Maps

Making Better Digital Maps in an Era of Standardization

Using pre-digital techniques as inspiration, three cartographers lead the charge against cookie-cutter digital maps.

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Bernhard Jenny (scree) and swisstopo

What’s in a map? Or better yet, what should be? The question of how to best visualize information about a place has always been the heartbeat of cartography. Today, with what many call the “democratization” of the field, it's pulsing faster than ever.

For while the open door of online mapmaking has produced a lot of maps, it's also brought about a standardization of aesthetics. “To make it easy for people to make a map,” says Daniel Huffman, a cartographer at the University of Wisconsin, “you need to simplify the process down and make things very uniform.” Riffs on Google Maps look for the most part like Google Maps, with its top-down view, muted color scheme, choice of line weights, and approach to terrain.

Even original maps created using Mapbox or other, more powerful geographic information system-based software have the potential to lead to a homogenous look. As previous research in map design by cartographer Kenneth Field has shown, many new map-makers create sterile-looking maps that have ubiquity in style. However, Field notes, in recent years there have been many who are stretching the capabilities of these technologies and creating inspiring and innovative workwhich, he suggests, are also leading to improved support for better map design.*
 
A Mapbox map that locates Pinterest posts. (Flickr/Mapbox)

Still, such standardized design often fails to effectively tell what’s important about a place. “If you look at a map of Amsterdam on Google, it looks like a freeway around some canals,” designer Eric Rodenbeck* told GigaOm. “My experience with Amsterdam has more to do with canals than freeways.”

(Google Maps)

Are we at a stand-still in map design? Not at all. Many cartographers are developing digital, open-source tools that look back to a pre-digital era to make maps that are uniquely designed to a particular purpose. Here are three who are leading in the charge against cartographic standardization and toward beautiful, functional maps.

Daniel Huffman

Huffman is a freelance map-maker, “cartographic philosopher,” and instructor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Above all, his work seeks to restore a human touch to mapmaking. Among many of his undertakings, Project Linework may be the most innovative. It’s a “library of free, public-domain sets of vector lifework”—lines that indicate borders, roads, or simple data points—that are all distinct.

“Some of them have a non-digital aesthetic, certainly,” Huffman says. “But it’s not intrinsically about looking handmade. It’s about looking to express yourself. And it’s all about expression. Cartographers are artists. We are story tellers here to tell you about a place. It can be very fact-driven, but it’s akin to journalism—there’s information and facts, but then it’s up to the journalist to use judgment and creativity to figure how to best express that.”

Two examples of lineworks. (Daniel Huffman/Project Linework)

“I can download a boring linework style," he says. "But it’s nice to have a set of other ones available, to offer something that people can just pull off and use to fit the kind of aesthetic they’re going for. It’s easier and cheaper for all maps to look the same. I wanted to make it cheap and easy for maps to not look the same.”

Although Huffman's “The Ways of the Framers" (below) isn’t part of Project Linework, the street map of Madison answers the question of stylized vectors in a striking way: with signatures.

Daniel Huffman/Cargo Collective

“I live on Jenifer Street, and I was wondering why it’s spelled with one 'n.' I found out. And then I started to dig in around the history of my city’s streets and got wrapped up in the stories of the Founding Fathers. I wanted to evoke these people again. We very easily forget who we name things for and why. So I stole the signatures off the Constitution and it worked out.”

Dr. Bernhard Jenny

Dr. Jenny is an assistant professor in cartography and geovisualization in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University. Some of his research is in colored-terrain shading (which uses color to show dimension) and terrain modulation (which helps resize cartographic features depending on the needs of the map). Terrain Bender, his modulating software, is available for free online.

“I’ve been influenced heavily by my roots, especially by the 20th-century Swiss cartographer Eduard Imhof," Dr. Jenny says. "He helped popularize the Swiss style of mapping, where the main goal is to portray the third dimension in an easily accessible way—not just with lines, but also color to add the sense of illumination using an artificial light source.”

A colored relief map by Eduard Imhof, circa 1929. (ETH Zurich)

“Manually, this style requires a lot of training and expertise. It would just take forever," he says. "I’m not an artist at all, but I understand the thinking that cartographers back then had and what principles they applied. I try to convert into software or algorithms that allow others to use these methods without a lot of specialized training.”

A digital map that uses colored terrain shading, where illumination gives a sense of dimension. (Bernhard Jenny and Joseph Halytskyj*)

“With Terrain Bender, the idea is to emulate a technique that was used by manual panorama map painters, where certain elements get resized to show importance. You place control points on terrain, enlarge mountains and shrink mountains, or move to left and right. For example, if you needed to make a new ski resort map, you might want to enlarge some slopes and shrink others.”

A digitally rendered panorama map, before Terrain Bender. (Helen Jenny and Bernhard Jenny)*
The same panorama, after Terrain Bender.

“Of course, this is not objective at all. But these kinds of maps suit their purpose. [This is] all people want if they go [somewhere]: A restaurant, the main slope, other nearby mountains. And I think that’s what makes these maps attractive: if they are fit for their purpose.”

Tom Patterson

Tom Patterson is one of the founders of Natural Earth, a public-domain data set that helps cartographers find “suitable data for making small-scale maps.” He's also a relief-shading enthusiast. Patterson largely strives to make maps that have natural-looking terrain—a task he believes was better achieved in the pre-digital era. That’s why he also maintains ShadedReliefArchive.com, a compendium of “scanned manual-shaded relief maps for use by digital mapmakers,” most of which are geo-referenced and can be easily overlaid into mapmaking software. (A “shaded relief,” by the way, is a map that uses the terrain-illumination technique described by Dr. Jenny, with or without color.)

“If you were a cartographer in the pre-digital era," Mr. Patterson says, "it was very hard to make very detailed shaded reliefs, because just getting information about elevation in different areas was a long, arduous process. Now, we have a ton of elevation data available, and you often find digital reliefs are extremely detailed, to the point of distraction. They look like noisy textures instead of mountain chains. In digital cartography, the problem is about getting rid of data to make things look natural. So that’s where these maps help.”
A comparison of a scanned, geo-referenced manual-shaded relief map versus a digital-shaded relief map. (Shaded Relief Archive)
 
A large-scale shaded-relief map of Mt. Hood. (Tom Patterson)

“If something doesn’t look nice," says Patterson, "if its unduly complex or technical, we have a tendency to not look at all. For a map, beauty is the hook, like a good lede in an article. It catches the map reader’s eye, and then hopefully they dive deeper and discover something new in the process.”

*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly designated Eric Rodenbeck's first name as "Steve."  The story has also been updated with additional contributors to Bernhard Jenny's maps, and with additional comments from Kenneth Field to reflect his current perspectives on map design.

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