The Aesthetician and the Cartographer

An ugly map

Sometime around 2006, when everyone and their grandma started cranking out terrible Google Maps mashups, the Cartography world soiled its collective underpants as it looked like the once specialized profession was about to become obsolete. Fear was channeled into outrage at the whole idea of the "democratization of cartography" because it facilitated—encouraged, perhaps—the production of bad maps that ignored everything Cartographers had learned and taught over the years. In other words, "they took our jobs!"

Eventually we all calmed down when we saw that people still appreciated good cartography and there was still a place in the world for us—probably even more room for us than before. Then the tools improved by leaps and bounds, to the point now where it's possible to use them for good web cartography and it's easy to make maps beautiful. But it might be time to get uppity again.

There is a potential problem in that last thing: beautiful maps. These are prized an awful lot these days, and I'm worried that it's distracting everyone from the real essence of cartography and the problems that needed or still need to be solved. There seems to be an idea floating around that Cartography is now winning the War on Bad Maps because we've defeated Ugliness. TileMill hype is an easy thing to point to here: consider MapBox's repeated use of the word "beautiful"; or Brian Timoney's recent, justified praise of the accessibility and openness of TileMill's newest capabilities, unfortunately framed in the familiar GIS versus Cartography divide that treats the latter as little more than cosmetic surgery, aesthetic touches separable from the rest of the mapping process. Meanwhile with some regularity a web map project seems to find the ultimate "success" of ending up in an art exhibition or winning the Purtiest Map Evar Award.

It all brings into question what Cartography really is (and isn't) or needs to be in the modern web mapping world, something I've been pondering a lot over the past year. (Big-C "Cartography" is used here to mean the the specific profession, theories, and body of knowledge, not simply the making of any maps.) Yes, a good cartographer has graphic design skills and an eye for beauty, but as a discipline and profession it is not about aesthetics.

A beautiful map

Beauty is unquestionably important in cartography. It's what turns functional maps into good maps and good maps into great maps. And we don't need to be above putting form over function sometimes. Eye candy sells, and sometimes grabbing attention or being just plain artsy is whole the point of a map. The number of beautiful maps floating around lately, the public appreciation of them, and the proliferation of tools that make them possible are all very pleasing developments. We shouldn't mistake aesthetics for Cartography itself, though. Cartographic expertise is, in essence, knowing the right way to represent geographic phenomena and data for analytical or various other purposes, and understanding of all stages of the mapping process, not simply knowing how to swoop in at the end and make a map pretty. Sure, we can make every map delicious by wrapping it in metaphorical (or real?) bacon, but it won't be good for you.*

It's so much easier to see the aesthetic side of maps than all the informed decisions behind them, and now that it no longer takes specialists to use the production tools and code, aesthetics start to look like the only area where specialized Cartography comes in. We don't talk about the real Cartography enough for it to be chracterized otherwise. For every blog post or tweet you see about the newest cool graphical capability of Mapnik or d3 or anything else, how many do you see giving advice on when to use it?

Just as we always associated ArcMap with "ugly" and Illustrator with "pretty," aesthetics continue to be tied to specific tools, and GIS and cartography people still let themselves be defined by the tools they use despite the trends away from reliance on a single piece of software. As usual we have the problem of knowing tools versus knowing concepts. It's vital to know tools and understand how they work, of course, but in the end they're only as useful as the operator's knowledge of cartographic concepts. Today's tools are new, but a lot of the amazing new capabilities we're seeing are not new at all; they're just better implementations. They lower a lot of barriers and have big impacts, sure, but tools are still only tools. BYOCartography.

(When it's not aesthetics or tools, by the way, it's the idea that map = data. You can see this in the Apple Maps uproar. But that's a different kettle of fish for another day.)

I don't want Cartography to be reduced to mastery of pulling levers to make pretty things. Not because I fear for my career—I can pull levers with the best of them—but rather because it limits the gains in the quality of web mapping. You don't need to have an advanced degree in Cartography or be an old-school Cartographer to make good maps, but you do need to take the time to understand the when and why of mapping techniques, not just the how.

A map that needs some 'splainin

The traditional Cartographic solution to this kind of problem is to complain and criticize, but we need to point out what's right more than what's wrong. (Yeah, yeah, irony here. But think of this post as more of a lament than criticism.) After all, it's not that bad things are happening—quite the opposite—it's just that a lot of good things remain invisible and left out of the conversation. So next time you make a killer map, don't just talk about how you did it; talk also about why you made the design choices you did. Let's make it understood that there is more to Cartography than aesthetic sensibilities and technical skill, and encourage all mapmakers to be true Cartographers.

* You'll have a cart attack. Ha!