23
Oct
09

The Eiffel Tower is not a Building

Good day, gentle readers. I am lately returned from a couple of trips to lands outside of Wisconsin. NACIS was wonderful, and it was great to meet many of you in Sacramento. While there, I learned that Tom Patterson, creator of the Kenai Fjords map which I praised in my last post, was slightly disappointed that I did not point out anything negative about his work.  Looking it over again, I will say that, for the elevation marker points on his map (mountain tops and sea valleys), the labels positioning could be more consistent.

I’m really nitpicky. My students love it. At least, that’s how I interpret their annoyed stares.

The subject of today’s post is once again one of my own works. This is in response to a conversation with my adviser, Mark Harrower, who pointed out that most any map, from the best to the worst, could be improved by some critique. I have previously featured one of my worst maps on here — Mark challenged me to instead show him one of my best, and then post his comments on it. So I picked my favorite, a map about the tallest buildings in Europe during the last 125+ years:

Rising Skyline, by Daniel Huffman

Rising Skyline, by Daniel Huffman

Rising Skyline detail

Rising Skyline detail

RS_Legend

Legend

Here’s what Mark had to say (and he warns that some of these are nitpicky — his students, too, love it):

“The categorical color scheme for the kinds of buildings doesn’t work to my (r-g colorblind) eyes. Hospital and museum look identical.”

He’s quite right – I’m always embarrassed by this sort of thing, forgetting to design for people with abnormal color vision. Actually, I’m surprised that it was Hospital (pink) and Museum (grey) that got him. I would have figured on Religious (red) and Residential (green), but I suppose those two colors are distinct enough in lightness that they’re still separable.

“I don’t like that you have both vertical and horizontal timelines, it requires too much work to get this, and the vertical timeline took some time for me to understand in part because going down is more recent. Physical geographers/geologists like their vertical timelines too, but I think they arrange them with newest at top? Nonetheless, for most users I suspect a left-to-right timeline would be more graspable (oldest on left).”

When I started putting this map together, one of the people I showed it to didn’t like the “empty” spaces along the left and bottom of the map. I responded by adding in these timelines. This is probably one of the worst justifications you can give for adding something to a map: “I needed to fill space.” The vertical timeline was vertical because I needed to cover a vertical space. I think the data are interesting, to be sure, and related to the subject of the map, but it could do without such a timeline. Or a much smaller one. I did a redesign of this map recently for inclusion in a textbook. I had to shrink it from its normal size of 24″ x 18″ to about 6″ across, so I had to cut out the graphs. I think it looked better, less cluttered, with the graphs gone. Empty space is nothing to fear. Sometimes it’s a problem, but I think I went overboard in trying to fill it with graphs and little annotation boxes.

“The data are interesting but I’m not convinced they need to be mapped. Is there a spatial pattern to see here, beyond the obvious one that big cities tend to have more tall buildings? Does the spatial arrangement of these cities tell us something about the data we couldn’t learn from a table? Is space causal?”

I go back and forth on this one — I think there’s possibly something spatial going on. There’s a Communist East vs. Capitalist West story throughout part of the data, though that connection is not as clear as it would be if I mapped another data set along with it, showing something economic (which would, likewise, have to have a symbol that can convey 125+ years of data). Many times a phenomenon is not driven by where on the Earth’s surface it is, but by the fact that it happens to share a location with another phenomenon. I didn’t make that as clear as I could have (I’ve got some annotation going on which helps).  I think there’s also a story of spatial concentration going on here – big buildings becoming something that only big cities have, whereas many small towns had impressive structures prior to the 1950s. But, again, I don’t include a data set that really emphasizes the population differences between places.

“I would like to increase opacity behind the timelines so they don’t need to compete so much with the underlying (and irrelevant) basemap in the corners. The actual data (the lines) are easily upstaged by the basemap and fade effects.”

He’s quite right about that, in my opinion. The lines in the graphs would be easier to follow and focus on if Europe wasn’t going on behind them. Of course, I suspect that if I made the opacity higher, the graphs would start standing out too much — they’re already distracting from the main map. Another good reason to ditch them.

“I don’t know the names of any of the buildings – maybe you could label the lines (at least with some of the famous landmarks?). Without names of buildings, there is nothing to anchor my understanding to (e.g., I know the Eiffel Tower, etc.) – they’re just name-less lines around circles.”

People are probably going to be looking at this map for things that they know. Fun fact: the Eiffel Tower isn’t included here, because it didn’t fit my definition of “building” (which was a tricky thing to nail down). It’s a minor touch, but one that could give people a lot better connection to the data on this map.

One final issue that I have been thinking about lately with this project: it’s pretty complex. Look at that legend — reader education is definitely necessary before engaging with the map. It’s difficult to strike a balance between the transparency of the interface (how easily you get the data off the map) and the depth of the data. I wanted to design this as something you can stick on your wall — I wanted to give it enough substance and complexity that it’s worth examining at some length. Whether or not I have achieved that balance is something I can’t really answer, though.

Before I leave off, I wanted to point out just how much this map was affected by critique earlier down the line in the design process. Here’s what it looked like when I thought I was done:

OldEuropeI showed this to my boss, Tanya Buckingham, here at the UW Cartography Lab, to ask for her advice, as I was planning on entering this into some competitions. Looking back over the comments she made, I notice that she also suggested ditching the vertical timeline and combining it with the horizontal one. She also suggested getting rid of the really big coastal glow and making it more subtle, which advice I took. Drop shadows, glows, etc. should probably not scream “LOOK AT ME I DID SOMETHING FANCY!” The darker color scheme was also as a result of her urging. Both the scheme she suggested, and the one I eventually went with, do a better job of pulling the city dots out from the background and bringing the data to the front of the map.

Writing this up gives me the urge to go back and try and improve it the map, but the process is never done, I suppose. There just comes a time when you must decide it’s good enough.

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4 Responses to “The Eiffel Tower is not a Building”


  1. 28th October, 2009 at 5:18 pm

    For me the big problem with this map is the overly complex nature of the symbology. The amount and type of data each symbol is trying to convey makes frequent referrals to the legend a necessity breaking up map reading. It cause that phenomenon where you just stop reading the map, look it over and move on with no information absorbed.

    The symbol scale and map scale are such that no specific geographic information is being passed along. I not only do not know where the buildings are but in many cases I’m not exactly sure where the city is either since it’s true footprint is obscured by an oversized symbol. The city tracks are neat but they give the impression of a level of detail that is really absent any extra dimension. Paris for example has a complex building track collection that looks very detailed but is hard to read without frequent trips back to legend and offers no specific info on the buildings being represented (name, height, specific location). Ultimately I think one of your reviewers was right that this is not really map worthy data, I don’t learn anything from placement on the map that couldn’t be covered in a decent chart or table.

    The map design itself on the other hand is very well done. It has a night time feel that’s easy to read and really pops the symbology. This would be a great style for mapping nighttime geographic phenomena.

  2. 2 mosim
    24th February, 2011 at 4:42 am

    @ David, consider his audience, he wanted people to take their time on it. Not the casual 10 seconds, reveal a story and move on.

    Agreed, I’m left feeling “so what?” and think the data could have easily been achieved on a chart. However, I really enjoy the clock symbology – quite clever. To note, I think the Swinging Pendulum is the most interesting part of the map – as maps should, this part leaves you with more questions than answers. I Would like to see the country borders (recent or depictions of borders during this time applied for context). I think I would have filled the “blank” space with a profile of the top three cities showing the actual “skyline” with more building info if appropriate. Agreed, the charts are bit much.

    The dark effect is nice, I’m not sure what came first, Tayna or Risk: Black Ops (an interesting map). Either way, I’ve used the dark design in some maps since Risk B.O. to a good degree of success.

  3. 4th June, 2011 at 3:58 pm

    I first saw this map on somethingaboutmaps and thought “if he hadn’t produced it himself, he’d have it over on cartostraphe, surely”, so i’m glad you do.

    Way too complex and unintuitive. A wasted effort, maybe.

    (I like the others on somethingaboutmaps, though.)


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