Archive for the 'Reference' Category


A Village Floating off the Coast

Today’s contribution comes from my friend Kate, the one with whom I was recently on a Michigan wine tour. This is a map which heads an article on the village of Cairanne and the wines which originate there:

Copyrighted by Click to visit site.

There seems to be some sort of notion out there that every map needs a legend. That, somehow, it’s not a map anymore if it doesn’t have one. This is patently untrue. If you know your audience can easily figure out how to read your symbols, you can probably skip it (or, at least, minimize it). Legends are for imparting literacy when your think audience lacks it. They are frequently needed, but not indispensable.

The legend on this map is clearly dispensable. I cannot fathom why the name of the village was not labeled right next to the giant red dot. Instead, the artist created a legend at the bottom to explain what the giant red dot means. His or her choices suggest the following assumptions were being made about audience:

  • Readers have the skills to figure out that Paris, Dijon, etc. are at the locations of the dots found near those words.
  • Those same readers would not understand what it meant if the word “Cairanne” were similarly placed next to a big red dot in France.
  • But they will, however, know what it means if the word “Cairanne” is placed next to a big red dot outside of France.
  • Readers will know that the big red dot outside France is meant to represent the big red dot inside France.

Some of these assumptions are more questionable than others, to put it mildly. In fact, because of the nonsensical nature of assumption number two, the legend makes this map harder to read. As Kate writes, this map had her “confused for almost a minute about whether they thought Cairanne was in Spain.” Probably because she assumed that the artist would label the big red dot in France as “Cairanne” if it were Cairanne. She was confused because she didn’t think that the map artist might have considered her too dumb to figure it out without a legend.

While we are on the giant red dot, I might strongly recommend making it not so giant. Cairanne is a small village. But the dot pattern on the map gives a subtle impression that Cairanne is huge and Paris is insignificant. The artist wants Cairanne to stand out, understandably. But there are better ways to establish a visual hierarchy on this map, for example by changing the colors of the non-Cairanne cities and dots to fade a little more into the background, and making the Cairanne dot the same size as (or only slightly larger than) the non-Cairanne dots, while still keeping it red so that it pops out.

Meanwhile, making its long-awaited return to this blog, it looks like we’ve got another great example of the Island Effect going on here! Just north of France is some water, indicated in white. Just east of France is some land, indicated in white. Thus, France looks like it’s floating off in the sea, lacking any geographic context. Now, I don’t think this is always a problem — it’s perfectly fine to have a map that shows France and nothing else at times. Here, however, the author is very inconsistent in his or her treatment of geographic context. It seems senseless to show some bits of contextual information (the names of some countries) and leave off others (a little bit of land showing where those countries are). It’s also strange to mark Italy, Spain, and Belgium, while leaving Luxembourg, Germany, and Switzerland off the map. Either France’s surroundings are important, or they’re not. To my mind, it should either be an island and the sole thing on the map, or it should be shown in its full European context with all its neighbors. Going halfway just looks sloppy.

Finally, it’s worth noting that the copyright for this map is placed in a bit of an odd position. It’s between the map and the legend, very much visually in the way. I appreciate the owners of the work wanting to ensure they’re credited, but it could be put less obtrusively in the corner.

One Nice Thing: At least the artist thought to include some geographic context. I can imagine a lot of places would just throw an outline of France on the page, with a dot for Cairanne and nothing else. For people familiar with Paris, Bordeaux, etc., this map helps to give them reference points.

Not every map needs a legend. Nor does every map need several of the other common map elements, for that matter. If I scrounge up a few good examples, I may write a post to kick off my Worldwide Campaign to Eliminate Needless North Arrows, and my International Crusade Against Useless Scale Bars.


The Vanishing Kingdom

Yesterday evening, I was having a conversation with one of my roommates about Beaver Island, which lay in the north of Lake Michigan. It’s a sizable chunk of land with some interesting history. It was, at one point in the 19th century, home to a kingdom inhabited by a breakaway Latter-Day Saints sect, until the US government facilitated the assassination of its eccentric ruler and the ejection of the Mormon settlers. While mentioning the island to my roommate, I pulled up Google Maps in order to show him where it is. Except it wasn’t there. An entire archipelago, in fact, was missing from the map. Compare the satellite photo to the map and note the difference:

Screenshots from Google Maps, 6/29/10

Perhaps more amusing is the fact that, when you zoom in sufficiently, the road network for Beaver Island (which has a population of about 650, according to Census estimates) still appears.

Screenshot from Google Maps, 6/29/10

Now, I don’t know how the sausage is made over at Google, but I’m guessing it’s a mostly automated process, given the magnitude of their undertaking. And this is what happens when you let computers keep running with insufficient oversight. This is not exactly a tiny island — it’s 55 square miles, and given how large of a scale Google lets you zoom in to, it’s not something that should be left off. Whatever algorithm they’ve used to generalize their data, it’s in need of tweaking. It’s leaving some smaller islands, but eliminating larger ones. Note the smaller Manitou Islands in the south of the first images above, marked as Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Despite being uninhabited and smaller than Beaver Island, they made it on the map. One of them is rather terribly distorted, however — the polygon is way too simplified for the scale.

It’s been said over and over again, but it’s still worth hearing: be careful when using Google Maps and its cousins. There are very few human hands in their creation, and not enough of the scrutiny required to prevent gaffes of this magnitude. Of course, you should be careful when using any map; once humans start making the data and design decisions rather than computers, major geographical errors may become infrequent, but more insidious problems crop up, as we discussed a few months ago.

This is also where learning lots of random geographic facts can be handy. It’s easier to catch the omission of Beaver Island if you know ahead of time that it exists. This is how I justify spending way too much time on Sporcle taking geography quizzes — it will hopefully make me less likely to make an error like the above.

The lessons from today’s map are obvious, but it’s always good to be reminded from time to time of the importance of careful editing. And the end result is a bit amusing here.

One Nice Thing: At least they’ve got a form on the page which I can use to report this error.

Tomorrow marks one year of blogging here on Cartastrophe. I really wasn’t sure that this experiment was going to last more than a few months, but your comments and emails and support have kept things lively. I appreciate your coming along for the ride. To all who have sent submissions: thank you. I don’t use all of them, but I appreciate everyone keeping an eye out and thinking of me, and hope you will keep doing so. This blog has been great for my own growth as a designer, and I hope that you have gained something from it, as well.

Finally, it comes to my attention that there’s another blog out there in a similar vein to my own. If you’d like a double dose of map critique, have a look at Misguided Maps.


The Uncanny Valley of Color

Hello, everyone. Apologies for my absence — I was challenging John Krygier for the “most dormant map blog” award, before surrendering to his superior non-updating skill. Actually, I’ve just been occupied with my classes and work at UW-Madison, as I prepare for them to evict me from the security of graduate school and into the world of “unemployment.”

I found a copy of today’s map sitting in an office in the UW Geography Department. It’s a world wall map, about 36″ x 20″, and is marked as being produced by Portal Publications, Ltd, of Novarto, CA. They appear to have folded in 2008, after renaming themselves in 2007 to Innovative Art.

Published by Portal Publications, date unknown

Mercator. On a world reference map. I’ve said this before, but I will repeat: Mercator is great if you’re a navigator, especially one in 16th century Europe. Its usefulness pretty much stops there. This map is not intended to be used for sailing from Japan to Taiwan, so I’m pretty sure another projection is called for.

The colors. Oh, the colors. You see, a lot of world maps have what you call hypsometric tinting — colors that indicate elevations. You’re probably familiar with the classic scheme of green lowlands, transitioning to yellows and oranges and browns as elevation rises, and finishing off with white for the mountaintops. On the other hand, I am wholly uncertain as to what is going on with the colors on the map above. The lightest areas are in northeast Russia, which is certainly not the tallest place in the world. So, perhaps instead of elevation, the colors are depicting land cover, and showing a snowy Russia? But then, why is northern Canada marked with verdant plains (in an area labeled on the map as “barrengrounds”)? And why is Europe completely free of green areas? It’s certainly got areas as lush as the east coast of the USA, which is marked green on this map, and it certainly has lowlands at the same elevation as other places which are marked green. I cannot make heads or tails of the color scheme, and there’s no key included. It’s like the uncanny valley of hypsometric or land-cover tinting — it’s close enough that it looks normal when you walk by without thinking, but then when you actually have a look at it, it starts weirding you out. I was going to tag this map as being unkind to those with color vision deficiencies, but I think it’s also unkind to people with normal color vision, so I’ll skip it.

While we’re on the subject of elevation, have a closer look at Asia:

Asia detail

Tibet, over in the lower right corner of the image, has some of the world’s tallest mountains, included Mt. Everest. You may have heard of it. However, on this map, it looks relatively flat compared to the giant peaks of west and central Russia, which are apparently about 30 miles high if you are comparing with Tibet. This may be because of the tinting again, and/or because of the hillshading, but I would not rely on the terrain representation to have much connection to reality. Unless you need a guide to a parallel Earth where most of Turkey is higher than Tibet.

That being said, I do kind of like the highly generalized, faceted appearance the terrain has. It’s not unnecessarily detailed, and lends a sort of “crystalline” aesthetic — almost like the map was carved out of rock, and then smoothed out a bit. Kind of like the actual Earth. I think it’s well generalized for the purpose.

Before I move away from this image, notice the Aral sea, in the center. It’s a different shade of blue than every other body of water on the map. A much brighter blue. The only thing I can think of is that perhaps the artist had some outdated data on the Aral Sea (which has changed in size and shape considerably over the past few decades), and had to replace it at the last minute and somehow they couldn’t match the colors. It has an almost pasted-in appearance.

On to labels…

Europe detail

The labeling here is a vast mess of black ink.

On the image above, I count seven types of labels: Countries, capital cities, other cities, islands, individual mountains, mountain ranges, rivers, and seas. These very different things are being represented by very similar looking labels. It’s hard to see the label for Spain and the label for Serbia as being the same type of thing, and as being separate from whatever is represented by the label for “Rome,” for example. The label styles aren’t creating a hierarchy or establishing distinctions. Now, I know a little about Europe, so I know that Croatia and Italy are both countries. But if I knew nothing of Europe, this map would be pretty confusing, and I imagine I would be left wondering, in some cases, whether a label represented a country or a city. Look at Serbia and Belgrade — it looks to me like Belgrade is the country and Serbia the city. Using multiple colors for the labels would help, as would using something like small caps for the countries, or even another typeface. Admittedly, the terrain colors limit the options for label colors, which is perhaps another strike against them.

Speaking of countries, where are the borders for Poland? Or Switzerland? They’re pretty hard to see, both on the scan and in the print. The map labels all the countries of the world (which helps date it to the early 1990s, as well), but the borders rarely show up clearly. If it’s worth putting on the map, it’s worth putting on the map in a way that people can actually see.

The labeling would also be less confusing if it were not so dense, which means that it’s hard to associate a label with a specific feature, or place them very clearly and cleanly. I’m not sure why there are so many cities on this map. It’s nice to have them for a general reference map, but I imagine it would still look fine on your wall if it was missing Arad, Romania. Time to cut some out place out — simplify, to make things easier to read. You reach a point where adding more information simply obscures information already on the map, having a net effect of making your map less and less useful as you pile more data onto it.

Can you find the label that says “Alps”? I spent quite a time figuring out what the letter “A” was doing by itself in France, before I realized that it was part of a word that was so spread out that my brain stopped processing it as one word. While tracking out labels to mimic the area of a feature is a useful practice, it can be taken too far. Especially, again, if you’re trying to educate people who are unfamiliar with the relevant geography. If I didn’t know where the Alps were, or what they were called, I don’t think this map would tell me.

I’ll also briefly mention that I looked at a few cities in the USA, and their city dots are way off in their placement, so I wouldn’t necessarily trust it to point out where some of these places actually are.

One Nice Thing: I like their use of Tanaka’s illuminated contours:

Arguably, you can criticize it for its stair-stepped appearance, but I find the aesthetic interesting and attractive. It’s still requires painstaking manual effort, so it’s still rare, unfortunately. It’s rarer, still, in my experience, to see it on something other than a greyscale background. I think it does a nice job of bringing out the continental shelf.

Also, don’t know what’s going on with the little white trapezoids in the north. I think they represent the frozen nature of the north pole.

Special thanks to Jaime Stoltenberg at the Arthur Robinson Map Library for running this through the large-format scanner for me.


Finding a Doctor in Non-Geographic Space

I sometimes feel bad about this, but I’m going to let a map I just received today jump to the front of the queue, as it was in the right place at the right time. This one comes from my colleague Tim Wallace, who was sitting next to me filling out a health insurance form.


From the 2009 UW Health Directory, located at

It may surprise those of you who are not from the area to learn that Dane County, Wisconsin, does not look very much like that. The rigid lines of the Public Land Survey System, combined with the Wisconsin River, have left us with something that looks more like this:


Taken from Wikipedia article on Dane County.

Now, that being said, the fact that this map has a very high level of generalization is not inherently problematic. There are lots of very generalized, even cartoonish maps out there.  It depends on the purpose and audience of your map, and sometimes fine details are not important. But I think they significantly overdid it here. It looks rather comic, and this clashes with the professional application (a healthcare provider directory) to which it’s being put. It seems haphazard and only loosely related to reality, and that makes me doubt the rest of the information that goes in to it.

The real lesson from today’s map, which applies to a lot of maps out there, is that it should not have been made. It conveys no useful spatial information. I can’t use it to figure out how to get to any of the UW clinics, and while I can sort of tell where clinics are in relation to each other (the heavy generalization makes that an estimate at best), that’s not really useful information unless you choose your health clinic based on its proximity to other clinics or cities. “I’m sorry, the village of McFarland has asked that I stay at least 10 miles away at all times, so I’ll need a clinic an appropriate distance away.” So, barring bizarre circumstances, I cannot tell how having a map is better than having a table of clinic locations. A table would, in fact, be significantly more useful, because you could use the clinic address to actually figure out how to get there. Not everything that has a location needs to be mapped, or can be usefully mapped.

Also, if you compare the two maps above, you will notice that the city dots for the clinic map don’t really bear a lot of resemblance to where those communities actually are in Dane county. And, in case you’re wondering, I spot checked this against the addresses for the clinics in Belleville and Verona, and it still did not match. The dots have only the loosest connection to reality. If geography really means so little here, why make a map? Again, a table would be better. The only reason the author of today’s map can get away with this level of generalization and haphazard dot placement is because the map is scarcely conveying any geographic information.

The labeling could be better, though it’s not horrible. It needs more consistency in how far the label is positioned relative to the dot. Look at Cross Plains vs. Waunakee. Why not put them both directly under the dot center, if that’s what you’re going for? And this is not to mention the lack of corner positions. It is conventional, and, as I have often been taught, rather easier to read, if you put the label in a corner position — that is, up and to the right of the dot, or down and to the left, etc. Fitchburg is also ambiguously placed — the label is about the same distance from two different dots. Would have been just fine if it were off to the left of the dot. Now, to be fair, not all labeling can be ideal, because geographic realities get in the way. But, the author of this map does not appear to have been strongly tied to geographic reality anyway, so I’m not sure if that’s an excuse in this case.

This map does not need a legend.  A good map title should tell you what the map is about; since this map is about only one thing, if it’s well-titled I should be able to figure out what the red dots mean. If I’m looking at a map that’s titled “2009 UW Health Clinic Locations,” I’m not going to mistake those red dots for bowling alleys. Or cheese factories. Also, the dot in the legend is not only larger than the dots on the map, but a different shape. The ones on the map are more elliptical.

I was a little confused about the statement in the legend that says the communities of Black Earth and Cambridge are excluded — both are in Dane county. Skimming the report a bit, I think it’s because they’re not part of the UW Health Network. In which case, of course they wouldn’t be on the map — why would they bother to mention that? Chicago is also not included on this map, but they forgot to mention that one. On the other hand, if they are in the network, I have no idea why they would be left off. Maybe the author is no longer allowed to make maps of Black Earth.

In the end, this looks to me to be a classic case of “a table is too boring, let’s make a map!” But a table would have been a lot more useful for people who actually want to find a doctor.

One Nice Thing: The author set the county label in a different type than the city labels, strongly distinguishing them from each other.


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.


Misplacing Egypt

A quick post today for the 1 month anniversiary of Cartastrophe. Most of you have probably already seen this map make the rounds of the cartography blogs during the last couple of days, but it’s worth reposting.

Issues of accuracy aside, my question is why do they use that satellite photomosaic as the background? There’s no call for it – a simple solid fill would work better, and would be less distracting to the eye for a map that’s likely being flashed on the screen for a handful of seconds. It’s needlessly cool and fancy.

Also, Iran is set in much larger type than everything else. I think Israel might actually also be a bit larger than the other countries, despite being the smallest one marked on the map.

One Nice Thing: They did highlight countries of interest to the news story.

Hat tip to Daniel Reynolds for pointing this one out to me.


Losing the Bike Path

Today’s map was brought to my attention by a reader, Tina, and comes from the Department of Parks and Urban Forestry in Verona, Wisconsin:


Detail of map - click for full PDF (515k). Obtained from, prepared by JN Design and Planning Services.

This is the city’s recommended bike loop for 2006 (the most recent available year on their website, at the time of this posting). The top of the map mentions that this is “Map 10.4.5,” which makes me worry that they’ve got a lot more of them somewhere.

There is plenty of needless detail on this map – the boundaries of every city lot are included, which is wholly unnecessary unless, as Tina suggests, “they really wanted riders to know that such-and-such a ride starts in front of the THIRD house from the corner of S. Main and W. Verona Ave, not the second.” If you start from the second one, the man there will probably come out waving a shotgun and yelling at you to get off of his property. The map is for your safety.

Needless detail is not harmless. This is a map about where to ride your bike – that means you need to be able to pick out a route following certain roads. On this map, you have to dig the roads out of all the clutter. Many of them aren’t even labeled, though most of the critical ones are. The lot boundaries, being in black, are the thing that stand out most on this map, and they’re exactly the thing that is least important. All the important stuff is in bright cyan and green, which is much harder to see against the white background.

There are a lot of non-functional labels here – consider “New Century School.” Where is it? I can’t tell. The label just sits there among a bunch of lots. The school is probably the biggest one nearby, but there’s no real connection between the label and any specific place. The parks, at least, have green dots in the middle, though, if you’re going to draw the park boundaries on the map, why not fill them in green rather than putting a dot in the middle? Unless the City of Verona, in fact, has a series of small circular parks (I am imagining them as having exactly one tree in the middle) surrounded by a barren lot. Perhaps full of broken glass and cinderblocks strewn about.

The whole bottom 20% of this map is waste – there are no bike paths marked anywhere in it. It was probably added so that the map fit a standard 8.5 x 11 inch piece of paper.  Blank space on the page can be scary, I guess.

There are three kinds of bike loops drawn on this map. Two of them exist right now, and one is listed as “Nearly Existing Off-Road Multi-Use Path,” which suggests to me that it’s not quite complete and ready yet for usage (as of 2006).  Of the three line types (cyan, green, dashed green), which do you think is the one that marks a path that doesn’t yet exist?

No, it’s not the dashed one.

Dashed lines frequently mean things that aren’t finished, or are tentative, or uncertain on maps. But, on this map, a complete and functional path is indicated by a dashed line here, while one that doesn’t entirely exist yet is indicated by a solid line. Confusing at best.

A further confusion – the green line comes in dashed and solid varieties, as I say. But the solid green line is for an incompelete off-road path, while the dashed green is for a complete on-road path. So looking at the color won’t even tell you if it’s a road path or not. Using green for each implies a connection of some sort that does not exist.

There are a couple of other small problems here and there. The Sugar River, to the west of the map, disappears for a little while near the road. And, of course, I couldn’t let this go: “Epic System’s Campus,” with the incorrect apostrophe – the name of the company being Epic Systems.

One Nice Thing: Some of the items on the map besides the trails are indeed useful. Knowing where parks are is a good landmark for reference, and a possible destination for cyclists. Likewise with schools (if it were clearer where they were) – are also a good landmark, since this is going to be used by people familiar with the area who are likely to do at least some navigation based on the locations of things they know.

I leave off with a plug for a friend: Michigan Railroading. It is, as the name suggests, all the news that’s fit to blog about concerning the rails in my native land of Michigan.


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