How to Communicate with Maps

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  • Mapmaking requires an integration of art and science
  • Know your audience to make your maps effective communication tools
  • Simplicity is one of the most important qualities in maps
  • The future of cartography belongs with creativity coming from different fields

Maps are effectively media for communication. Making maps requires a careful balance between science, art, and knowledge of your target audience. While tools are making mapmaking easier, skills required for effective maps are varied and may require geospatial specialists to learn from other fields. 

The Art and Science of Cartography

In a recent Mapscaping podcast, John Nelson from Esri talks about the art of cartography and skills needed to make good maps.

From what he says, it is clear that there are different skills that are needed to making a good map. Perhaps above all, simplicity in maps is a principle that helps to create an effective messaging from a map.[1] 

The most common mistake many geospatial specialists do is they try to do too much with their maps by putting more information than needed or information that obscures the key message a map is trying to give. One way to think of making a map is that you are likely to get diminishing return for each layer of information you have, particularly as the layers may not show the key message your map is trying to communicate.

John Nelson is well known for his creative cartographic visualizations. One of his latest works is the "100 Years of Wildfire".  The effort behind this map can be explored on two Esri blog posts: 100 Years of Wildfire: GIS-ification and 100 Years of Wildfire: Cartograph-izing.
John Nelson is well known for his creative cartographic visualizations. One of his latest works is the “100 Years of Wildfire”. The effort behind this map can be explored on two Esri blog posts: 100 Years of Wildfire: GIS-ification and 100 Years of Wildfire: Cartograph-izing.

Cartography may involve a lot of data analysis and management of information, which geospatial specialists are often good at, but good mapmaking often means you only show a small part of that process that led to the map being made.

By placing oneself as an artist who is trying to reveal information already there, that is a person whose job it is to remove the noise and background that obscures important information or the “artwork,” one could potentially better visualize in one’s mind how to create a product that is more informative.

This also requires understanding your target audience. The more you know about the audience you are trying to communicate with the better it is for you to design a map that can speak to that audience.

Having empathy with how your audience perceives a map is important for knowing if a map is likely to be effective. This means cartographers need to place themselves in the shoes of their audience and see if a map is providing an effective message or not before deciding on the final map product.[2]

Skills as Mapmakers

Of course this is probably easier said than done, as often GIS specialists are not only asked to make good maps but they also have to balance a variety of tasks, from IT, being analytical specialists, to database management, while also trying to effectively be good graphic designers.

For geospatial specialists, having an art or design background could go a long way in aiding the efficacy of cartography.

At the same time, because tools are making mapmaking easier, we are also seeing more participation in the process, including from graphic designers and related fields.

Tools like Color Brewer and Viz Palette can help cartographers pick meaning colors for their maps.
Tools like Color Brewer and Viz Palette can help cartographers pick meaningful colors for their maps.

This could be perceived as threatening for some geospatial specialists, but GIS users should embrace the fact that different fields want to also make effective map communication. This can only help the field because it brings new ideas and perspectives.

As geospatial specialists, we should encourage and help others who are interested in making maps, as they can bring needed ideas to our own work. Learning from other fields, particularly from the arts, can help geospatial experts be better mapmakers. 

Future of Maps

Where is the future of map making? It might be hard to say, but it likely belongs to people who are inspired by their work and who can be creative in bringing different skills together, including the arts and sciences.

Groups such as the North American Cartographic Information Society (NACIS) have been inspirational to Nelson in his own work, as they help bring different ideas that often begin in different fields and not just in geography.

This also means that for cartographers who want to improve their skills, having groups one can feel safe to share their work is important. Sharing one’s work and getting feedback helps to improve skills and knowledge on what works.

If you are in a GIS job that does not allow you to have much flexibility and time to develop your own creativity, then ask for time to work on projects that inspire you. This can be important not only for you, to continue motivation, but it can help your employers as often they do not know what is an effective map and having time to work on projects that can be shared could be key for how maps are seen and used in organizations.

It is also important to take feedback seriously and use that to always inspire and improve one’s work.

Cartographers, or those aspiring to be, could also work on pitching their message by practicing writing short story maps or works that incorporate spatial data. Incorporating maps with stories or descriptions can help communicate what could be a complex message. By working on delivering a poignant message in fewer words, however, these messages can be more powerful and effective in reaching a target audience.

Participating in the annual 30 Day Map challenge in November hosted by Topi Tjukanov on Twitter is one way for users to improve their cartography skills.
Participating in the annual 30 Day Map challenge in November hosted by Topi Tjukanov on Twitter is one way for users to improve their cartography skills.

If what you want to say is very complex, requiring many or multiple maps and a lot description, then think about breaking up the message into different works or parts. Being a good story teller who can also use visual queues such as maps helps to make the message more powerful. 

Conclusion

Cartography has, in many ways, become easier to do, but it still requires a careful balance between art and science. It also requires that cartographers know their audience and learn how to say more with less. The future for those interested in making maps could mean that inspiration will come from a variety of voices. However, the guiding principles of trying to get as much information without making maps busy looking or overly complex is likely to continue. This is something that geospatial experts will always need to keep at the center of their practice. 

References

[1]    For a guide on effective mapmaking using simple design, see:  Peterson, G.N., 2014. GIS cartography: a guide to effective map design, Second edition. ed. CRC Press, Boca Raton. Buy: 2nd Edition | 3rd Edition, publishing November 25, 2020. (affiliate links)

[2]    For an insightful view on empathy in making maps, see:  Rossetto, T., 2019. The skin of the map: Viewing cartography through tactile empathy. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 37, 83–103. https://doi.org/10.1177/0263775818786251.

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