decided not to do every one of them, but only the significant ones. The problem was how to decide what is “significant.”

Labeling every city above a certain population threshold wouldn’t work, as it would miss locally-important small towns while giving attention to every single suburb of Milwaukee or Chicago. Instead, I needed a way to measure regional significance.

I ended up with a process fairly similar to the one I developed for locally-enhanced hypsometric tints. Short version: I used my population density shapefiles to make a raster. For each pixel in the raster, I checked to see how many standard deviations above or below the regional mean its density was (the region being a 25km radius circle). Now I knew whether each pixel’s density was regionally significant, or whether it was merely about as dense as its surroundings. Then, for each city, I summed its pixels to get a score for how regionally relevant it was. Then I labeled the highest-scoring cities.

It worked out pretty nicely. A Chicago suburb of 10,000 people doesn’t make the cut, but a small town of 1,000 in the middle of nowhere gets labeled, as it’s a landmark for the area. It’s very much like the scale ranks that occur in Natural Earth’s populated place shapefile, but I have no idea how they did theirs.

Next Steps

As said, I’m not sure what to do with this right now, other than stick it here. A couple of people have asked about getting prints, and so I’ve also put it up on Zazzle: click here to have a look.

I’ll be presenting on this work, and showing off a print version, at NACIS2015. I’d like to do all the Great Lakes, and put them onto one impractically sized poster that maybe someone would want. Such maps might also make nice wallpaper borders, I suppose, if I went back to a horizontal orientation. Mostly, though, I just want to get them out there and in front of people’s eyes, and provide them with a new perspective on a familiar feature.

If you made all the way to the end of this post, I have a bonus for you: I also did Lake Superior!

Draft 1

Click for an even larger version. Take a while to browse around.

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:


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:


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.


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.


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:


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.


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.


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:


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.