Posts Tagged ‘overlapping features


Assaulted by Amoebae

Today’s effort comes to me via friend and colleague Richard Donohue, who let me know about the good people of Ledge Wind Energy. You see, Ledge Wind Energy wants to build a wind farm in Brown County, Wisconsin. As part of this process, they filed many, many documents with the Wisconsin Public Service Commission, which you can read for yourself if you visit the linked site and then click on the link for Ledge Wind Energy (seems to be no way to link it directly).

Among these filings were a whole series of maps, one of which I’d like to focus on.

From Appendix W of Wisconsin Public Service Commission filing 9554-CE-100

Above is a map from Appendix W, showing the noise levels the wind farm is expected to generate. It was prepared for Ledge by Michael Theriault Acoustics, a noise control consulting firm in Maine.

Detail of noise map

This is not the most attractive cartographic product. It’s full of bright colors and high contrasts; it sits on top of a busy base map and features a cluttered, haphazard look. But why does this matter? The map gets the information across; does it matter if it’s devoid of aesthetic appeal?

Yes, yes it does. Wind power is a contentious issue, and if you look at the PSC website, you’ll note that citizens made hundreds of public comments on the proposal, many of them denouncing it. Every document that Ledge filed was scrutinized by members of the community who had to decide whether to sign on to the project or to try and stand in its way. And as they turned each page they saw maps which unfortunately looked like the above. Ledge Wind Energy has taken their community and made it look ugly. This doesn’t look like a happy future; it looks like a noisy one with garish colors. It doesn’t look like a map of a place I would want to live, and so it makes me want to oppose the company that’s trying to bring about the scenario depicted. This map is Ledge Wind Energy telling the people of Brown County that they’re going to be besieged by giant blue and purple amoebae.

It’s appearance is amateur, and that subtly makes Ledge look amateur. If they don’t take care to hire someone to make a quality map, one that’s legible (note the numbers in the image above) and isn’t unpleasant to look at, can they be trusted to put up heavy machinery in my town? Where else are they cutting corners? Companies that want to be seen as doing quality work need to do it not just in their main line of business, but in everything that’s got their name on it. All of it figures into how we assess them.

Most of the effort here was clearly devoted to the data, rather than the representation. This is raw GIS output; it’s designed more for the computer than the human. I’m sure many of the citizens of this area take pride in their community. This map’s appearance tells people that Ledge considers their homes to be points in an analysis. The land they live on, the land their ancestors lived on, is just something that needs to be fed into a computer. It’s quietly dehumanizing, which is a poor way to win people over to your vision. We’re used to maps like this, sure, so it’s not a conscious affront. But consider it in contrast to a better designed alternative that suggested the landscape is more than just data.

This map is a missed opportunity. This was Ledge’s chance to show people an attractive future. Imagine if more attention had been paid to aesthetics. Subtler colors that actually go together harmoniously. Show the noise polygons, but give them a less jarring, threatening color scheme. A cleaner, less cluttered style. Make the community look good; make the people there feel good when they see their community being represented. Ledge could have shown the people of Brown County that they care about doing quality work, that they care about being a partner in building a beautiful community. That these people are more than just numbers. Think of how few people make maps of this rural area, and how much goodwill Ledge would have generated by giving citizens a rare series of lovely maps of the places they care about. It shows knowledge of the community; an investment in it.

This map and the many others of similar quality which Ledge filed did not stay confined to the halls of government; they’ve been seen by the residents of the project area. Brown County Citizens for Responsible Wind Energy, for example, makes use of several of Ledge’s maps as part of their effort to stir up opposition to the project. Here’s their version of the noise map, to which they added a subtle Google Maps base and a few road names.

These maps are most definitely out there, and it seems like a poor marketing move to spend so little effort on the design of something that’s part of how Ledge interacts with the community.

Beyond the value of good aesthetics, a few other quick points are worth making about the noise map. First off, it has a pretty weak visual hierarchy. The noise polygons compete with the yellow dots which compete with the green parcels and the red numbers. Everything stands out equally, which means that nothing is prominent. I don’t know where to look first. No one is telling me what’s important or visually suggesting an order in which things should be read. I can’t focus on one type of data without being distracted by another. Everything screams for attention with bright colors in a sensory assault. Arranging things in a visual order, with the noise polygons being most prominent, and the houses just behind, and everything else faded into background, would help significantly.

Oddly, there are two legends on this map, and one is entirely verbal. The parcel boundaries and the green squares are described in a visual legend by the lower left corner. Below that is a written description of what the yellow dots mean and the blue and purple colors. Seems like those items ought to go into the visual legend, where people can compare what they see on the map to its meaning, rather than having to trying and imagine it based on description.

Lastly, I’ll point out that, under the noise polygons, you can’t actually tell which parcels are green and which parcels are not. It is an obvious waste of time and effort (both the mapmaker’s and the reader’s) to put data on the map and then not actually make it legible. Again, the map seems ill thought out. It looks sloppy, and this does not cast Ledge in a positive light.

I’m sure that Ledge Wind Energy asked their contractors to put together some quick technical maps on a tight budget. I do not fault the people who intended to simply generate a data visualization to answer a question for a regulatory filing. In my mind, though, Ledge missed an opportunity to help their cause by skimping on the design budget and not thinking past the data.


A Silent Buoy

Last month, a friend and I went on a tour of wineries in the Grand Traverse Bay area of Michigan. I don’t drink, but I was happy to act as her driver and companion while enjoying the beautiful scenery of my homeland (though I am from further south in the state). At our hotel in Traverse City there was one of those little guidebooks for tourists listing local attractions. At the back was this map, a great example of how carelessness can prevent a map from reaching its potential:

Copyright 2010 In-House Graphics and Publishing. Obtained at Knights Inn, Traverse City, Michigan.

Now, I’m not expecting design masterpieces from free tourist guides, but it seems like some things are just common sense. Like not cutting off the name of Lake Michigan (upper left corner). There are actually a number of labels all over the map with problems like this — they run off the map edge, they’re covered by other symbols and text boxes, etc. It doesn’t seem like you need formal cartographic training to perceive that this is a problem. We label maps so that people can read the labels and know what things are called (especially if you’re a tourist and unfamiliar with the area). If the label stops being legible, it’s wasting page space and readers’ time. Besides failing in function, it makes the label look sloppy, carelessly placed. It detracts from the reader’s perceptions of quality, and suggests that this map maybe shouldn’t be taken too seriously as a guide to actual geography.

Or maybe I'm mistaken, and Manitou Passage is actually spelled with a buoy in the middle. It's silent.

And what’s going on with that buoy, anyway? There’s no point to it, is there? There are buoys in Lake Michigan, no doubt, but I don’t think the map is attempting to show where they all are. It looks like it’s just thrown on to make things look cute. Now, I’m not against decoration on maps, but I am against ones that make the map harder to read by covering up labels.

While we’re focused on objects in the water, note that there are three colors of lakes on this map. Lake Michigan is a medium blue, then there are some cyan lakes, and finally some dark purple-blue ones. There doesn’t appear to be a difference between the cyan lakes and the purple-blue ones, though some of the former are labeled. And this is the problem here: I had to look for a while to figure out there was no difference. When you make things different colors on a map, most readers will assume that they are different things. Maps, being authored, consist of a series of deliberate choices. If someone deliberately chose to make some lakes one color and some lakes another, it seems like they ought to have a reason. But, alas, none seems apparent. Maybe it means that some lakes are filled with water, others are filled with antifreeze.

There are an awful lot of roads on this map. I think possibly every paved surface in the area was included here. But most of them aren’t marked. You can’t use this map to drive, or to figure out where you are (“I’m at the intersection of unlabeled green road #1 and unlabeled green road #2!”). Most of the lines are printed so small (such as in Traverse City) that you can’t use this map for navigation even if you did know what street you were on.

M-37 is the only labeled road on the map that isn't orange or brown. I'm not sure if that means anything.

All this road network does is get in your way without telling you anything or adding to the aesthetic value. The few roads which are marked aren’t enough to get to a lot of the places shown on this map. I guess tourists have to admire Lake Ann from afar, unable to figure out a path there. The map would be of much greater value if more of the roads were labeled, and 80% of the smallest were eliminated.

I don’t believe the 45th [North] Parallel undulates quite like that. Now, parallels are not always going to appear as straight lines, depending on your map projection. But there’s no projection I know of that will cause a parallel to wobble up and down like that. I’m not sure what software was used to make this map, but it’s usually harder to make a wobbly line than a straight one. Again, I can’t fathom the author’s purpose.

That’s a common theme with this map — there are a lot of details that make you wonder, “Does that mean anything? Were those colors/line styles/paths chosen randomly, or am I just missing something?” Confusing the reader and causing frustration is not usually a major cartographic goal. The map is covered in little mysteries, like these point symbols that probably mean campground or forest entrance or something, though there’s nothing to tell me if I’m guessing right.

Rather than telling you what to think, this map frees you to use your imagination.

The sloppiness of this map is tragic, because it has a lot of potential. The overall aesthetic is decent, before you get down into the details. It’s got colors that are pleasant and fun but not overwhelming; the artist seems to understand subtlety. I appreciate how the unlabeled roads are darker green, and the Lake Michigan water feature labels are a light blue — each keeps a similar hue to its background, rather than contrasting strongly with it. Details like this show some care and thought, but then the artist inexplicably turns around and covers up labels, randomly colors lakes, and leaves arrows pointing to nowhere:

"The road actually goes over here, but we liked how it looked where we drew it."

It’s possible that more than one artist put this together, one careful and one less so. The influence of the latter seems to reach its worst in the unlabeled settlements near the bottom of the map. Maybe the village councils didn’t kick in enough money to be included.

"Nothing to see here, move along."

There are a few other minor amusing gems and mysteries on this map, but you’ll just have to go visit the Traverse City area yourself to see them. Bring your own map.

One Nice Thing: Again, I like the way many of the colors work together. It lacks the gaudiness and high contrast of many tourist maps, some of which can make your eyes bleed.


Tectonic Junction, What’s Your Function?

My last post generated a few comments from readers out there who disagreed with some of my assessments, and I wanted to start off today by mentioning that I appreciate hearing other people’s opinions on these things, and that I hope you will all continue to weigh in whether you agree with me or not. On further reflection, I think I was perhaps unfair in some elements of my critique last week. But, I have been ill for the past while, and so I’ll just pretend that my condition impaired my judgment. Of course, I’m still a bit ill now, but we’ll try to avoid a repeat.

Today’s map was submitted by my colleague Tim Wallace, who is responsible for naming this blog. We work in a building that also houses the Arthur Robinson Map Library, which occasionally gives away unwanted materials. Tim found this one on the free map table:


Detail - click for full size. Provenance unknown - obtained from Robinson Map Library, August 2009

Detail. Obtained from Robinson Map Library, August 2009.

The provenance is unknown – it’s printed on thin magazine paper with a torn edge, and the reverse side contains portions of two articles which don’t identify the publication, though the corner reads “September 1979.” On the off chance you happen to know where it comes from, please write to me at

I found the logic behind the legend confusing for a good while until I noticed the numbers. It appears that we have a map here which shows seismic risk for various tectonic plate boundaries. Red is the highest seismic potential. A fine-grain black-and-white checkered pattern is the lowest. Peach and yellow are in-between. This seems to come up every week on this blog, but I’ll say it again: if you’re showing ordered data, like high-to-low seismic potential, use an ordered set of symbols (colors, in this case). This is one reason why the legend threw me. Areas marked “Plate motion subparallel to arc” are apparently of a moderate-to-low seismic potential. But, because of the fact that they use a checkerboard pattern, and because I hadn’t the damnedest what that phrase meant, I couldn’t tell that item #4 on the legend was part of a larger scheme. This is worse than just misuse of colors; patterns are being thrown in needlessly now, too.

I could, in fact, still be reading this whole legend wrong, and reflecting poorly on the institution that agreed to award me a bachelor’s degree a few years ago. Feel free to comment if you think you’ve got a more sensible interpretation than my idea of items 1-6 being part of an ordered scheme of seismic potential.

One final note on the colors/patterns: The legend does not explain what the white bands are.

On to the point features. The symbols for successful forecast (presumably explained in the article) and active volcano are overprinted directly on top of the other colors. Look again at the colored bands. The red or yellow appear no different when they are on land vs. on water. The printer simply put these colors directly onto the white paper. But look now at those two point symbols – notice how their color changes based on whether they’re sitting on land or water or on top of something else. The printer put purple ink on top of green or blue or whatever was already there, instead of leaving a white space, as they did for the bands. Not sure what happened there, though there may be a reasonable explanation that someone more familiar with late 1970s printing technology can give. It does make the points very hard to see in some areas – I originally counted four stars, but now I can find eight. It also means that the point features shown in the legend do not match the color found on the map.

I’m hoping the magazine article makes the meaning of the Tsunami symbol clearer. Is this map showing Tsunamis that happened in the last decade? Ones happening right now? Not sure.

Note that the legend refers to various filled areas as being “sites” of earthquakes. Why are these not point features? Earthquakes have an epicenter, and move more in a circular outward fashion than a wide lateral band fashion. There may be more going on, as far as data processing goes (and, again, I wish I had the article that accompanies this), but it’s perplexing. Maybe the author(s) went with bands because it’s easier to see the bands than to dig out information out of scattered points? I’ll not be too hard on this, because it’s more mysterious than bad, without information to help understand why the map author(s) may have done this.

There are exactly two labels on the main map: Oaxaca, and Gulf of Alaska. Maybe those are both significant in the article, but it seems very strange to see just those two. They should probably be set in different type, at least, so that Oaxaca doesn’t look like the name of a sea off the Mexican coast. As a general guideline, cities and bodies of water ought to look different. One of the reasons for labeling things is to help readers who don’t already know what or where these features are. It’s entirely possible that a reader out there actually did look at this and, never having heard of Oaxaca, thought it was a water feature.

A similar problem comes up in the inset. Mexico is set in the same type as Central America. Central America is not (and was not), last I knew, a country. I’m reasonably sure Mexico is, however. But look at how they’re labeled – as though the text symbols mean the same thing in each case: country. And, of course, the tectonic plates are also set in the same type as everything else. Perhaps the mapmaker had a sponsorship deal from the makers of the typeface (I am having trouble identifying exactly which it is, on account of the scan resolution looking at the actual physical document, it appears to be Helvetica). If you are a typeface designer and want to pay me more than I deserve to use your glyphs on my maps, please contact me.

The inset would be better off having some kind of marker to show where exactly it corresponds to on the main map. Perhaps this might explain why Mexico was labeled: to help the reader locate the inset.

The water on the inset is jarring -the white makes it stand out far too much, calling your eye away from the main map. Best make it blue.

Boy, sure would be nice to have a legend to explain what’s going on with the inset. Are those blue triangles historical volcanic eruptions, or maybe earthquakes? Maybe they’re places less interesting than the Cheese Factory. And what are the little round-ish zones drawn in blue, which makes them hard to notice?

If you run this map through a filter which simulates how it might look to a person with the common red-green color vision impairment, you may notice that the green for the land and the orange for seismic potential level 2 end up looking very similar, which is rather problematic if you want to know which areas are plain land, and which areas might kill you in an earthquake.

A final reiteration of the main caveat to these criticisms – the original context for the map is missing, and the magazine article which I hope accompanied it may have helped this whole thing make more sense, and explained some things which seem out of place.

One Nice Thing: Some may disagree with me and say it’s overgeneralized, but I kind of like the simplicity of the linework. I think it works here, giving it an accessible, non-technical aesthetic. Michigan is misshapen, but I’ll live.

Another Nice Thing: Tim thinks it has a nice Schoolhouse Rock sort of feeling to it. Which is another way of getting at what I was saying above.


On the Canadian Adventures of David Wilkins

David Wilkins, the 21st United States Ambassador to Canada, stepped down a few months ago with the election of Barack Obama as President. While both countries eagerly await his replacement at Rockcliffe Park, let’s have a look at this handy map which shows where Mr. Wilkins traveled during his nearly three years in the country:

Obtained from No author listed.

Obtained from No author listed.

This map can be found on the official website of the US Embassy in Canada, by going to the page for the Ambassador.

The obvious fault, first: Putting big red dots on top of labels tends to defeat the purpose of having those labels. A lot of the things I talk about on this site might not be immediately obvious to a lot of people making maps – good color choices, projections, etc. But it’s hard to imagine how the problematic nature of obliterating text escaped the notice of the vigilant staff of the US Embassy. Maybe they’re trying to subtly insult the people of Saskatchewan or Labrador. I’m sorry, I mean “Lab  dor.” Misread the map for a second.

Speaking of Labrador – it’s not a separate province, last I checked. Not sure why it’s labeled separately from Newfoundland, since all the other labels on this map are provinces. If they’re going to label major physical features, why not label Baffin Island while they’re at it?

The provinces are filled in using different colors. This is a perfectly reasonable idea, to help tell them apart. But, for some reason, British Columbia (BC), Nova Scotia (NS), Prince Edward Island (PE), and Newfound and Labrador (NL / Labrador) are all the same color, whereas the other nine provinces and territories are given different colors from each other. Perhaps the maritime provinces on the east coast have joined forces with British Columbia for some nefarious purpose, and the US Ambassador is secretly trying to alert the world without exposing the fact that he knows.

The dots are different sizes. Insofar as I can tell, this is only so that they fit better – there are many small ones in New Brunswick (NB), for example, to avoid overlaps. But, then there are still small overlaps here and there, anyway, such as in Manitoba (MB). It would be better if the dots were of uniform size – else, it implies that certain places are more important than others, or that the Ambassador visited some places more than others. Smaller would be better – since the ones in NB are quite legible, and there would be minimal overlap.

Me being unreasonably nitpicky: The abbreviations are not all standard two-letter Canadian postal abbreviations. They could be using their own system, but I’m not sure why they would. NWT should be NT, NF should be NL, etc.

Finally, it’s arguable whether or not the island effect is a problem here. Personally, I think it would look better if Canada was placed in a geographic context – especially one that shows the US, since this is a page for the US embassy. Emphasizing that relationship makes sense here, and it seems a missed opportunity.

One Nice Thing: The linework is well-generalized. It’s not overly detailed, but has a clean simplicity appropriate to the purpose.


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