Posts Tagged ‘empty space


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



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.


True Confessions of a Trained Cartographer, Part 1: My First Map

(Editor’s note: Daniel Reynolds is a colleague of mine in the University of Wisconsin Cartography Laboratory. He has graciously agreed to act as a guest poster, publicly criticizing some of his own works for your edification and entertainment  – DH)

Okay, so the title is a lie. This wasn’t my first map. Or even my second. But this was the first map I made where I wasn’t trying to copy a lab step by step. I cringe every time I see this thing.


In my introductory cartography class at Utah State University, the first assignment was to do a combination choropleth and dot density layout with the given data in ArcView 3.3. Why not something else, something not quite so dated given that it was 2006? Or perhaps something with better tools to make stuff pretty? Well, the instructor had never used ArcGIS 9.1 (the then-current standard at USU) since he hadn’t been working in the geospatial field for a number of years. All that is to say that I didn’t have the best software to produce a good looking map.  My excuses stop there…

When I made this map, I didn’t know much about color theory. That is unfortunate, as I’m pretty sure I picked one of the worst possible color schemes. By that, I mean the choropleth makes me want to stab my eyes out. I’m pretty sure it was a default scheme that the software spit out. Color  is, in my opinion one of the easier ways to categorize a map as a ‘GIS map’ or a ‘Cartographic Map’;  a good number of the default color schemes in the GIS packages I have used are passable, but need work. Other schemes make Cynthia Brewer cry…like the one I used. While it makes sense to use a diverging color scheme to highlight areas of population growth and population decline, I managed to abuse this concept pretty thoroughly. A diverging scheme is meant to highlight data in relation to a critical value. A good diverging scheme is made of two hues changing in saturation and/or brightness as you move away from the critical value.


Instead of following this sensible approach, I used four hues (although I think at the time I felt that orange/yellow and green/blue fit together reasonably well). This results in a color scheme that could be interpreted as categorical even though the data beg for an ordinal scheme. On top of all that, I don’t think there is enough differentiation between some of the colors (the two blues, the two greens). A little less obvious is that I really goofed up the relationship between the color scheme and the critical value. The second lowest category (0-11%) should be part of the color values above the critical break. In other words, it should be some shade of green. As it is, the critical value appears to be 11% instead of the more sensible 0%. While we’re examining those values, I should probably point out that the break values were likely determined by the software without much thought on my part.  My best guess is that I used a standard deviation classification. Why? I don’t know!

A few last parting shots at the choropleth map:

  • Not only did I fail to include surrounding landmasses to avoid the island effect, but I also managed to leave an enormous amount of empty space on the page.
  • The legend drives me nuts. Again, I didn’t effectively use the space at hand.  I think it would be much more aesthetically pleasing if it were more compact (make the legend title two lines instead of one).
  • The labels could be much smaller and less distracting. They disappear on the darker states.
  • The topic of the map is population change, but we have no frame of reference. Is this change from 1930 to 2030?

On to the dot density map:

Part of the assignment was to symbolize the population density of hurricane-impacted states on a county level. While I think this is an appropriate scale for the map in question, I had no clue at the time.  I remember the concepts of dot size versus dot value being very vague and somewhat hard to comprehend. The basic goal with a dot map is to pick a value that is easy to wrap your head around and a size that allows you to display that value effectively. I won’t go into more detail here. I managed to pick a decent value but then made the dots so small that it looks like someone tipped over a pepper shaker on my map.

My other major problem with the dot-density map is that the data set we were given is not appropriate for the given scale.  The coastlines are quite jagged which is a result of using a dataset that has been generalized (poorly in my opinion) for a smaller scale. (Yes, I do mean smaller scale).

Lastly, the island effect is avoided this time around, but the fill color ended up with a bizarre and entirely unnecessary pattern. I’m not quite sure why this happened as I don’t recall choosing this.  My best guess is that there was some image integrity loss since it is stored as a jpeg.

One Nice Thing: I had the presence of mind to generalize the legend values in the choropleth rather than using precise but essentially useless decimals.

PS.  At the time I made this map, I was really proud of the background color. I had never really used image editing software (other than doodling in MS Paint) so realizing I could draw a box, make it blue, and drop it behind everything else made me very happy. Unfortunately, the particular shade I chose makes me gag.

PPS. If you are wondering why we mapped predicted population change for the entire US with population density of hurricane impacted states, I have no clue.

(Editor’s note: To avoid leaving the Internet with the impression that Mr. Reynolds still regularly makes maps worthy of such criticism, I leave you with a link to his portfolio, where you can see his current, and much better works. — DH)


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.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 64 other followers