When It Comes To Cartography, Be So Good They Can't Ignore You

Returning to my roots for this post (in more ways than one), I am going to explore the inevitable (although often overlooked) combination of creating maps and designing them. For those of you who just raised your eyebrow at me, they are not one in the same. Creating a map is giving your what a where. In its simplest forms, it is spatially grounding your data, giving the who's, what's, and how's a place to stay. It doesn't have to be for a business or really anything that matters. You could create a map of all the places Clemson University's football team has won games - see, content doesn't have to matter. Designing a map, on the other hand, is giving thought to how the end user, your audience, will perceive it. It is establishing a layout that both allows adequate room for the data whether it be the map itself or any written explanation as well as guides the viewer from start to end with no fuss. It is using tricks to place the most focus on the highest things of importance. It is putting yourself in the shoes of the audience and realizing how to make them see what you want them to see. It is something that should be used, and much like art in itself, is subject to criticism.  

Viral population density map - neat idea, but the colors are wrong, the text is wrong, spatial data is confusing. I just want to fix it instead of study it.

Prime example of Geoidentity - taken from a series by Yanko Tsvetkov. Offensive? I don't know. Makes me want to look to see how South Carolina's faring? Unfortunately.


even locusts bring along silver linings...right?

Despite that the majority of those words are creative - The take away here is... Umm... Well, that's actually a really a good question... 

  1. Everything is subject to criticism. Personally, I think one is that design, again like art, is subject to criticism (echo, echooo). As a designer, I'm not going to like every map that's made. I'm going to see bits and pieces that I think can and should be changed, whether it be for usability reasons or pure aesthetics. This could be a way to go on a lifelong mission to improve all the maps out there, or it could be an opportunity for openly communicating (or even just creating Version 2.0, awesome edition) aspects that the cartographer might focus on in the future. Spread that insight the good Lord blessed you with.

  2. What works, works. Some of these issues are cheesy, but they're listed for a reason. You just have to decide if you want to give into temptation by appealing to the masses and giving up your creativity. Good design doesn't always mean good data, and intriguing content doesn't always mean someone is going to want to take the time to look at your map. You have to find the balance between the quirky marketing schemes and the essential data.

  3. Here today, potentially gone tomorrow. You have to realize the distinction between a fad and timelessness. A fad is typically going to get you as many views as possible in a short amount of time. Something timeless, with quality guidelines (think clean, simple, informative, with a little spice), is what people will pay you for even if you don't get the enthralled crowds right off the bat. Sure, everyone today who owns an iPhone and has an Instagram thinks they're a photographer (guilty!), but that doesn't mean they can take the photographs that will land them in Life magazine (one day I'll be Ansel Adams, mark my words!). Like the title suggests, you've got to be so good at what you do that you can't be ignored.

I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn't say any other way - things I had no words for. Georgia O'Keeffe

I came across an article on viral maps while perusing Wired (stop, I promise I don't need an intervention). Not only is the article from my home state, but it lists the ugly and not-so-ugly sides of what a cartographer by the name of Elmer (Marty, not the glue) over at Map Hugger addressed as the primary plagues to modern-day cartography. The following are some of those plagues, no locusts included:

  1. Grok-ability - Viral maps that can be understood at one glance. Wam, bam, thank you ma'am. (Yeah, I just typed that. No, I'm not proud. Yeah, but you got it, didn't you?...Also, a Grok-y example is above.)

  2. Remix-ishness - Designing a map with re-contextualized ideas. Point blank, it's familiar. If it's familiar enough (i.e., think Mario Kart like in the example given in the article), then it's essentially the same as "Grok-ability". There's no point in deciphering the map since you already know what it's about.

  3. Data parcity - Creating a catchall for rich datasets, in other words taking all of the things that sound like this one thing (but are actually a little different) and grouping them together for the sake of condensing your data. First of all, not an accurate representation of the data. Second, that's just rude.

  4. Geoidentity - Maps that identify a region with one particular aspect, aka the stereotype map. (See example below.)

  5. Finally, Crufti-ness - Maps that are superficial at best, that offer little to no real value or generally lack meaning. It's classic "Mom, look what I can do!".

To end, I leave you with some of Georgia's wise words. The way you design a map could say leaps and bounds about how you want your audience to interact with it, how you perceive the data. These things can say much more than any words (or lack there of) you include. You have choices when it comes to design - you can either get the quick glance or draw your viewer in, entice them to learn more about what you have created. The ball is in your court, my friend.