Posts Tagged ‘visual effects gone wrong

17
Sep
10

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.

23
Oct
09

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

RS_Legend

Legend

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.

14
Aug
09

Way Over in British Columbia

Today’s effort comes to us from Kerr Wood Leidal, a consulting firm in Canada:

Detail of map - click for full poster. Taken from http://kwl.bc.ca/docs/CEBC2008-RHAM-FinalAwardofMerit.pdf.

Detail of map - click for full poster. Taken from http://kwl.bc.ca/docs/CEBC2008-RHAM-FinalAwardofMerit.pdf.

This one was brought to my attention by a reader, Eliana, who appeared particularly exasperated that this map won an award. It seems that the folks at KWL took first prize in the 2009 Map Gallery competition at GeoTec, which bills itself as the largest GIS conference in Canada. According to the GeoTec site, the winners were selected “based on overall appearance and effectiveness as maps.” So, this means they have to a) look good, and b) communicate spatial information clearly. Longtime readers may recall that one of these things is more important than the other. Though this is not to say that making your map look good is unnecessary, and in a competition like this, it’s a fair criterion for judging.

Let’s start at the legend – of the 8200 or so red spots on this map, each one encodes how much hydropower could feasibly be generated at that site. A red dot means < 1 megawatt, a red square is 1 – 10 megawatts, and a red triangle is > 10 megawatts. This is a non-orderable scheme – squares, circles, and triangles cannot be put into an inherent order. So, it doesn’t make sense to use different shapes for different numbers of megawatts — which can be put into order. Dots of different size or perhaps color brightness (but the same color hue – so, for example, a scheme from light blue to dark blue) would be more sensible here.

The other big problem with this scheme is that if you look at the map, you can’t pick out the squares from the circles from the triangles in most areas. They’re way too small to be able to tell which shape is which without staring or zooming way in, and even then it’s sometimes ambiguous. I will add the caveat that I don’t know how large this map was printed – it may be less of a problem if this thing is two or three feet across. And I’m not even sure if this map really needs to go into this much detail. It does a good job as it stands of showing the general distribution of hydropower sites, mostly clustered along the west of the province. If the authors want to add an extra level of information, about how much power might be generated at each site, their task becomes much harder, because now the dots have to be separate enough, and big enough, for people to be able to tell how they vary. And the reader cannot effectively do that, here.

Even if you could visually tell one shape from another, however, it would still be difficult to pick out the overall pattern of where the 1 megawatt sites are, and where the 10 megawatt sites are. Shape, as a visual means of encoding information, is weak in terms of what we call selectivity. It’s hard to select just one shape, and then try and find the distribution of only that shape. It’s much easier to do this sort of task with something like size – you can quickly see where the big dots are clustered and where the small ones are. A quick example:

Selectivity Diagram

Notice how easier it is to pick out the cluster of small squares near the center than it is to pick out the cluster of triangles near the center - size has better selectivity than shape.

Moving on from the dots, let’s consider a few other, lesser offenses. The labeling has poor contrast with the background, especially at Stewart and Port Hardy. Interestingly, some of the labels have been set in light-colored type, to better stand out against the water, thus demonstrating that the labeler was mindful of contrast issues. But not enough to make them legible against a mass of little red shapes.

Notice the white area in the northwest. That’s part of Alaska. It looks like it’s buried under an ice cap or something, given the color scheme and the fact that it’s flat, while the rest of the map shows terrain relief. I’ve never been to Alaska, so I suppose it could in fact bear a great resemblance to Antarctica. More of concern to me is the fact that the authors have possibly done one worse than the dreaded island effect. Instead of either showing British Columbia as an island with no surrounding land, or showing it in its geographic context, with the USA and other provinces around, the authors have chosen to include just one part of one of the surrounding areas. It looks very odd, and I think it would look better showing just the province, really.

Speaking of odd, it looks like someone has discovered the joy of the “glow” effect in the Adobe suite of graphic tools, because the entire coast of British Columbia is glowing white. Now, a glow effect can be a great addition to a map, but it would probably make more sense to do one a light blue one that looks like shallow coastal water, rather than giving the appearance that there’s been some sort of radioactive disaster off the Canadian Pacific coast.

Since this is a map about hydropower based on the flow of rivers, where are the rivers on this map? You can see a few here and there, in a very light blue, but the hydrography should really stand out more. Maybe not every single creek, but at least the major ones.

Finally, a note on the map projection. The authors appear to have kept the central meridian for this conic projection somewhere far east of the map area – say, around the center of Canada.  For those readers who may be confused by what I just said, I will avoid giving an entire lesson on map projections. Instead, here’s a somewhat related way of thinking about it: Consider your average map of Canada, grabbed randomly from the Internet – the kind with the curved appearance to it. Doesn’t it look like the authors of the map above took BC from the far west end of one of these typical Canada maps, and didn’t bother to rotate it so that it wasn’t tilted clockwise anymore? If it’s the only thing on the map, BC should be centered so that it’s northern border has a shallow “U” shape, instead of curving downward only. The projection on this map just constantly reminds me of the fact that BC is at the far west end of Canada.  Perhaps the authors wanted to keep that suggestion in my mind – “British Columbia: We’re way over here!” Might make a good provincial motto.

One Nice Thing: The terrain relief is not just a useless bit of decoration – it’s useful, because hydropower potential is affected by terrain. You can see the river valleys and everything (if not the actual rivers, unfortunately). So, the relief here is both a nice aesthetic component, and conveys information relevant to the topic at hand. A win-win.

Before I leave off, I’d like to thank all of you who have been writing in to me and submitting maps you have encountered. It’s a big help to have other eyes looking for these things. I may not end up using every submission, but I appreciate them nonetheless.

06
Jul
09

New Ice Cream Flavors

Yet another daily update. I’ll probably scale back the pace at some point in the near future. Meanwhile, I encourage you all to send me any cartastrophes you happen to encounter in your travels. Email address can be found in the About section.

Today’s effort comes from the Church of the Brethren Network, in an article on comparing Bible manuscripts and translations:

Obtained from http://www.cob-net.org/compare.htm. No author given.

Obtained from http://www.cob-net.org/compare.htm. No author given.

Click the link for context – it comes from an article written by a Mr. Ronald Gordon, though I cannot say for certain if he authored the map. In the article, Mr. Gordon explains the four major biblical manuscript families, and the regions in which they originate. The map is provided for the reader’s enlightenment and edification.

From the map, I gather that the Western family of manuscripts appears to originate somewhere off the coast of Sardinia, in the Mediterranean, whereas the Caesarean one is off of the Lebanese coast. Many people lived in the middle of the sea back then, you know.

If you read the accompanying text, you learn that the Western family in fact came out of Rome and Carthage. Both of which are, I suppose, kind of close to the big green oval (sure would be handy to have a map right about now to help me figure out where those two cities are). It’s rather hard to tell how far the oval’s sphere of influence extends, and there are a lot of places that are closer to the oval which are neither Rome nor Carthage. The alternative to placing cities vaguely near the oval would be what the author does to indicate the manuscripts originating out of Alexandria: completely cover the entire area so that you can’t see anything and can’t tell entirely where Alexandria is.

Rather than putting large shapes which, in fact, completely obscure much of the geography the author is trying to convey, it would probably have been better to just mark the locations of key cities, with much smaller dots.  In the article, the author in fact lists off several key cities, so it’s not as though he was trying to cover up an ignorance of which ones they were.

The shaded relief on the map seems so mismatched, giving the background an unnecessary level of detail that highlights all the more the fact that the ovals were quickly slapped on. Quick tip: Information content first, spiffy details second. To grind the point home even more, I will point out that the map has drop shadows. Drop shadows, I say! Yes, they do make the ovals slightly less dull (I caution you against trying to imagine what it looks like without the drop shadows), but they don’t stop them from being large, brightly colored-ovals which convey minimal information and take up a lot of space doing it. I repeat: Communicate first, add drop shadows second.

The map title is both oddly placed (about 30% of the way down…why?) and hard to read, on account of all that geography going on underneath it. When the background color on which your text sits changes, it becomes much harder to read. Especially if those background colors are very different from each other. Like, say, dark blue and tan. I don’t mean to say that you cannot read the text on this map. Just that it strains your eyes a lot to do so.

Unsatisfied with the eye stress induced by the map title, the author decides to make his or her next bit of text, the “Resources provided through Church of the Brethren Network” line, partly transparent, making the map title look perfectly clear by comparison. Also, in so doing, the author reveals his or her knowledge of how to change the transparency of objects on the map, leading me to wonder: why didn’t you do that for the ovals, so that I can see a bit of the land underneath?

One Nice Thing: The colors of the ovals are, at least, reasonably sensible. These data cannot be ordered (they’re categorical data)…you can’t put Western above or below Alexandrian, etc. There is no natural ranking. So, you want to use colors which likewise not orderable, and the ones chosen are, indeed, not orderable. Though, yellow might have been better than blue, to make Alexandrian stand out from the water.

Check out the part of the website which has the map, if you want to understand this post’s title. It’s worth it.




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