Archive for the 'Excellence' Category


The 1940s Happened in Greyscale

Today we continue our trend of occasionally looking at positive, rather than negative, examples of cartography. I wanted to show off a map by Michael Bricknell, a student at the University of Wisconsin, which concerns the balloon bomb attacks on the US by Japan during the Second World War, and which recently won first prize at the Wisconsin Land Information Association’s annual conference.

Reported Balloon Bomb Incidents, by Michael Bricknell


Another detail

The colors are what really make this map, in my opinion. I am a big fan of subtle color schemes, which leave most of the crayons in the box. I think they’re easier on the eyes; they don’t shout at you with a bright rainbow that demands attention. Here, a simple palette of greys and reds goes a long way toward focusing the reader’s eyes and establishing a visual hierarchy. Imagine if this map were made with a bright blue ocean and green land and brown type — how well would the red dots stand out then? A reduced, subtle palette makes it a lot easier to bring the important information into the foreground — to create a figure-ground contrast, between what’s critical and what’s supplementary. It’s also an emotionally appropriate aesthetic, I believe. We’re dealing with topics of war and violence. Again, subdued colors fit the subject matter’s tone — bright colors would be out of place here.

The map feels a little like a 1940s intelligence report on the subject. The title typeface and the face used on the captions for each panel has a nicely militaristic feel. The greyscale, while advantageous for the other reasons mentioned above, is also very much suited to the time period. Color printing and color film were rare, and so the most of us who weren’t alive during that time tend to imagine World War II as taking place in a greyscale world.

Finally, I’ll point out the graph at the bottom. It’s quite efficient. It aligns nicely with the map of the North Pacific, and packs two graphs into one space — elevation of the balloons and the number recovered at different longitude ranges. The day/night shading is a helpful addition, as it emphasizes the sense of time better than the scale of hours along the bottom can do on its own.

In all, a worthy effort. An interesting story with a strong, coherent aesthetic behind it.

I have focused only on the positive in this post, but a more balanced treatment, positive and negative, of the work would be beneficial. In fact, when sharing his map with me, Mr. Bricknell requested constructive criticisms. In an effort to generate audience engagement, I am posing to you, the reader, a challenge (as suggested by Mr. Bricknell). Please leave comments containing your own critique of his work. I will hold back the rest of my opinions for now, to avoid unduly influencing you.


Two Steps Removed From a Photograph

Hey everyone,

As promised, something a little different this time. We learn a lot from the mistakes of others, to be sure, but we can learn from their successes as well. There are many great maps out there which inspire me to keep going, to keep making myself better. And, of course, there’s something to be said for looking at things that are beautiful.

So, today I’ll make a few comments about one of my favorite maps, which I fell in love a couple of years ago when an instructor of mine used it on his intro cartography syllabus.

Kenai Fjords National Park, by Tom Patterson. Click to go to National Parks Service viewer where you can see the image in more detail.

Kenai Fjords National Park, by Tom Patterson. Click to go to National Parks Service viewer where you can see the map in more detail.

Detail of Kenai Fjords Map

Detail of Kenai Fjords Map

This is a map of Kenai Fjords National Park, in Alaska, by Tom Patterson, one of the masters of creating terrain relief. Not only is he great at it, but he has a website which helps explain his techniques to anyone interested: Shaded Relief. You can also find some nice, freely available, premade relief images for the entire globe.

The most obvious great thing about this map is the relief. I’ve provided a detail above, but you should click on the first image, which takes you to the National Park Service map viewer, and browse around the image in detail yourself. This is not just some quick, automatically generated terrain relief that you put together in ArcGIS. Those can look decent, but the Kenai Fjords map is a huge step beyond what most people do. I am not sure as to the exact details of its creation, but he has clearly done a lot of manual work here, airbrushing in Photoshop or some similar program, carefully choosing his colors to show shadows, vegetation patterns, etc. The detail is incredible. I mean, you can even see a fine snow texturing on the top of the ice/snow dome and the glaciers. And small mountain peaks poking up through the snow. This thing is just one or two steps removed from a photograph — just far enough away from one that it doesn’t have that weird mismatched feeling that I get from looking at satellite photo that have been labeled with simple symbols and clean type, as though there are 1000-foot-high letters on the ground. He did his job well, and that means that you don’t notice most of the effort he had to go to. It looks right, it looks natural — nothing sticks out as being obviously wrong or feeling artificial. He even carries the relief into the water, so that the land doesn’t look like it’s sitting on a flat plane.

I will speculate, however, that the beauty of this relief is probably helped out a bit by the fact that the actual terrain of this region in Alaska is, itself, beautiful and interesting (applying this same technique in Kansas would likely produce something less stunning). Nonetheless, it would be easy to fail at doing justice to such terrain.

The labeling and other symbols on the map are still clear, despite what goes on underneath them — they’re not overpowered by the terrain relief. I also like the parts which show how the glaciers have receded in the last century. This is not just a pretty map — it’s a functional one that conveys data.

As I’m writing this, I’m finding it’s a lot more challenging to pick out what’s good about a map than it is to discuss what’s bad. This, again, links to what I said above about how, when things are well done, they’re harder to notice. A bad color scheme sticks out. A good color scheme draws little attention, because it just feels like it’s suppose to be that way. Likewise with the text — above, Mr. Patterson does a fine job of separating text styles. The type used for glaciers looks different than the type for islands and the type for the ranger station, because those are all different classes of things. It looks good, but you don’t think about it because it’s generally what you’re supposed to do.

As I do more of these posts, I hope to get better at pointing out the good side of things, as well. It is, in fact, one reason that I am engaging in this exercise. Meanwhile, I encourage you all to chime in about your favorite (or, if feeling critical, least favorite) parts of this map in the comments section. And keep sending me maps you like (or don’t), and tell me why.

I’m flying out to California next week to attend the annual meeting of the North American Cartography Information Society. I may be off the radar for a bit, but I hope that I will have a chance to meet some of you there.


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