Assembly-Line Map Elements

Gentle readers, my apologies for being so long in returning to blogging. Inspiration has sometimes been a bit lacking, and when it wasn’t, time was. But be assured I have no plans to abandon this enterprise without notice, though I may take breaks from time to time. I’m also hoping to bring back guest posts to keep things going when I don’t have the time.

On to today’s main event. This morning I received an email from a colleague pointing me in the direction of the GIS Lounge, specifically the recent post there entitled “Ten Things to Consider When Making a Map.” It’s a well-intentioned piece — many people out there who are just starting out begin with the question, “how do I make good maps?”, and there are several other forums and websites out there which give aid to the uninitiated. Unfortunately, the GIS Lounge chose to give the following as one of their pieces of advice:

6. Incorporating Map Elements

Making sure that all map elements are properly applied is important for providing readers with the context of the map.  All maps should have a clear and concise title, scale bar, and north arrow.

I can think of few more misguided statements about cartography. Longtime readers know that I am the head of the Worldwide Campaign to Eliminate Needless North Arrows, as well as the International Crusade Against Useless Scale Bars. Such elements often end up as no more than functionless clutter, yet we are told that they are mandatory all the same. If you click on the link above, you’ll be taken to the GIS Lounge’s list of “required” map elements (edit: shortly after I made this post, the page was changed to no longer call them “required”), including scale bars, north arrows, and legends. To be fair, the GIS Lounge is by no means alone in advising that there are certain things that every map simply must have — such declarations are unfortunately not rare. However, their “What’s in a Map” post is probably the most prescriptive one I’ve seen in a good while.

To begin, the entire concept of a list of “things you must do to make a proper map” is deeply, fundamentally flawed. It’s as misguided as a list of “things you must do to make a good painting,” or “things that make a good story.” Everything is contextual, depending on your audience, the message and mood you want to convey, how the work will be used, etc. It’s impossible to say something is required for every single situation. It’s not just the impracticality that’s a problem, though. The real issue is that such lists of “things maps must have” have their roots in a concept of cartography as a series of steps to follow or pieces to assemble, rather than a holistic art form or craft. Good maps are not made by following a simple mindless procedure or making sure you’ve ticked off all the boxes. That kind of attitude is how maps end up featured on this site. It’s also the only way machines can make maps at the moment, and it’s probably why they’re often so poorly done (see also this post I made on my other blog).

A list of requirements for how to make a good map is dangerous because it tempts beginners into shutting off their critical thinking and their creativity. Rather than consider why something should be done, or trying something new, they simply follow the list. I’ve seen it far too often in students. It also leads people to criticize and think narrowly about otherwise good maps because they don’t fit rigid expectations. Instead of a requirement list, I would say that the best we can do is simply give a list of things to think about when making a map, not things that must be done. To their credit, the GIS Lounge leads off their “Ten Things to Consider” piece with the caveat that these are simply suggestions, “a starting point of things to contemplate.”

Beyond the philosophical problems of actually having a list of required map elements, there are issues with the specific items on the list. Namely, not all maps actually need these elements. Let’s take them one at a time.

Title: Most maps do probably need titles, but it really depends on the context. Something sitting in the midst of a textbook page may have an explanatory caption, instead. A well-done legend often explains what the map is about as clearly and as quickly as a title, as well.

North Arrow: Most maps don’t need a north arrow. I honestly cannot fathom why they are so popular. Consider the following map:

From the US Census Bureau, via Wikimedia Commons

It has no north arrow. Most of us can recognize the United States, and we’re able to, say, determine that Texas is south of Minnesota. Even if we weren’t familiar with the area depicted, we’d probably assume north is toward the top (and, if it’s not, then a north arrow becomes a much more necessary element), as that’s the common convention we’ve learned. But what if you didn’t know this convention and honestly weren’t sure about which way was north? How would you possibly orient yourself? Well, you probably don’t need to. You’re probably not planning on navigating using this map and a compass. Many north arrows on maps aren’t telling you anything you actually need to know, or don’t already know. They’re just in the way.

Of course, worse than having a needless north arrow is an inaccurate one. Consider the Robinson Projection:

From Wikipedia

Dropping a north arrow onto this map would be misleading, because where north is varies based on where you are on the map. It’s not always straight up — sometimes it’s up and to the left, sometimes up and to the right, sometimes straight up. The angle of north varies on most map projections, including the one above. Far better than a north arrow in this case is to use a graticule — the grid of latitude and longitude lines, which shows a reader how the cardinal directions change across the map. But even this is not mandatory — a graticule, like a north arrow, is only useful if people really need to have some idea as to directions. Certainly this happens from time to time — if you’re teaching kindergartners where the continents are, then they probably need that information. But if you’re showing this to a tenured professor, they probably already know that New Zealand is east of Australia.

And I won’t even get in to the times I’ve seen students put north arrows on maps of the South Pole.

Scale: Again, most maps don’t need a scale, either. Will people reading your map really be comparing sizes or measuring distances?  Probably not. Again, this is partly a matter of your audience’s familiarity with the area depicted, but if I’m reading the map below, I really don’t care how far apart the states are:

Of course, the other issue is that, since all map projections necessarily distort, the scale of a map is different everywhere. Sometimes the changes are small enough that it’s not a problem, but a scale bar on a world map is going to be wrong most everywhere. It’s better to leave it off rather than to mislead.

Legend: Finally, many maps can do without legends. For a prime example, have a look again at a map I tackled last year:

The legend on this map is completely pointless. Better to write “Cairanne” next to the big red dot in France and trust that readers will figure it out. Map literacy is much like verbal literacy — people learn certain conventions, and we can rely upon most adult audiences to know these. We know that the red dots are cities, and that the words next to them are the city names. No one needs to tell us that at this age. It’s just a waste of our time and space, and potentially confusing (one can wonder if Cairanne is actually a city out in the Mediterranean). Legends aren’t needed to explain every little tiny symbol; just the ones that your audience won’t know.

As with everything that goes onto a map, conscious thought has to go into application of map elements. They should not be rote, or random. They should be employed with consideration of the map’s purpose and audience. That’s what design is — consciousness. It is misleading to say that legends or scales or other map elements are mandatory, and such statements will only lead to more bad maps. We must teach thoughtfulness and sound judgment, not obedience.

I’ve decided to consolidate the Worldwide Campaign to Eliminate Needless North Arrows and the International Crusade Against Useless Scale Bars into the Global Consortium for the Thoughtful Employment of Map Elements (GCTEME). If you would like to join, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to the following address:

Daniel Huffman
c/o: University of Wisconsin Cartography Lab
550 North Park St.
Madison, WI 53706

I will send you back a letter of membership that looks very official and which will win you respect at NACIS. There are no membership requirements, nor are there actually any benefits. Or activities to speak of, except telling your friends about it.

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17 Responses to “Assembly-Line Map Elements”

  1. 1 Patrick
    13th September, 2011 at 1:45 pm

    I have to say, the standards here vary greatly depending on what you’re mapping. If all of your maps are thematic maps of states or countries, north arrows and scale bars aren’t necessary. But I make maps for Urban Planners, so most of our maps are of cities or portions of cities. Since I occasionally rotate North in order to make things fit better on a page, I always use a north arrow. And though no one will ever navigate with my maps, scale bars are very important, because they allow planners to have a sense of how large an unfamiliar area is.

    So, with the maps above the elements are unimportant because the areas are so familiar. But I never have that issue.

    • 2 Daniel Huffman
      13th September, 2011 at 1:59 pm

      Absolutely — I think in a planning context, those sorts of elements are critical, and I can understand having, say, an organization-wide standard which says that all of a planning department’s maps must feature scales and north arrows.

      And I did forget to mention that a north arrow is particularly useful when rotating away from north being up. I will amend things.


  2. 3 Ryan Clark
    13th September, 2011 at 3:56 pm

    What do you think about situations where there may be some sort of precedent or expectation that a certain type of map or certain map series contain specific surround elements?

    For example, most of the maps that I make are geologic maps. Classically, these maps are targeted at a group of people who are likely to take the piece of paper out into the field and use it to locate geologic features of interest. As a result, the precedent has been set that a geologic map has a topographic basemap, a north arrow, an indication of magnetic declination, a scale bar, some UTM grids, etc. Useful in that situation, but increasingly the maps are not brought into the field, and are only displayed on computer screens either as .pdf or through some sort of web mapping application.

    The geologists who assemble the information to make these maps, even though their use-cases for viewing them may have changed, often don’t like the “online” portrayal unless they contain those elements they expect on a classic map. Who is right? The cartographer may insist that the surround elements are unnecessary, but the geologist may not like the finished piece unless they are present. The painter may know that the painting is a masterpiece, but if the guy who commissioned it isn’t pleased…

    Also, I am excited to join the GCTEME.

    • 4 Daniel Huffman
      13th September, 2011 at 4:08 pm

      It’s an interesting point to consider. In the end, the audience is the bottom line, and I would probably go along with what’s traditional if it means people are more likely to actually use the map, though I might try and at least minimize some of those unnecessary elements so that they’re there, but not as prominent. What people expect from maps is very much based on what they’re used to seeing, and creating maps with these needless elements can perpetuate a cycle wherein we have to add them, because our audience wants them, but our audience only wants them because they’re used to seeing them, not because they need them. Education, and leaving them off when we can get away with it, can hopefully break the cycle. In the end, I’d go with whoever is paying for the map. If I disagree with what a client asks me to do, I will do it, but I also try and explain to them why I might suggest doing things a different way. Glad to have you aboard.


  3. 5 Daniel
    13th September, 2011 at 4:17 pm

    The counterexamples that immediately came to my mind when I read the “maps must always have scale bars” were maps which are deliberately not drawn to scale. A truly classic example would probably be Beck’s map of the London Underground but there lots and lots of other examples out there.

  4. 6 Daniel Boulet
    13th September, 2011 at 5:11 pm

    Oops! – that last comment referencing Beck’s London Underground maps was me – not the mysterious Daniel Huffman.

  5. 14th September, 2011 at 8:21 am

    I learned a lot in your blog, fun stuff, silly stories and emotional. Long ago I follow your thread. So much so that inspired me to carry out my blog. I congratulate you for your work, people will follow and much more. I will picks the other side of the world, a small country called Catalonia within Spain, with different language and culture in Spanish, with a different style and roots are different. My blog tries to make it known to as many people as best as possible. I like mine, many more. Thanks for your patience and congratulations to you all.

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  6. 8 DaveB
    19th September, 2011 at 8:15 am

    Please accept my application for entry into GCTEME

    I’ve long been a proponent of the worthy causes you espouse here. Needless and inaccurate north arrows and scale bars, redundant and misleading legends, inaccurate (often wildly so, depending on where you are on a map) verbal scales, and the like, should be left off of maps whenever possible. Of course, sometimes client/audience expectations require them, but sometimes part of our job is to educate our map-readers and map-users. Even when a legend is correct and understandable it isn’t always needed. It’s better to label features on the map if you can. Especially when there are only a small number of features, like the Cairanne example.

    Keep up the good work!

    • 9 Daniel Huffman
      22nd September, 2011 at 12:15 am

      Thanks for the kind words. I’m thinking of bringing a few membership letters to NACIS to distribution to all who wish. You can pick one up then if you’ll be there =).


  7. 10 Chris Gavin
    25th September, 2011 at 1:04 am

    Since you mentioned these “standards” a few weeks ago, I have been thinking about the reasons behind the proliferation of unnecessary map elements. I think the problem is largely threefold: 1) GIS users and instructors are often poorly trained in proper map design techniques, 2) the proliferation of digital maps and digital mapping software has turned any person with a computer into faux cartographers, and 3) peoples’ obsessions with classification, simplification, and standardization are attempting to remove all forms of artistic license from cartography.

    1) As a GIS user and student, I have often been immersed in this world of poorly designed and ineffective maps. I have even often been a culprit of producing poorly organized and ignorant maps. This comment is not meant as an indictment of the entire GIS world, but my select experiences have contributed to this opinion. During my time as both an undergraduate and graduate student, every GIS course I have taken has included map production. But, a minute number of these courses has included PROPER map production. Instructions like: “You also need to include the basic cartographic elements in the map: legend, title, your name and date, north arrow, scale bar, and neatline” and similar statements have often been included in teaching lab assignments. This one series of instructions largely supports my opinion. The third word in this statement is extremely striking to me, the word “need.” This almost repeats the GIS Lounge’s statement verbatim. In cartography, like you state in your posting, saying that you need to have certain elements is simply reckless. The ultimate goal of any map is to convey a message to a certain audience. If a north arrow or a scale bar makes a significant contribution to conveying the mapper’s message, then yes, by all means they should be included. But just because you can add a north arrow or scale bar, doesn’t mean you should. This is largely an issue with GIS software. For example, ArcMap and Idrisi allow you to easily choose a scale bar or north arrow from a series, oftentimes without even considering their usefulness, and too many maps are produced solely within these environments. I think that addressing this issue in the students’ initial GIS training would do wonders for curtailing some of these issues.

    2) In today’s computer-based world, anyone can produce a map and many can produce a lousy map. Just simply Google searching for “United States map” will produce a large range of Easter-egg, pastel colored states, common use of the “geographic” projection, and haphazard layouts. This largely selects a significant lack of knowledge pertaining to proper map communication techniques. This consistent barrage of less than adequate maps is subconsciously and negatively impacting the way people think about maps. Just as Brooks Hatlen experienced in The Shawshank Redemption, as people become consistently exposed to inadequacies, they can often become dependent on and comfortable with these weaknesses. Addressing these issues is a much more complex issue than education because the freedom and anonymity of the internet will likely make it impossible to address this portion of the problem.

    3) Finally, the constant attempt to create standards, classify things, and simplify complex issues is also an important issue that should be addressed. With computer-processing speed and analytical capabilities significantly improving, more information is produced at greater rates than ever seen before. With this proliferation of data, we see some oversight with the final presented product. This has led some organizations to attempt to over-simplify their map production in order to save priceless time. Maps are not simple creations, they take tremendous time, effort, and contemplation to become effective. In order to be an effective cartographer, creative license is essential. Without creativity, there is no cartography.

    • 7th October, 2011 at 3:23 pm

      Chris, (in your third point above) I wonder if you’re not confusing the call to simplify the content with the push to expedite production?

      The call to simplify cartographic output is usually aimed at clarifying the maps message to make it a more effective communication tool. Somewhat paradoxically “simplification” in this context takes more effort and time than just piling it all on. Map refinement (the real art & science of cartography IMO), takes time and a certain understanding of visual communication. Overly detailed, complex and cluttered maps are more likely to be the result of rushed production than purposeful crafting of a complex message.

      For standards, although we don’t want to create sets of rules that can not be broken it is important to understand that we should be able to defend our design choices against arbitrary taste preferences (paraphrasing Tufte here). Standards guide our application of design and when creating maps that deal with strong scientific or analytical messages it’s important that our work is not haphazardly (or impulsively) created. We need to think about why we are making certain design choices and standards give us a base to work from as well as support the choices we make. Again, as with simplification, its often the maps that don’t adhere to any standards that look the worst. Its important to note that I’m not simply talking about universal cartographic standards (not that there are many) but even personal standards that may have been developed for only one map. Having no foundation for your approach to mapping means that even within a single map, a lack of standards will show up in mismatched style choices, unintelligible styles or classifications etc.

      So, from my perspective, its not really the attempt to create standards that’s an issue but the portrayal of these standards as rigid instead of instructive. We need design standards, but more importantly map makers need to be taught how (and when) to use those standards and to think critically about map production rather than treat it as the application of a series of rules and preformed graphics applied to their data.

    • 12 Mōno
      20th January, 2012 at 3:54 am

      With any industry you’ll find people who don’t take their trade seriously. However, in all my years of attending GIS and other map related conferences and events I’ve never come across a Geography/GIS instructor who didn’t understand the idea of “cartographic license” where as a map maker you have the ability to choose which elements and features appear on a map.

      Students from other disciplines who see GIS a “neat” skill to pick-up (or take a GIS course to satisfy a ge requirement) are typically more interested in playing around with the symbols and pushing out a semester project than understanding concepts of graphical hierarchy, MAUP, or how to properly display quantitative data. These students are more likely the culprit than the poorly trained instructor or an instructor failing to critique student work.

      While the proliferation of desktop GIS and other mapping application certainly contributes under-trained users using bad techniques, the fact is the general public has no appreciation or respect for art and science that is cartography. When newbies see advertising which claim they can make a map in 15 minutes it essentially says map-making is low-level skill, no intelligence needed.

      As for Daniel’s crusade to banish unnecessary north arrows and scale bars, while I agree some elements are not needed all the time (mostly dependent on scale), I really don’t see how they hurt as long as they are placed in the lowest level of the graphical hierarchy – that is to say the elements are blended into the background, small, and unobtrusive to the main elements.

  8. 13 Jesse Langdon
    15th November, 2011 at 1:36 am

    Great blog, just discovered it. I have to admit that I’m probably guilty of adding unneeded north arrows and scales. Here are some other possible drivers behind the ubiquity of these elements:

    1. Need to fill up “empty” space
    2. Make the map look more “authoritative”
    3. Unsure of the map’s lifespan… will this map be used once in a meeting (and then thrown in the recycling bin), or will you end up seeing someone using it in the field 5 years from now? If so, perhaps you can anticipate those potential uses?

    Keep up the great work… I look forward to more posts!

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