Odds and Ends, Part 2

I do a lot of mapping for fun and exploration. Sometimes these projects get their own blog posts and end up in my portfolio. But other times, they’re little things that don’t really have anywhere to live; they’re not worth blogging about on their own. Instead, I generally scatter them on the winds of Twitter, and move on to something else.

However, I want to give some of these cartographic trifles and doodles a more stable place to live, and so I’ve gathered several of them here. I browsed through the last several months of my Twitter account, and here’s what I’ve come up with.

Pink Things

I don’t get to use colors in the pink family very often, so I made a couple of maps to just enjoy that part of the palette.
Pink Thing 2-01 copy.jpg


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You can click those images to have a look at larger versions. I simulated two-color halftones for each one, as I’ve been fairly obsessed with halftoning lately.


For the map of Alaska, and the relief, I just recolored maps I had previously made.

Cartographic Efficiency

I make a lot of maps of Michigan, and it’s a weird-shaped state that doesn’t really efficiently use a rectangular page layout. So I decided to see how it ranked vs. other states, assuming that we mapped them with north towards the top of the page (but remember #northisasocialconstruct).


I did a little scripting to just quickly put each state on a Lambert azimuthal equal-area projection, tangent to that state’s centroid. Then I looked at the minimum bounding rectangle, and compared its area to that of the state. That just gave me a table of values. Then I spent a long long time actually making the graphic. And to answer your question: that’s Colorado in position #1, with Wyoming very close behind.

The Upper Peninsula

This isn’t quite a cartographic doodle, but it doesn’t have anywhere else to really live in static form. I made it so that viewers could watch me label it in a YouTube video. In the end, the video (somewhat not-smoothly) pans around the map, but I wanted to put it here in its final form.


I halftoned it (again, a current obsession). Only yellow, cyan, and black inks here; no magenta. I used my giant Michigan landforms map as a reference to know where to put some labels. In the context of this map by itself, some of them probably don’t make sense, because the coarse hypsometric tinting just doesn’t make them apparent.

My Apartment

Early in the COVID-19 lockdown, people were making joke maps about their daily commute, showing things like transit maps routing people from bedroom to bathroom to home office. I didn’t make one of those, but they reminded me that I’d never seen an actual floor plan of my apartment. So, I made one.


Ice Hike

Every winter I lead folks from the UW Cartography Lab on a short hike across a small part of Lake Mendota, and I made a little flyer promoting it.


This year there were two of us hiking, which is not unusual, but I have had groups of six or so.

Map Layers

In most people’s workflows, maps are made from layers. I just wanted to do a little animation that showed how that worked. It was a good way to learn some new stuff in Blender, and get more animation skills under my belt. I’m still quite the novice, but this one turned out nicely.


So this concludes our tour of some of the random stuff I’ve put on up Twitter since mid-2019. There’s more, but I think these are the most worth collecting into one place. I’ll try to do these every once in a while. As the post title suggests, this is not my first such collection; I wrote one up many years ago. But I’ll try not to let so many years pass until the next one.

An Atlas of North American Rivers

Around a decade ago, I started making river maps, in a style reminiscent of transit networks. I made a lot of them, and had the idea of compiling them into an atlas. I wrote about them, and even sold prints of them.

And then I stopped. My atlas sat, 99% complete, mostly untouched, for about eight years. But this is a time for finally finishing things, and so I finally buckled down and wrapped up something that has lingered far too long.

I present to you An Atlas of North American Rivers.

Click on that image to download a PDF. It’s designed for print (so there are some spaces in the middle of spreads to account for the gutter), but I’ve rotated some of the pages so that you don’t have to crane your neck when I switch between landscape and portrait layout, and I’ve split up multi-map spreads. So: expect some changes in page dimensions as you scroll through.

I’m making this project free to download; if you enjoy it, you’re welcome to make a donation to support my work.

There are two reasons it took so many years to finalize this project. One is that, the longer it sat, the more I changed as a designer, and the more “outdated” these felt. I still think they’re fine, but I would quite likely do the whole project differently now (though I’m not sure how). But, I did not wish to let the perfect be the enemy of the good, and so I am letting them go into the wild, as-is.

The second reason is that, after some of the early maps went briefly viral in 2011-ish, I was confronted by many people who were unhappy with my choice to not include certain rivers or towns that were important to them. It was a stressful situation. However, I’m more comfortable ignoring those people now. In truth, though, that experience also offered a valuable lesson. Cartographers are comfortable and familiar with the generalization and abstraction that maps offer. A lot of the public isn’t, though; they don’t take it for granted the way that we do, and that’s useful to remember.

Interested in a hardcover version? I’ve got a form for you to fill out! If I get enough people to make it economically feasible, I’ll look into getting some printed.

Update: demand was extremely low, and though the book was designed for print, I am not able to offer a print option at this time; print-on-demand services were also generally too expensive to meet the cost that people said they’d be willing to pay.

However, you can still purchase prints of most of the individual maps. They vary a bit from the book layout, both in typography, and in some cases in format. For a few river systems, I designed standalone posters, but for the book I split them up.

2020 Cartographic Freelancer Survey Results

Several weeks ago, Aly Ollivierre and I posted a survey on pay and business practices in the freelance mapping community. Fifty-six of you were kind enough to take the time to answer our questions; our thanks to all of you for helping bring more transparency to freelancing!

If you’d like to see the survey results, including the questions asked, you can download the data here. The results of certain questions have been removed to ensure anonymity. If you have any questions, or find any interesting insights, feel free to contact us.

Below, we discuss the results in the same conversational format that we used to present the findings of the 2018 edition of the survey. This time around, Molly O’Halloran was kind enough to join us and bring her insights, as well. And thanks to Aly for making all the graphics!

Daniel Huffman: Ok, so, let’s start with the big number, which is: what’s the median income for freelancers right now?

Aly Ollivierre: We should first note the average, since that’s what we used last time: $65 for 2018 and $70 for 2020. Since we decided to use medians this time around:

Daniel: Right, we had one outlier rate that was raising the mean a fair bit, which would have been $79 otherwise. Median is less susceptible to outliers, so it might be a good comparison going forward in these surveys.

So, the good news is that it looks like rates are going up, whether you slice it by mean or median. And I like to think the survey in 2018 is a part of that: we asked people if their business practices were influenced by 2018’s survey, and we separately asked if they’d given themselves a raise recently. Of the 11 people who said they’d been influenced by the last survey, 10 (90%) of them also said they’d given themselves a raise. That doesn’t explicitly mean correlation, but it seems anecdotally strong. Of the 13 people who saw the last survey and said they hadn’t changed practices, only 5 (38%) gave themselves raises.

Molly O’Halloran: I was just going to say that. Information sharing, and getting each person to consider their business, is so valuable.

Daniel: Agreed! It was valuable to me personally. I raised my rates after seeing that I was often charging below average.

Aly: I also became more diligent about ensuring that I wasn’t undervaluing myself when I gave clients quotes.

Molly: Yes! Or bringing down the value of our market in general. If some people are charging rock bottom, that hurts everybody.

Daniel: It’s hard to do, I think. I always have a fear that I’ll lose business if I aim too high. You have to hit this hidden magic number. Molly, that also reminds me of what one of the people said in the survey comments:

“A rising tide lifts all ships! Everyone charge more!”

Molly: What do you do to educate the client about the value you’re delivering? Have your communications changed during the negotiating/estimating phase of potential projects?

Aly: Honestly, I’ve just found that I spend an extended period of time re-reading and stressing over the wording of the email with estimated rate/cost and try to remain firm with myself that this is what I should be charging for this work! (It’s hard.) I’ve found that being confident in my prices hasn’t resulted in anyone questioning them … usually questions instead arise from what can be done differently to fit what they’re looking for into their smaller budget.

Molly: Aly, I feel that so much. I’ve been working for years on convincing myself of the value of my work. It’s as much an internal struggle as it is a market problem, I think. This is probably an aside, but I’ve been trying out the advice I learned in a webinar and book by Emily Ruth Cohen, Brutally Honest. I used to hedge and fuss over estimates: this map will cost, say, $380. Her advice is to round up, as it projects confidence and is likely a more accurate number anyway. So that map is now estimated at $500.

Daniel: I don’t know if it’s a bad idea, but I usually hedge a bit in my emails and let them know that it can be negotiated if it’s outside their budget.

Aly: I always hedge in my first draft and then try to edit my email to find that perfect balance of showing them I’m flexible, but that I also know my worth.

Daniel: This subject brings us around to a couple of other survey results that tie in: experience and education.

Aly: I combined 2018 and 2020 results into one graphic, which I think simply demonstrates that a different crew took this survey more than anything specifically related to the market.

Daniel: In 2018, we didn’t see any correlation between someone’s rate and their experience or educational qualifications. I didn’t see any correlation this year between education and rate, either.

But, experience was different. Last time we asked how many years of experience people had, and this time we tried to get people to think more about their general experience level. Because making maps occasionally for 10 years might be equivalent to making them full-time for a year or two. So this time there was a clearer pattern:

Given the low sample sizes, I wouldn’t read too much into the dip for “expert” level, but I think we can basically say, people just starting out charge less, and then rates rise quickly and plateau.

Aly: I think this is a better way of looking at things than we did in 2018, and follows pretty well with my hourly rates throughout my freelance career (starting at $20–30 early up as an undergrad student and recent grad, raising and sticking around $40–50 for awhile, and then moving up into the $60–70 range).

Molly: Are those numbers how much one actually takes in per hour spent mapping, or the hourly rate? Maybe I’m the only one who routinely spends more time than I estimated for each map, but I reckon not.

Daniel: This is what people answered for the question “In 2019, how much money did you typically receive per hour of time spent on freelance mapmaking work?” — so, people were encouraged to think about how much time they actually spent, and what they actually earned.

Aly: I definitely want to chat more about flat rates vs hourly rates, Molly! So instead of just three categories like we did in 2018, we did 5 categories. This gives a little more of a breakdown, but honestly it’s not a big difference between the data we received in 2018 and in 2020.

Daniel: The question was turned into a score of 1–5, with 1 being hourly and 5 being flat, and I just ran a quick average and it’s 2.9, so there’s still not a dominant approach. Looks like most people do some of each. I keep trying to push myself to do more flat rate, though, because if I do a job too efficiently, I get paid less.

Aly: There are pretty strong pros and cons for doing hourly and doing flat-rate. I often find myself with clients who want a lot of back and forth which ends up eating up time and hurts me in the long run if I do flat-rate. I generally prefer hourly because then I know all of my time is paid for, but I have also started warning clients when I do flat-rate that they’re getting to the end of the finances set aside and that we will need to renegotiate the contract if they want a lot more edits.

Molly: I always do flat-rate that includes one or two rounds of revision (negotiated in the estimate phase), then bill hourly for revisions beyond that. Clients should be paying for your expertise as well as your time. It took years for you to be able to make that map so well so quickly. It’s true, though, that I often spend waaayyy more hours than I need to and then, since it’s flat rate, my effective hourly rate goes way down. Aly, your approach sounds smart.

Daniel: As one participant said:

“You’re not paying for the two hours it took me to do the map, you’re paying for the years it took me to learn how to do that in two hours.”

Aly: That point by both of you about expertise = faster mapmaking is definitely why I struggle to force myself to do more flat-rates, I just have such a hard time estimating accurately from step one!

Daniel: I am terrible at estimates. Getting better, but I sometimes bounce them off other people first to see if they make sense. And I usually am secretly thinking hourly, so my flat rate is just “I think it will take X hours at Y per hour,” plus a bit of padding in case it goes wrong.

Aly: That’s how I try to estimate my flat rates as well.

Molly: Same! Though I tend to think in half-days or days rather than hours. How many days would I be working on this?

Daniel: It’s comforting to know that we all use similar methods. It’s one of those little things that you make up and never seems worth asking about, even though you wonder if you’re doing it the best way. But that’s what the survey, and this conversation, is for.

Aly: I feel like this topic rolls well into whether or not people use contracts.

Daniel: Like the hourly vs. flat rate question, we changed this to a 1–5 scale, but in the end saw roughly the same result when compared to 2018, it looks like. The average of everyone’s results was a score of 2.75, with 1 being “never have a contract” and 5 being “always.” So, people are leaning a little toward no contract, but they’re still pretty common.

Molly: Yeah, pretty even split, too.

Aly: I rarely use a contract (usually only when my client provides it), but I feel like I really should and just don’t know where to start with it! Especially since it adds a level of intensity to conversations with clients that I usually don’t have.

Daniel: Almost all my contracts are provided by clients, on big projects. For a lot of my work, it’s some small one-off thing (a typical example is a retired history professor who wants a quick greyscale map for a book they’re writing), and it feels like overkill to write up a contract for it. But in truth, it’s probably a good idea. Some people have boilerplate ones ready to go.

Aly: Exactly, I mostly work with smaller scale clients as well where it feels like overkill. I’d love it if there was a common, simple, contract template that cartographers generally used/built upon as necessary. One respondent noted:

“I recommend flat-rate contracts with X free revisions, subject to per-revision fee of Y after the cap’s met. Add strict payment dates and a deposit of at least 25%.”

Which really seems like something good to keep in mind!

Molly: I don’t think that was me … but it could’ve been. Agree completely with the above.

Daniel: My guess was going to be that people who are more full-time might be more likely to have a contract prepared and use it a lot, while people who map occasionally would let these things slide and be more ad hoc, but it looks like that’s not the case. I grouped people by their answer to the contract question, and averaged what % of their personal income was from freelancing:

  • Score 1 (never a contract): 30% of their income comes from freelancing
  • Score 2: 51%
  • Score 3: 45%
  • Score 4: 29%
  • Score 5 (always a contract): 15%

Molly: Do you ever consider usage in your negotiations? If you were making a map for commercial use for a real estate developer, that is a very different market than a map for an academic book. The price should be different even if the number of hours spent is the same.

Aly: Interesting question! I don’t think it specifically applies to much of the work that I do, but I definitely do think about if the client I’m making the map for will be using it for publication, or if they will be turning it around and selling it.

Daniel: I do a little. It’s mostly a gut calculation of how much money is worth to that client. Some people clearly have tight budgets, and others value money less and would probably be willing to pay more. I guess that’s more about the client than the usage, though.

Molly: Totally. Sometimes larger potential clients want to think of cartography as hourly work, whereas we’re more like illustrators on some projects. Making beautiful, informative works that help them reach their market. I feel like considering usage is one way to place more value on our work.

Daniel: Since I mentioned the percent of income freelancing question above, maybe now would be a good time to look at that.

I’m surprised there aren’t more people who are in the 90%+ bracket. I guess, looking around, I thought there were more freelancers who did this for most of their living.

A question that I’ve seen several people ask is: “Do part-timers charge less than full-timers?”

There’s not really a correlation here to be seen. Last survey there wasn’t one either, I don’t believe. When I see people asking that question, I get the sense that they feel that part-timers are underbidding full-timers, but I don’t think we see any evidence of that in either version of the survey.

Molly: When I freelanced on top of a full-time job, I leaned on so many assets of that full-time job—health insurance, namely, but also software and hardware. (Sorry!) It’s kind of crazy how much overhead is involved. Something to consider carefully when you go out on your own.

Aly: Absolutely, Molly, I assume many of us part-timers don’t have the flexibility to leave our full-time jobs because we so heavily depend on the benefits, primarily health insurance (for us Americans).

Daniel: One interesting thing I found, and for which I can’t figure out an answer: I looked at some differences by gender across some of the questions we’ve been discussing. Women and men were similar in their rate of using contracts, whether they were hourly or flat rate, etc. But, there was a difference in the percent of income question. Men received less of their income (13% mean, 28% median) from freelancing than women (48% mean and median).

Aly: Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if that had to do with inequality in (full-time job) salaries that meant women had to make up for more in their part-time work.

Molly: Interesting, Aly, about full-time salaries. I also suspect that women strike out on their own if they feel like opportunities for advancement aren’t equally open to them at their workplace. I would loooooovvve to hear from women about their interpretation of these numbers.

Daniel: Or even, if a man and a woman earned the same amount from a freelance project, it would represent a higher percentage of the woman’s total income if she were earning less at her day job than the man.

Aly: Exaaaactly.

Daniel: Which brings our attention to the table you have there about the pay gap, which unfortunately persists in the freelance mapping realm, too. And it appears to have gotten a little bigger than 2018, though the samples sizes are small enough that maybe that’s just noise. Definitely not getting smaller, though.

I took heart in one anecdote from the survey, though: of the six women who said they saw the 2018 survey results, five gave themselves raises (and one didn’t answer either way about a raise). The pay gap thrives on secrecy, and hopefully this survey will continue to bring some light.

Also, as a side note: 56% of respondents didn’t see the previous survey. So, audience: share with your freelance friends!

Molly: Data for the win!

Daniel: In 2018, we found, not surprisingly, that people who charge more are also more likely to say they are paid fairly. And at that time, women were generally less likely to feel they are paid fairly than men. Which made sense given that they were also earning less than them. This time, the pay gap persists, but it looks like overall satisfaction is up.

On a scale of 1–5, with 1 being “Never paid fairly for my time” and 5 being “Always,” women on average answered 4.1, and men 3.9. This is much closer than 2018, where women answered 3.1 and men 3.6. So, while the gap in pay hasn’t closed, the gap in satisfaction-from-pay seems to be smaller, to the point where it could just be noise in the data. And this whole batch of respondents for 2020 is happier with their pay.

Aly: Can we correlate any of that data with the people who gave themselves raises?

Daniel: For people who haven’t given themselves a raise in the last year, their average satisfaction score was 3.9. For those that had, it was 4.1. So, close, again. I wonder if people who see the results of the survey will change their opinion on whether they’re being paid fairly?

Aly: Here’s the median hourly rates broken down into different types of mapping:

Molly: Sighing, but not surprised, to see hand-drawn maps at the bottom of the barrel. I don’t know that there’s much to say about it though. I’m trying to re-frame it for potential customers: it’s a boutique service, not a hobby. (I don’t actually say “boutique service” out loud! It’s just something I repeat to myself when talking myself through an estimate.)

Daniel: That was very surprising to me. I feel like hand-drawn maps feel more elegant and bespoke. I was expecting them to command the highest price. I make custom maps digitally, but something hand drawn feels more obviously custom.

Aly: I agree, interactive maps require a separate “advanced” skill set so I wasn’t surprised to see them come in at a higher hourly rate, but I also consider hand-drawn to be a very specialized skill (I couldn’t do it!).

Daniel: Aly, I agree there’s a mindset that interactive mapping is “advanced,” certainly in the minds of clients, too, who are willing to pay more for something with cool animation, interactivity, etc. But I don’t want to sell short static mappers (which, I suppose, the three of us here are). I think we deal with different circumstances than interactive mappers, with different skillsets, but probably on average we spend the same amount of time acquiring those skills and thinking through how to apply them. I don’t have to figure out how to grapple with d3.js, but an interactive mapper doesn’t have to grapple with the challenges of getting something to look right on an offset press.

Aly: Very good point, Daniel!! I wonder how hand-drawn maps would fare against freelance illustrators, maybe that’s more comparable?

Molly: Great question. I do find myself relying more on the advice of illustrators when pricing and negotiating. There’s a lot more info out there re: illustration than cartography. Part of why you all created this survey!

Here are some illustration-oriented resources that I go back to again and again for advice on pricing, negotiating, etc.

  • Graphic Artists Guild — Guild membership gets you access to free webinars that can be helpful in running your business, and more. (This one by Emily Ruth Cohen on Advanced Pricing Strategies was particularly helpful to me.) Their regularly updated Handbook: Pricing & Ethical Guidelines includes charts of comparative fees for map design and illustration, as well as lots of information on contracts, negotiation, general practices, etc.
  • Whenever I need a pep talk on pricing, I revisit lettering artist and illustrator Jessica Hische’s The Dark Art of Pricing. It’s written with illustrators in mind but is so smart, borne from experience, and can help cartographers as well!
  • Map illustrator John Roman walks you through the business considerations of a project, from schedule through usage and credit.
  • Illustrator Anita Kunz gives great advice, especially for those newly in business. Her emphasis on keeping overhead low but also accounting for it in pricing makes for a great chat. (6 minutes)

Daniel: The cost of living was a new topic this time around, to get at a common question I’ve seen freelancers ask. If someone lives in an expensive area, I’ve seen them wonder if they could be underbid by someone who lives in an area where the cost of living is lower. So we asked people where they lived and then I looked up a bunch of those cost of living calculators online that people use to compare salaries between cities. I averaged several of them together to get a cost of living index.

There is no particular correlation here that I could see. There’s a slight incline to that trendline, but the R-squared is pretty low. So it looks like the two most common reasons I’ve seen cited for why a colleague might be able to underbid someone (living in a less expensive city, working only part-time) aren’t borne out by the data. Everyone’s rates are all over the place, without much regard to where we live, our education level, or other factors you might think have a role.

Molly: We should survey who is receiving coaching or mentoring. I swear that having a business therapist would really help me—but I can’t afford it!

Aly: There are business therapists?? That sounds amazing.

Daniel: I’ve never heard of those!

Molly: I don’t know but I want one, right?! So much of this is about learning to value one’s work and speak up for oneself.

Daniel: Sounds like many of us could use some help from one. I have been fortunate enough to have some colleagues to bounce ideas off of (like project rates), and who encourage me to charge more.

Aly: Which is the lovely thing about our cartography community, we have people who are always willing to share their expertise (not to mention sending projects your way!). I’m still always impressed how much of my work is word of mouth through the cartography community.

Daniel: A fair bit of mine has been, too! When people ask me about freelancing advice, I don’t have a lot of good specifics to share, but I do tell them to get connected into the community, because they’ll learn stuff to make better maps, and they may also get leads on work.

Molly: Oh! That might be a good question for the next survey: what percentage of your work comes from where? (e.g., word of mouth through friends/past clients/other cartographer; via website; via NACIS list, etc.).

Aly: Definitely! New freelance cartographers always ask me how I get clients and I don’t have good advice outside of getting connected to our community. If I did this full-time I’d have to do a lot more work putting myself out there.

Molly: Did we get an overall result for who has given themselves raises since 2018?

Daniel: Of the 54 people who answered the question, 26 (48%) said they’d given themselves a raise. That’s actually more than I might have expected.

Most people’s answers of how they determined when to raise their rates were either based on external factors (based on what they make at their salaried job, or what their regular client negotiates), or were more ad-hoc, as best summed up by one respondent:

“Whenever I think I can get away with it.”

It’s something I don’t do often enough, but since the 2018 survey, I’ve been thinking about. I raised them after that survey, and am keeping it in mind more in the future.
Thanks, both of you, for taking the time to chat about all this stuff! I feel like it makes it more interesting than just dropping a bunch of numbers and charts on people. Gives some context and interesting side points.

Aly: Absolutely, thanks team! This was great!

Molly: Thank you for the chance to join you! I loved it. Feel free to edit me liberally.

(Note: all of us were edited liberally)

Returning to my Roots

Years ago, I began crafting a love song to my homeland. I worked on it for weeks in 2014, and again for a while in 2015. And then I laid it aside, very nearly finished, for several years.

I have trouble finishing big projects sometimes, as I get distracted by some new interesting thing. And the more time that passes, the more effortful it feels to return to the headspace I was in when I was deep in the creative process of that project. So, instead, I just let things sit for years, or maybe forever. But, despite the interval, this particular project has long been important to me, and so this week I finally overcame my inertia enough to finish it.

I present to you Landforms of Michigan.

Labels Draft Six

Click to view a pretty large JPG

I never knew much about the shape of my surroundings when growing up, and this project offered me a chance to learn the grammar of a place that is dear to me. I hope you will share it with the Michiganders you know; they will understand what it means.

I had hopes at one point of ordering an offset print run of these, and maybe even seeing about getting them in Michigan schools, but this is not the economic time for such ventures. For now, if you want to print it out yourself, contact me for a full-resolution file on a pay-what-you-want basis. I have also put a (36 by 32 inch) print up for sale on Zazzle.


Brief Notes

  • I’ve previously written and presented about this project, when it was in its mostly-finished state, so I don’t have too much to add here about its construction. Check out this old blog post to learn more about how it was made.
  • I spent many, many hours tracking down names for features from a variety of sources, and in some limited cases coining my own, when I thought it wasn’t too much of a stretch. I’ve documented my rationale and my specific sources here.
  • There is one other big challenge in resuming an old project, besides trying to remember how you were thinking years ago: resisting the urge to extensively revise. In the past five years I have gained new knowledge, skills, and tastes, and there are things I would do differently if I started this project over, though none of them would probably make as much of a difference as I think.
  • When I had completed a first draft of the map years ago, I circulated it to a few people for feedback, which proved quite valuable. I want to thank Randall Schaetzl, Leo Dillon, Liz Kwicinski, and Eric Doornbos for taking the time to look things over.

If you derive some value from projects like these, you are welcome to make a donation to support my continued work.

How to do Map Stuff: A Live Community Sharing Event

Friends, many of us are stuck at home during this pandemic, and will be for a while (and we’re the fortunate ones, vs. those whose jobs force them to regularly risk infection). It’s a stressful, anxious, and isolating time.

So here’s an idea I had at 1:00 AM, one random night:

“How to do Map Stuff”: A series of live online mapping workshops — Wednesday April 29th (or April 30th, if you’re in the Pacific), 2020

Many of you know that I do occasional map livestream events, in which I casually take people through some project of mine, or show off some technique. So, my thought is: let’s just have a bunch of people all do those on the same day. I imagine a daylong event consisting of 30–60 minute live tutorials. Each person hosts their own stream on YouTube, and the audience can move from presenter to presenter throughout the day. And then, once we’re done, those videos reside on YouTube for future folks to find and learn from.

The Event

When I first posted the call for volunteers in mid-March, I had no idea it would get so big. I’m very excited that over two dozen people offered to give presentations! Now that the event is over, you can catch the presentations here:


I’m so grateful to all of you who presented, and all of you who tuned in from around the world. Thanks for making a special day possible! And if you weren’t there for some or all of it, the videos remain a gold mine of information. Make sure to let the presenters know you enjoyed the knowledge that they had to share.

(This post was last updated May 8, 2020 to reflect the end of the event.)

Financial Transparency: 2019 Edition

As is now my annual tradition, it’s time for me to tell everyone how much money I make.

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

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

Freelance Earnings

I have been freelancing since I took my Master’s degree from UW–Madison in May 2010, but things didn’t really take off until 2012, so let’s start there. My gross earnings from freelance cartography have been:

2012: $12,016.34
2013: $20,352.75
2014: $8,508.58
2015: $10,881.25
2016: $22,795.00
2017: $48,775.38 [$45,000 from one big contract, so it’s a bit atypical].
2018: $17,795.60
2019: $34,310.65

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

2012: $1,128.08
2013: $1,528.00
2014: $7,014.00
2015: $10,194.00
2016: $2,000.00
2017: $9,925.00
2018: $7,505.00
2019: $2,325.00

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


I teach from time to time at UW–Madison, covering the Introductory Cartography course. Again, not too relevant to the subject of freelance earnings, but perhaps interesting if you’re curious about what adjunct teaching pays. My pre-tax pay for one semester of a 40% appointment is $7,182.18 (formerly $6,954.39 from 2010–2015).  This number seems to compare favorably with what I’ve seen posted at other institutions, or heard from colleagues elsewhere.


I do a fair amount of pro bono work, and I’ve been much more shameless about asking for support for my tutorials, Project Linework, and other resources that people seem to draw value from etc.

2012: $37.00
2018: $1,711.08
2019: $1,412.86

Speaking of donations, here are some handy buttons if you want to help empower me to keep sharing cartographic knowledge and resources.

Sales of Prints

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

My earnings from sales of prints:

2012: $772.39
2013: $678.68
2014: $270.19
2015: $116.52
2016: $797.54
2017: $342.78
2018: $354.10
2019: $821.63

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

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

Concluding Thoughts

I never really intended to be a freelancer, because I dislike instability, and the numbers above fluctuate wildly. But I fell into it accidentally anyway, and it’s been great, though it’s definitely not a life I would have been able to choose if I had to worry, for example, about dependents.

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

Freelance Survey 2.0

You might recall that in 2018, Aly Ollivierre and I conducted a survey of freelance mapmakers. I’ve long tried to bring more transparency to carto-freelancing, and I think knowing more about what our colleagues are doing is empowering.

This year we’re doing it again, with some revised questions (thanks to feedback from a number of members of the mapping community). I hope you’ll take the time to answer by clicking here.

And please help spread the word! We’d like to reach as many people as possible, so that the results can better reflect what’s really going on in the field.

Maps in the Kitchen

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

The Analogy: Cartography is like Cooking

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

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

Why Use This?

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



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

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

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

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

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

Annual Report: 2019

Friends, I was very fortunate to receive support from a number of you in 2019. And, continuing what is becoming an annual tradition, I want to be transparent in reporting back on what your support has enabled me to do.

In no particular order, in 2019, I was able to:

  • Conduct a series of livestream events on YouTube (videos here). I wasn’t sure how this would go, but I was pleased to see a couple dozen people (in one case, over 50!) show up to talk about maps with me. I have hopes of doing more of these in 2020, though I need to work through some health issues first.
  • Give a free webinar to the Alaska Arc Users Group in January 2019
  • Oversee the reprints of the first three volumes of the Atlas of Design. This includes creating an all-new version of the first volume. I continue to manage reprint orders for NACIS, making sure they get passed to the distributor and that books get into the hands of people who have been waiting for them.
  • Serve on a few groups with my fellow cartographers, including
    • NACIS Diversity and Inclusion Subcommittee
    • An advisory group for the CaGIS Map Competition
    • A working group that is proposing standard elevation models, to help research and development of new relief techniques.
  • Answer a lot of questions via email. People write to me a number of times each year asking for software help (especially Blender), career advice, interviews for high/middle school projects, or map critiques. I try to take the time to write back to everyone.
  • Do a lot of cyanotyping. I had a lot of fun exploring this printing technique, and some potential cartographic uses. The support of my patrons helped buy some of my supplies, and also enabled me to cover the expense of sending free prints to a number of people.
  • Organize MonoCarto 2019, a monochrome mapping competition. I wanted to honor the less-flashy work that gets done without color, and it accidentally turned into one of the larger mapping competitions in existence. It was a lot of fun, but also a fair bit of work. And, of course, a lot of people besides me volunteered their time to make it possible.
  • Attend NACIS2019 and talk about the lessons learned from the mapping competition, and organize a special gallery showing off the Final Selection (the winners).
  • Rebuild my popular Blender tutorial to reflect a new version of the software, with a new user interface and some updated procedures. This was done hurriedly, because it turns out that a few people were just about to present it to classes and conferences! But fortunately I got it done in time.
  • Continue helping NACIS with a few things. I served for several years as the Director of Operations; while that role has ended, I’ve been answering questions and aiding in the transition. I also continue to provide AV support at the Annual Meeting (I am the keeper of the projectors).
  • In the spirit of the old FixWikiMaps project, make a couple maps for Wikipedia of old radio broadcast networks in the United States:WEAF and WJZ Chains-01.jpg
    NBC Networks.jpg
  • Serve as a judge for the GeoHipster 2020 Calendar.
  • Make one-off mappy things that get shared on my Twitter account, such as this animation about map layers (which I might use sometime in teaching):

  • Keep a few ongoing efforts up-to-date, including some edits to the 1981 linework set for Project Linework, and upgrading my ongoing collection of hypsometric tinting schemes for Mars (which I hope will eventually be valuable to someone :) ).

In the end, all of the above efforts are owed to the support of many of you out there. Your patronage helps me buy materials, afford conferences, pay for websites, and most importantly, justify taking the time away from paid work in order to write, design, and help others. As we move into 2020, I hope to continue to merit the support you have shown me. I never know exactly how much I’ll be able to do so in a given year, but I do know that I fully intend to keep up my efforts to contribute to the cartographic community. You have all taught me so much, and I will continue repay the favor as best I may.

If you’d like to support my efforts, please click one of these handy buttons.


Something of Myself

When I started out my mapping career, I had a dream of eventually making my own atlas. And, in the following years, I was fortunate enough to get to work on a few, including the Atlas of Design, and the Ecological Atlas of the Bering, Chukchi, and Beaufort Seas. Of these various atlases, my latest one is certainly the most “my own” of any of them. I’m pleased to share with you An Atlas of Great Lakes Islands.

While my earlier projects involved me producing some digital files, then handing them off to be printed, bound, and shipped, this one was a little different. Though I did design the maps digitally, I printed each one by hand using using the cyanotype process. I also manually trimmed each one down to size, and sewed my own binding. It may not be the most visually impressive, but it has much more of me in it than probably any other book I have worked on.

There’s a lot to talk about here, so let’s go through the process in rough chronological order.

A Starting Point

Some months ago, I decided one evening to see how much information I could cram into a black and white map, with no shades of grey in between.

It was just a fun challenge, but I really liked the look that came out of it, and I ended up doing a couple more of Great Lakes islands. If you browse through my portfolio, you’ll already know that I make a lot of my maps about my Great Lakes homeland. I feel like it’s part of my cartographic mission to articulate, in my own way, the beauty of this part of the world. I’d already made one poster of Great Lakes islands before (in a black-and-white style, no less), so this was a sort of unintended continuation of my previous work. I think of them partly as an exploration of geographic forms: the interesting aesthetics of the shapes nature has laid down.

I also was definitely inspired by the work of Heather Smith, including her map of Iturup, though it took a little while before I realized it. I often absorb ideas from others and then, months later, they pop up again without me realizing that I’m drawing upon them.


Around this same time, I was getting into cyanotype printing, a nineteenth-century alternative photography technique. You can follow that link if you want to dive a bit into the chemistry, by the idea is straightforward: (1) coat some paper with chemicals; (2) put a photo negative or some other light-blocking stuff on the paper, and then expose the paper to sunlight or another UV source; (3) dip the paper in water; and (4) watch the paper turn blue in areas that were hit with sunlight, and stay white in the areas that were shaded.

Cyanotyping is cheap and easy to get into, so I started printing up some maps to try it out. I made negatives on transparency film, and copied a few maps I’d already made.

The strange admixture of cyanotype and typewriter cartography.

But I was looking for an original idea, and that’s when I thought to wind together two threads: black-and-white maps, and cyanotyping. I decided that I would produce a series of cyanotype maps of Great Lakes islands.

Map Design

First off, I needed to digitally design the maps that I would eventually be printing. The process here is pretty much my standard GIS-to-Adobe Illustrator workflow. A few highlights:

  • Gathering data was a challenge. I needed equivalent information for places in the US and Canada, and oftentimes had to mash stuff together from a lot of different sources. Here’s an example of one map’s sources:
  • My data sources were often in conflict, too. Streams would be shown running in different areas, for example. Given the size of these islands, that’s not surprising: many of these streams are probably small trickles that aren’t well-documented. Sometimes roads or trails would have spotty data, and I’d have to correct or supplement things by looking at satellite imagery.
  • There was also some disagreement over coastlines due to things like tides and whether wetlands counted as water or land. There’s definitely room to quibble with some of my choices.

    According to NOAA (left), Sand Island is surrounded by marshes (in green). According to the USGS (right), it’s surrounded by open water.

  • I tried to fit as many different data layers as I could, given the limitation of using only black and white (which would eventually print up as blue and white in the final book). To keep everything looking clean, there are a lot of knockouts. Roads knock out streams, streams knock out land cover, text knocks out everything, etc.
    This helps a great deal with legibility, I think. Without those buffers around every feature type, the map would be a mess:
  • To keep those buffers from hiding critical data, I often rerouted streams and roads to make sure that a coastal road didn’t hide the outlet of a stream.
  • I’m quite pleased with the forest texture. Instead of a repeating dot pattern, I gave it a little bit of randomness. The dots vary slightly in size and position. They’re almost regular, but not quite, which I think adds some organic-ness to the whole thing that ties the symbology into the idea of vegetation.
  • Because I pay way too much attention to tiny projection details: each island is on its own Lambert Azimuthal Equal Area projection, with a center point at the centroid of the island.
  • I set all the type in Mostra Nuova, which is a typeface that will perhaps be familiar to longtime readers. It’s a favorite of mine, and based on Italian Art Deco posters. It is, admittedly, not really connected very well to the atlas subject matter. But I still liked how it looked with the stark monochrome cartographic design. Mostra Nuova is a geometric sans, and the cartography is all about highlighting interesting geometries, so they sort of work, I think. One limitation: it doesn’t come in italics, and most its various weights would be hard to tell apart in cyanotype. So, I didn’t develop different label styles for different feature types, for the most part (except settlements and airports, which are given in heavy type).

Add up everything above and these maps took a lot longer than you might expect just by looking at them. In a process that took dozens of hours, I made maps for the largest thirty islands in the Great Lakes system (including some of the rivers connecting the Great Lakes). I had planned to stop a little sooner, at maybe twenty maps. However, I wanted to include at least one island from every Great Lake, and Pelee Island, the largest in Lake Erie, was the thirtieth-largest in the system.


Once I had my maps designed, I printed off negatives on transparency film and set about cyanotyping.

First off, the paper is coated with sensitizer (ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide). When I started learning this process, I used watercolor paper. Later on, I switched to kōzo, a Japanese mulberry paper. It’s handmade, thin yet strong, has no particular grain, and has a really nice natural, organic feeling to it. I got mine from the Awagami Factory.

Then the paper is dried in the dark for a while. When it’s ready (about a day, for the kōzo), I can put a negative on it, sandwich it between some glass, and put it out into the sun. In Wisconsin, sunny days are rare in the winter, and so I usually had to drop everything when one came around so I could get some prints done. While later on I got good enough that I could do exposures on cloudy and overcast days, it was nice to have an excuse to go out into the sun and get some Vitamin D.

Each print is made using only the purest rays of the Wisconsin sun.

Once the print is exposed (anywhere from 5 minutes to 2 hours, depending on conditions), a little water will cause the image to develop.

The prints vary quite a lot, as there are a myriad of tiny things that affect the outcome: the angle of the sun, how tightly the negative sits on the paper, the pH of the paper and the water used to wash it, how evenly and thickly I coated the paper, how long it was washed, how long and under what conditions the sensitizer dried before exposing to the sun, and more. Below you can see two very different-looking outcomes from the same negative. One is very dark and overexposed, and the other very light and underexposed (the more exposure to the sun, the more blue pigment develops).

Controlling all these variables is almost impossible, and each image is a little different. I picked up a lot of small tricks along the way to try and solve imperfections, but many remain: spots on the print, odd wrinkles or smudges, blurring, etc. I’m an extremely detail-oriented perfectionist who zooms in to 64,000% in Illustrator, so this project has been good for me to practice letting go. This whole process is very, very analog, and only some of it can be rigorously controlled. The imperfections also add to the charm, and express how the print was handmade.

Imperfections: blue splotches, text fading in and out, some minor blurring, and some places where the paper is a bit damaged, showing white fibers.

The first draft of the atlas was printed on heavy watercolor paper. To get 34 decent prints (thirty maps plus a few additional pieces of front & back matter), I had to go through over 100 sheets of paper, as I still had a lot to learn about how to get good prints out of the cyanotype process (and how to accept imperfections on the non-ideal prints that came out of the process). You can see in the image here how many different shades of blue there are; just another reflection of the variability of the process.

After I finished up the first draft (and bound it up into a book), I made a second draft of the maps, printed on kōzo. This time I was much more efficient, both at making good prints and at letting go of my perfectionism. I got 99 good prints out of 110 attempts, enough for three atlases of 33 pages (one less than the first draft; I dropped a filler page).


These books would have just been a bunch of loose pages without the guidance of my colleague Caroline Rose. She has experience in book repair and bookbinding, and was kind enough to teach me some basics and loan me a bunch of supplies. With her pointing me in the right direction, I bound up my maps into actual atlases.

The first draft of the atlas, printed on watercolor paper, was given a simple accordion binding. I simply attached the pages end-to-end with strips of kōzo glued on the back, acting as hinges. I dyed the kōzo blue first, using the cyanotype process, just to make it look a little nicer.

The first atlas was the culmination of dozens of hours of work (and dozens of dollars of supplies, mostly watercolor paper), but I found it only mildly satisfactory. Among other issues, the book had some warping problems. Despite trying many, many things, I could never get the pages to dry flat once they’d been soaked in water. But this was all fine, because I had planned it, from the beginning, as a first draft, with the understanding that I’d do better the second time around.

So wavy.

The book’s kōzo hinges were my first time working with (or hearing of) the material, which Caroline introduced me to, and I knew I wanted to work with it more. So, I decided that my second draft would be printed on kōzo, rather than just using it as a supporting material. After wrapping up the first book, I printed up the 99 maps on kōzo that I showed above, and then prepared them for binding. First, I hand-wrinkled each one. You see, during my test prints on kōzo, I accidentally made a print that was somewhat wrinkled (due to not handling it super-carefully: I wanted to try to see how strong it was). But I found that I liked the wrinkled look, so I decided to make sure that every print was sufficiently wrinkled. It’s sort of wavy, and organic, and aged. It gives the prints some suppleness.

After I spent a while wrinkling each print, I tore them all down to size. I thought about cutting them to give them a clean edge, but I liked the softness of the torn edge.

The whole stack of pages reminds me a bit of worn blue jeans, which makes sense. Blue jeans are often dyed with Prussian blue, which is the same pigment that the cyanotype process produces. And blue jeans are made from cotton, which is mostly just cellulose. Kōzo, like other paper fibers, is also mostly cellulose.

Once I had my soft, wrinkly organic sheets, I wanted to give them a better binding than I had the first atlas. Something more book-like, instead of a giant accordion fold. Caroline pointed me in the direction of Japanese stab bindings, which are simple to execute and designed for single sheets. So, I poked around some tutorials, bought some supplies, and got to work. I used an awl to poke holes in the pages, then sewed them up.

The thread is marbled: I used the cyanotype process to dye parts of it, but not others.

Unlike the first draft, I also gave the book a cover material. I used grey and black Japanese linen cardstock. I also gave it a string and button closure, using paper buttons I cut from the cover stock and leftover binding thread.

Kōzo is handmade and doesn’t have much of a grain, so there’s no particular warp direction this time around. It’s also much thinner than watercolor paper (while still having a lot of wet strength). These are two reasons I had wanted to switch to using it instead of watercolor paper. However, the book is very puffy, probably due at least in part to all those wrinkles I added.

I hadn’t planned on drawing so much from Japan when I started this project, but it just sort of happened that way. I just happened to learn about and come to enjoy working with kōzo; I found a good cover material that happened to have been made in Japan; and I needed to learn a simple style of binding that beginners like me could handle, which happens to have been Japanese. So, it’s a book about the Midwest, with an Italian typeface, made with Japanese materials and techniques.

Significance and Sharing

I produced one copy of the first draft (on watercolor paper), and three of the second draft (on kōzo), though I’ve still got to get around to binding the final copy of the second draft. It took a huge amount of time (and a fair bit of money), but I’m pretty satisfied with the results. As I said, there’s a lot of me in this work: it was hand-printed, hand-wrinkled, hand-torn, and hand-bound (using hand-dyed thread). There’s not much more possible influence I could have on a single book. And it’s of a subject that has deep personal significance to me: my Great Lakes homeland (even if I’ve never been to these particular islands — yet).

Despite its unassuming appearance, I count this book as one of the more significant accomplishments of my career, because it sort of serves as a microcosm of so much of the rest of my practice: it’s in monochrome, it’s about the Great Lakes, it hinges on a lot of obsessive detail work, it’s something nobody asked for, it required learning a bunch of new skills, and it’s a little off the beaten path. It may be the most Daniel P. Huffman-like of all of my works.

As I said, there are only three copies. But, maybe you’d like to see one? It so happens that I’m sending one copy on a world tour, where it will be shipped to whoever wants to borrow it for a few days. If you’re interested, you can read more here. Note that the tour is pretty full, so you could be in for a long wait.

A lot of my purchase of cyanotype materials was made possible by the generous support I receive from the map-loving community. If you want to support my future work, you’re welcome to use the links below.