Zen and the art of cartography


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Presentation by Kenneth Field at International Cartographic Conference, Dresden 2013

In answer to the question ‘what do you do’? cartographers have gone from nervously explaining that yes, there are people who make maps to reluctantly admitting “yes, it’s like Google Maps”. Cartography is now cool…but it’s not cartographers that are making it cool. Instead, cartographers continue to assert ‘principles’ and ‘traditions’ as core to effective map-making but the message is getting lost. It’s time to re-focus and re-imagine. One of the things that has bothered us over the last few years is the role of design in map-making. We see very little of what we would call good design and very few people who either have the ability or enthusiasm to value design as a key component in the map-making process. We believe this is to the detriment of the quality and usefulness of maps and this is one of the reasons that the International Cartographic Association supported the creation of a new Commission on Map Design precisely to make design explicit.
In this paper we want to think a little about how we might re-imagine design and the art of (or in) cartography in a way that might be more accessible to the growing world of map-makers. We want to think a little about the juxtaposition of the art and science of cartography and the white elephant in the room…technology.
Cartography is about purposeful design, combining aesthetics and visuals with an understanding of data and how people behave when viewing a map. Instead of trying to assert the importance of art as a component of cartography to map-makers unwilling to listen, maybe there is value in seeing cartography as an art in itself. Using examples of ‘great maps’ from an original survey we assert that art is not a part of cartography that we try to marry with science and technology. Cartography is about creating something; art is in the doing and poor maps are not a function of failure to put art in cartography, they’re because the map is not treated as an artistic endeavour. The survey sought to collate a set of examplar maps that the cartographic profession could point to; that illustrated the zenith of cartographic excellence. The results provided a fascinating mix of historical and contemporary examples; some obvious and some less so but we explored the design in each and explained why they exhibit high standards of cartography. The survey also revealed that the idea that excellence in cartography can only be achieved by those with a formal training is a fallacy. The democratisation of map-making is possibly not as new as we might imagine since maps have always been made by non cartographers as the survey reveals.

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  • Role of design in map-making bothers me.I see very little of what I would call good design and very few people who either have the ability or enthusiasm to value design as a key component in the map-making process.Detriment to the quality and usefulness of mapsIn this talk I want to think a little about how we might think about cartography and design in a way that might be more accessible to the growing world of map-makers
  • “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values”1974 philosophical novel, the first of Robert M. Pirsig's texts in which he explores his Metaphysics of Quality.The book describesa 17-day journey on his motorcycle from Minnesota to California by the author who became engrossed in the question of what defines good writing, and what in general defines good, or "quality“.He found it indefinable but Pirsig's thesis is that to truly experience quality one must both embrace and apply it as best fits the requirements of the situation....form and function
  • Design is a set of decisions that result in a product which has form and function and which delivers a human experience.Design fails, largely because of immature technology, a lack of competence in applying it and the knowledge of how to design.Mistakes in map design are normally fairly easy to spot, but often it comes down to the same thing.To design something you must have at least a basic level of domain knowledge.Design is not just ‘doing’…it’s about making decisions to support a quality of human experience
  • Cartography is now cool…but it’s not cartographers that are making it cool.Many more people who make maps but few who have any formal training….democratisationProportion of good vs poor maps has shifted.Maps are now ridiculously easy to make but they are easy to make inappropriately or ineffectively.People do not want to hear about single hue progressions, figure-ground relationships or typographic theory.While we may see these as the foundations of our careers, most people who want to make a map have other careers.They just want to make a map...so how do we talk about maps in a way that encourages them to think about the process of making them?
  • Cartographic knowledge is easy to think of in this context. We ‘get it’. Other’s don’t.So we see maps and their errors and inconsistencies but that doesn’t change them.Shouting about it won’t change the fact.Data hasn’t been normalised to account for different sized areas or population bases
  • And if you don’t understand the complexities of map making you’re oblivious to the errors anyway.And most likely unreceptive when they are pointed out.Nominal colour scheme for interval data...as well as the colours!
  • Why do we call cartography an art and a science?Cartographers use fancy digital tools to construct bezier lines or translate RGB colourspace into CYMK process colours to determine how much ink to lay down. We use maths to determine projections, calculate buffer zones or calculate classification of our data. So is cartography a science? Not necessarily.A ceramicist requires a knowledge of chemistry to ensure glaze patterns fire correctly in well controlled kilns.A metalurgist welds and cuts and shapes with modern technological implements.A painter uses paint blended in all sorts of modern ways.Why do we not see these as sitting on the ridge between art and science. They’re art right?If cartography is an art and a science then so is sculpture, painting, photography, architecture etc…There may be science in the tools or the data or the materials but it is what the artist does with these inputs.This is where cartography lies….creating something out of spatial data.
  • Daniel Huffman:Cartography is a form of art and just as other arts use science and tools, so does a cartographer.If art is missing from so much cartography, or at least not as present as we’d like, it’s because art requires people.Humanity is missing from cartography. We are too hell-bent on precision, accuracy, databases, system architecture and using the latest so-called modern mapping tools that tends to lead to sterile, error-strewn one-dimensional maps but cartography is a human practice. Coders tend to suffer this lack of humanity in their work.A cartographer puts thought into how things look….but many are now behind the curve in technological terms so there’s a disconnect.Every mark involves a decision and an intent to evoke a desired reaction from a reader, maybe to create understanding, a judgment or feeling.But most maps these days are created by a computer and most marks on a map are placed by a computer with very little active decision-making and even less intent.Less art because there is less humanity.Design means making decisions based on defined goals.Where there is cartographic intelligence and intent, there is design.
  • Design is the glue that binds the three main components. It helps us:Understand what makes great cartography great.Design is a sort of roadmap or approach that achieves a particular outcome....to create and to implementSo we are all designers…and while some paint by numbers, some create masterpieces with seemingly little effort.
  • Of course, this isn’t just about aesthetics and the creation of a beautiful object.This is the Feinwerkbau P11 Piccolo Air Pistol. It costs somewhere around $1,500 and looks like it is mainly designed for people doing competition.The black barrel is what shoots the pellet and the silver barrel is the compressed air.If you have an air pistol it would be nice to know how much air you have left?
  • I do know that you shouldn’t need to point the barrel toward your face to read a gauge.
  • So instead of focussing on poor design, let’s focus on good designDesign classics: unequivocal, tangible, iconicFirst patented in Germany by Johan Vaaler (1866-1910), a Norwegian inventor, in 1899, the paperclip remains indispensable. In its utter simplicity lies the genius of the paperclip. Ubiquitous.This little bit of minimalist springy folded metal does its job well enough and, besides, can be used as an all-purpose miniature tool, for shaping desk-top animals, cleaning finger nails, making miniature buildings, or simply as something to fiddle with in times of bureaucratic stress.According to an enjoyably time-wasting survey conducted by Lloyds Bank some while ago, of every 100,000 paperclips made in the United States, 19,143 were used as poker chips, 17,200 held clothing together, 15,556 were dropped and lost, 14,163 were absent-mindedly destroyed during telephone calls, 8,504 cleaned pipes and nails, while 5,434 served as stand-in toothpicks.
  • Viz-o-matic by Wayne Lytle – Cornell University 1993 – provides an early insight into how design is often appliedCarl Steinitz quote “too much these days goes round and round and up and down without saying very much, worse, it’s often accompanied by music”
  • So where is the compendium of great cartographic design? Doesn’t exist so Damien and I set out to define itSurvey of leading ‘cartographers’ resulted in over 100 map suggestions. We distilled to 13 categories each with 3 maps.Reported in 2-part paper that explores concepts and examples in The Cartographic Journal 49.1How might we frame some of the main characteristics of what constitutes good design in a non-cartographic way?
  • Planning is critical but you should not be able to see the planning in the mapInstead, induce the viewer to think about the substance rather than about methodology, graphical approach, the tech of graphic production, or something else.Mount Everest has been mapped extensively using a plethora of relief representations so how do you make your map stand out.Possibly the most frequently cited example of excellence in design is by Eduard Imhof (1962) for his impressive use of colour. Here, though, Bradford Washburn used Swissair Survey aerial photos and Space Shuttle infrared photos to plot Mount Everest at 1:50,000 (Washburn, 1988). Possibly the last example of hand drawn Swiss relief representation makes clear the most detailed and accurate map ever made of Mount Everest. The peaks, glaciers, rocks and hydrography are particularly clear with scree slopes depicted in astonishing detail. Blue contours sit well in the overall design and take on the appearance of layers of ice. The typography is beautifully set and the map has a soft, photo-realistic feel that adds visual impact. The border separating China and India is so subtle it looks like it is actually painted on the ridgelines. A masterpiece of terrain representation showing natural beauty and scientific information in the most vivid possible way.
  • When we begin creating a map, we get excited to finally utilize our data.Inevitably, we want to create highly detailed, accurate, and up-to-date information products that use the data to the maximum and of course, we want people to see it.However, the level of detail in many maps is simply not necessary, and using it can have a negative impact which is off-putting to map users. You can easily be left with a clean pond with no fish.Cleanse data of unnecessary content and look for clean, efficient representations. Big data is not about mapping all of it...distil to the essence of the main finding.Don’t just map it...make sense of it.The London Underground map was originally created by engineering draughtsman Harry Beck in 1931 and first published in 1933. Beck drew the diagram in his spare time and although London Underground was originally skeptical of his radical proposal it became immediately popular and imitated across the globe for countless other metro and mass transit systems (Garland, 1994). Beck realized that the physical locations of the stations was largely unimportant because the railway ran mostly underground so a schematic diagram was a more effective solution by which to navigate. The simplified map consisted of stations, colour-coded straight line segments which run vertically, horizontally or at 45 degree diagonals. Ordinary stations (marked as ticks) were differentiated from interchanges (diamonds, later to be replaced by circles). The map exaggerates the detailed central area and contracts the external areas. The map shows no relationship to above ground geography other than the River Thames. The same approach is still in use today and copied by ever mass transit system in the world. The map has gone through countless revisions and design changes but the core characteristics remain.
  • There’s always a temptation to use the latest, coolest technology or widget to present data.Unless the point is simply to sell the tech, the map should drive what tech is required to make it.Simplicity can pay great dividends when applied to mapping.Minimize the clutter. If you've got great data, do it justice by presenting it minimally and honestly.Pie graphs, and especially exploded 3D pie charts, are a favourite whipping boy because of their distortion and lack of clarity ("chart-junk").John Snow was an English physician, the father of modern epidemiology and the inventor of anaesthesia. His famous map, on the mode and distribution of deaths from cholera in Soho, London in 1854 is a classic not only in cartography but also analytically. Snow used the map as an exploratory tool to establish that cholera was a water-borne disease. Cartographically, Snow's map is often cited as the first to use separate thematic layers to determine a spatial relationship between variables. The beauty of the map is in its brilliant simplicity, showing only the detail required to make the link between deaths and water distribution. The mapping of deaths using a single symbol identified individuals for impact with multiple deaths being seen as a density due to their clustering.
  • Simplicity is great but sometimes detail and complexity can be mapped...but it needs to be carefully designed to guide people through it.To effectively communicate, we must act as the gentle wind acts on a snowflake and guide our map readers to the place they need to be.Rather than picking them up and physically dragging them, our maps should invite exploration and discovery....almost serendipitously, but to the place we want them to get to.Maps don’t have to over-generalize or simplify complex data but it’s important to present it in a way that leads people. It’s perfectly possible to present hundreds of thousands of pieces of information sensibly on a single map. Rich content often helps garner interest but presenting complexity in a simple way is key.This example of a multivariate cartogram by Dorling does just that. The Dorling cartogram creates a social landscape so circles are proportional to the population of the area they represent. Here, though, Chernoff Faces replace circles to ascribe additional information. Sizes of faces are proportional to the electorate and shape, eyes, nose and mouth each display additional socio-economic variables allowing a theoretical maximum of 625 different faces. In reality only a fraction of these permutations exist, each coloured in one of 36 trivariate colours. The strength of the image is its overall impact as well as the ability to mine detail. Faces evoke emotional reactions and show social differences we can easily interpret. Sharp local divisions or gradual changes emerge. While such glyphs can often overload a map image, Dorling combines them masterfully and the strong colours on a black background create additional contrast and impact. is the ultimate goal of a successful map.
  • Try to remove ourselves from our map-making role and think even more like the map reader. Leave your carto-ego at the door.To make sense of any map-based story, people need comparisons. Mapped information should not be presented equally.Without comparisons we don’t get a sense of what is important, what is an outlier and what trends might exist in the mapGuide our map readers and their experience by making some decisions for them.Charles Joseph Minard was a French civil engineer that created what Tufte calls, "The greatest statistical graphic ever drawn": A map of the Napoleon's Grand March and retreat into Russia.The graphic impressively manages to depict 6 different sets of data: latitude, longitude, direction of movement, time, temperature, and size of the army. We compare by looking at the juxtaposition of the colours used for the advance and retreat and the line thickness symbolisin the decimation of the army. Temperature scales allow us to compare the condition of the army in time and by temperature which means we can reveal an awful lot from such a simple map.
  • We try to create maps that help people become spatial thinkers,better decision makers and better map-makers.As cartographers, if we do our jobs well, we should see the fruits of our labour emerge as others make better maps, probably without even knowing they are applying cartographic theory.This is hard for us as GIS professionals and cartographers; for years, we have been trying to explain what we do and all the great benefits of a deep understanding of our art and science.We get threatened when new players emerge and seem to eschew cartography.Now, we are trying to train ourselves that we will probably be most impactful if we can remove jargon and buttons and if we can just roll with it if people call a map a picture or an intricate GIS web application a map.Some might find the inclusion of Google Maps odd in a discussion of design but they were innovators and the multiscale character of the map performs multiple functions, revolutionising the way the people view, use and make maps and how they interact with their surroundings. The design is recognizable and supports a strong, clear brand that is consistent at a local scale, globally. Integration of complementary functionality (e.g. routing, traffic information, overlay of social media and photographs, zooming, panning, querying and measuring) provides an application with a multitude of purposes that goes beyond a general reference map. The design is automatically modified depending on its use. For instance, secondary roads widen at particular scales when you overlay traffic information to show each direction of traffic flow. The appearance of 3D buildings and moving shadows at large scales (in some cities) represent the built environment like never seen before.
  • Finally...a large part of the current annoyance with modern mapping is the impression that modern map-makers don’t actually know anything about cartography and that this is somehow new.How many of the 39 maps in our survey were conceived by or drawn by cartographers?
  • 9...or 23% which means ¾ of the people who made these great maps did so without formal training.So why bash our heads against a proverbial wall trying to get people to understand the principles of cartography...let’s just encourage them to explore what works and use that to inspire their own work.Telling people they are making bad maps doesn’t work.Show them what they can do to improve things...do this by using good examplesIf possible, involve them in the process so they can learn.Just beacuse people don’t call themselves cartographers doesn’t mean they can’t make great maps...we just need to encourage more to make better maps.
  • Zen and the art of cartography

    1. 1. International Cartographic Conference Dresden, Germany 2013 Kenneth Field Damien Demaj Zen and the art of cartography
    2. 2. Student says " I am very discouraged. What should I do?“
    3. 3. Government/NMA GIS Democratised mapping 60s 70s 80s 90s 00s Master says, "encourage others.“
    4. 4. If you understand, things are just as they are...
    5. 5. ...if you don't understand, things are just as they are
    6. 6. Art Science
    7. 7. Art Science Cartography
    8. 8. The journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.
    9. 9. Do not speak - unless it improves on silence
    10. 10. In all things, success depends on previous preparation, and without such previous preparation there is sure to be failure
    11. 11. Water which is too pure has no fish
    12. 12. Eliminate what does not matter to make more room for what does
    13. 13. No snowflake ever falls in the wrong place
    14. 14. See with your eyes, hear with your ears. Nothing is hidden.
    15. 15. No flower ever sees the seed.
    16. 16.     
    17. 17.   
    18. 18. International Cartographic Conference Dresden, Germany 2013 Thankyou @kennethfield @damiendemaj cartonerd.com