The (Other) Sciences of Making Maps

To most of those outside of the geospatial industries maps are tool for navigation, something to easily see the information they want or fun apps and games meant for entertainment. To those inside the industry they are a great tool for visually displaying information that might not otherwise be digestible to the public. While most people don’t understand what actually goes into making a map there a few things outside of the general curriculum a map make should take into consideration.

In school geography and GIS majors are taught the basic concepts of design, principles and analysis. In reality, there is much more that goes into a map. When making a map one must take into account the social impact of the information, the psychology behind how a minds work at understanding and disseminating information, artistry, and even genetics.

How does all of these different sciences combine to create a map that tells the correct story and send the accurate message of the data? Maps are not just thrown together, neither are they static graphics. The data, scale and symbology are all dynamic, or constantly changing. This is where the rest of the science comes in.

Questions to ask oneself when making a map:

Phycology is the first aspect any good map maker must consider.

  • Is everything clearly understandable?

An example of this would be using the same color for two different status in the same map. For instance if you have pipeline map that shows different phases of design and the right of way boundaries representing the acquisition parcel phase and both are green. One would not want to use the same color for a completed acquisition parcel that you would for pre-construction pipeline alignment. This confuses the reader and sends an unclear message to the brain. Is green complete or not they are asking themselves.

  • Is there anything that can be misinterpreted?

Is the map sending the right message for the audience, is the question here.  In this day and age if it’s on the web, printed somewhere or distributed in media then it must be true. Maps can be very deceptive and having someone misinterpret the message can have backlash effects. I have a personal example of this, I have made maps that have blogs about them in foreign countries where the commenters are mad because the units are not metric.

Artistry is also very important in cartography.

  • Do the colors work together?

The first thing a good cartographer should learn about cartographic representation is the color wheel. This will help you understand what primary, secondary, complimentary, contrasting and harmonious colors are. Yes I mean the pie chart you learned in fifth grade art. A good example of this is Orange is contrasting to purple so if you have 2 line work files next to each other you might consider using these contrast colors to make each line “pop” and no bleed together like a harmonious color such blue.

  • Does the line work look smooth?

While there are several tools to help smooth out a line that is not what I mean. Often times there will be multiple line files in a map. The line thickness and line type are what you have to distinguish these and make them unique. An example of this would be an overlapping line file where one could make a ticker solid line and overlay the other line file in a thinner dashed style.

Genetics can affect what the end user is actually seeing.

  • Will the colors look right to everyone who will be seeing this?

Often times when you meet someone it doesn’t come up whether they are color blind or not, but up to 10% of the population is believe to suffer from red-green color blindness. So putting two different shades of green lines next to each other or a red line next to a green line could cause issues.

  • Can the user comprehend this map?

Autism rates are on the rise and one of the symptoms of this is Comprehension Deficit which means a decrease in abstract reasoning and logical thinking. Keep the map simple and clear. Don’t put extra information on there and make sure the message is definable. After all, one of your coworkers who sees this map could be autistic.

While making a map involves cartography skills at an advanced level, when one takes into consideration outside factors that are affecting your map readers the map becomes a true work of art telling a story created and defined by you.

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