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Communicating with maps – The art of cartography

Cartography is the Art of Design

John Nelson is a Product Engineer at Esri. You may better know him for doing outstanding stuff as a cartographer and a user experience designer.

His background is in geography, and he specialized early in GIS, remote sensing, and cartography. People called these “the techniques” back then. He also minored in art, which turned out to be helpful for his career.

John spent a decade working with data and risk visualization. This was when people still used the word Ajax for Asynchronous JavaScript And XML.

At Esri, he’s on the content team helping create and promote various data and maps available out there for people to use. He spends all day making maps and showing others how to make them. He says it’s a great gig, and we believe him. He gets paid for playing around with maps, after all.


A map is a model of a specific phenomenon in the real world—a communication device.  You take an idea or an insight that’s in your brain and magically transport it into somebody else’s.


The world is complex. If people want a complex map of the world, they can look at the real thing.

If you can state something simply, it means you understood it. A lot of communication gets bloated and hard to track when somebody doesn’t completely understand something. Or that somebody understands it too well and they’re so excited about it they want to tell you everything at once.

There’s discipline in any kind of graphic design, especially in geographic design.

When you’re making a map, you pick a salient thing that you’d like to communicate and leave everything else. Let’s face it. Nobody gets anything out of the 100 layers that appear on a map all at once. Those should probably be a hundred individual maps that people could pour-over and gain insight from.


Simplicity and exercising restraint in geographic design have a significant impact on the clarity of what’s being communicated.

Take the case of elevation data. When you look at a raw digital elevation model, it’s like opening a present—a real treat. So much coolness is inherent in it. All you can do is mess it up. It’s incredible as it is. Just put some colors on and do a bit of hill shade technique to see what you can do with it.


GIS folks have a specialized role in the professional environment with complex workflows. Often, there’s just one GIS person in an organization swimming in data demands.

They are overwhelmed. Is it possible that they are trying to reflect that back to their audience and peers by showing them how complicated and vital geography is?

So they put everything on one map.

Look how complex this isThis is important stuff. Plus, my job is hard.

Why do you need something to do everything all at once?  It’s like your clock radio. Remember the diminishing marginal value of every extra feature? People suffer from feature fatigue, and the design suffers because you’re shoehorning so much into one element instead of having a specialized design.

User experience and simplicity go hand in hand for a better outcome. We should make more maps with less content. Fewer things will get in the way.


Artists, mathematicians, and scientists think about their work as a structure that already exists. Their job is to chip away at the detritus. They clear the noise and the content that distracts. They dig up the bones of a fossil and work on revealing a structure that’s already there.

Take Michelangelo, who, by his own admission, was only freeing David from the surrounding marble.

Mapmakers let the geographic content ̶ the data and the layers ̶ communicate.

But is it just data and layers you’re working with? Think about it. What you’re really doing is mapping a phenomenon.

Try understanding that phenomenon so you can think clearly about it. Only then create a design that communicates that to somebody else. Don’t think of your map as a plate, tossing stuff on it, and see what you can get out of that.

Free the phenomenon from the rest of the data jungle surrounding it and think about how best to visually push that out there. Have empathy for your audience so they can see things clearly.


Empathy is critical to every aspect of user experience design. Mapmakers are user experience designers for a spatial phenomenon that they’re trying to reveal to somebody else.

You’re going to be in a better spot if you can imagine what somebody looking at your map will get from it. Will they run away confused? Will they stick around?

Good designers understand this and build validation into their process. They justify every element of their work to their peers and, ultimately, to their audience.

Only add what’s important. Make it as simple as possible, but no simpler.


Look at designers. They all specialize in something.

A GIS professional needs to wear at least a hundred different hats. Technician, cartographer, mapmaker. Project manager, statistician, and marketing expert. Database administrator, analyst, and IT manager.

Plus, a graphic designer.

How does that happen?

It doesn’t.

Everybody has a domain within GIS they enjoy while they’re remarkably capable in a range of skill sets. The graphic end is often neglected over the technical stuff. Painting the picture and making it pretty can be an afterthought.

Not your job, I hear you say?

Don’t stop at the data. You’ve invested time in acquiring and building the data. You analyzed and thought about it, processed it, and came to some result.

You did all that work so you can communicate it to somebody else. If you stop there, it may be ignored or, even worse, misinterpreted. Then all is for nothing.

Always think about visually communicating the result of your work.


And a bit of creativity. No one’s ever given a perfect set of data to create a map with. Some creativity always goes into data manipulation, statistics, or the process.

Only then can you start the design.

What people see on a good map is just the tip of the iceberg. They don’t know how much effort goes into cleaning and making the data or analyzing sloppy data.



People with different backgrounds are integrating and bringing their own thing to the field.

GIS folks play with graphic design software and carry their ideas over into their technical experience. Graphic designers have access to new and easy-to-use tools, and they can now make maps.

We used to have a federated workforce. A graphic designer had no chance of cracking open a geographic information system, or who knows what. Tabulating tables and scratching things into copper plates were specialized.

Now people can take those specialties and dip their toes into different waters. Mapmakers swim in purely graphic design waters, and designers swim in the world of making maps. When graphic designers learn more about mapping, geography, and the cool concepts that underlie, they are converted. They become cartographers.

Designers create a graphic representation of a concept. They make some beautiful maps. They’ve picked up good practice and insights from the world of geography. They’ve got so much to bring to maps, and we can all learn from them in that regard.

Because of the overlapping nature of what we do, the ubiquity of design and geographic tools available to us, this is our opportunity to swim together and learn from each other.


I chose to focus on opportunity enough of gatekeeping already.

Just look at how people are creating stuff, sharing what they’re working on, and inviting feedback. There’s an abundance of free resources and educational tools for everyone blog posts, videos, and how-tos on mapmaking.

Just because Google Maps came out, and it’s pervasive, it didn’t mean we all lost our jobs. It’s not a zero-sum game. There’re plenty of maps that need to be made. Even with a single phenomenon, every person brings their own graphical sensibility and their sense of understanding to it, and how they approach it.

Data is multifaceted.

It’s a wonderful opportunity for us, map people, to see what’s being made by others. We can produce resources for folks to improve their mapping, such as educating about projections being important or bringing awareness to color schemes appropriate for representing data.

Your maps will be better because of it. Everybody wins.


I keep stumbling around in data and trying new things and ideas. Then I share those out, and I get inspired by what others think. Sometimes it’s, “If you had done this…,” or “It’d be neat to try this on another data set.” Feedback is always helpful.

beautiful and virtuous cycle of sharing and inspiration is born as a result. The future belongs to the people who are excited about the work that they’re doing and roll the lessons they’re learning from other domains into their own work.

We can build up these bizarrely disparate skill sets—not just in GIS and mapping and then smash them all together in this environment of mapmaking, design, and spatial thinking. This is the future.


The North American Cartographic Information Society is a group of map nerds with a love of talking about visualizing geographic data and how to communicate through cartography.

They inspire me. At least I know I’m not alone in thinking about these sorts of things. They’re fun people, and I’ve benefited a lot from sharing my work publicly or seeing the work they do in their community. People share boldly and openly, and it increases the feedback loop. Commenting “nice job” isn’t so scary and encourages more shares for the next thing.


Stop putting too much into one thing and avoid being the cartography kitchen sink.

This translates to map-based journalism, too. When you work on a story map, you become a subject or a domain expert, and you may end up going on and on about it.

Remember that your job is not only to think about it, but to provide a distilled version of something for others to learn about.

Keep it short. People want to understand things quickly. If you have a lot to say, you can serialize it. You don’t have to pack it all into one thing; break it up into a three-part series. Then you can focus on the nuggets within each of those three things.

Let your map specialize and let it be the distilled version of the phenomenon it’s communicating.


In my first job as a GIS cartographer, I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing. I was just sitting there and wondering what was expected from me. Until I walked up to someone and asked what I should work on.


I was relieved. I was allowed to make maps and not have to deal with a laundry list of items to complete while juggling my one hundred GIS hats.

A GIS or a mapmaking person is hired because they’re a creative person. The organization has a need that results in geographic communication; a map, or data that feeds into some system.

This means they hired you for your brains and creativity, not because you’re a button pusher. If you’ve got an extensive list of things you’re tasked with, complete them. If you don’t, give yourself a list of things to be tasked with, and then that list will start feeding on itself.

When you have a long list of things to do, but you can’t get things done, say, “Hold on.”

Steal back a chunk of your day for following up on hunches and doing creative endeavoring.

Think of it as a conveyor belt. You train your management system. It’s their job to keep you busy. That conveyor belt can go as fast or as slow as you allow it to. Throttle back on that conveyor belt just a little and reclaim some of that time in the professional environment for creativity. Not in the evenings, not at home, not on the weekend.

Do a creative component related to the work that you’re doing in the day. Come up with an alternative view or idea of a map you’ve just completed. Do hindsight or a postmortem and make an alternative version. What would you have done differently if you had known at the end what you were getting into at the beginning?

Show that to your manager or the customer. That’ll fuel conversations and show that you’re intrinsically motivated and curious.

Steal some of that time back. You’ll do better work, you’ll be more refreshed, and you’ll have more creative output. You’ll probably also get more done than you were doing before when you’re just ticking boxes and doing what you were told.

Does the idea of a simple map sound… too simple? Do you consider the audience of your map at the early stages? What verification are you doing to make sure the phenomena you’re communicating are alive and understood?

About the Author
I'm Daniel O'Donohue, the voice and creator behind The MapScaping Podcast ( A podcast for the geospatial community ). With a professional background as a geospatial specialist, I've spent years harnessing the power of spatial to unravel the complexities of our world, one layer at a time.