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 Foodtourst.com. 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.


6 Responses to “A Village Floating off the Coast”

  1. 1 Jake
    3rd October, 2010 at 3:55 am

    Quick thought on the copyright line: I guess its position is clever in that it is protected from being cut off the map, which could be done in Word or Powerpoint through simple cropping.

    Looking forward to reading your thoughts on Needless North Arrows and Useless Scale Bars — which the map maker who produced the above map has already boldly chosen to omit, perhaps exhibiting a deeper understanding of which cartographic elements are required and which are unnecessary than the inclusion of an arguably unneeded legend would suggest… I have to admit that I have been educated to scoff at maps that lack north arrows and scale bars as incorrect and amateurish, but I am willing to adopt a more considered and complex standpoint.

    • 2 Daniel Huffman
      3rd October, 2010 at 7:34 pm

      You make a good point about the copyright location — had not thought of that.

      I think there is very much an attitude out there that north arrows and scale bars are essential, but I disagree. Like anything you put on the map, it has to have a purpose and work with the goal of the map. As a quick example, this map functions just fine without a north arrow or scale bar. Putting those elements in wouldn’t really add anything to the map, I don’t think. It won’t help people figure out the population densities any easier.

    • 4th October, 2010 at 12:23 am

      I know of some cartographers who look upon the inclusion of a legend as a failure of map design to some extent. I think this is a bit dramatic but the point is valid… as map makers we should try as hard as we can to make the map itself do as much of the information work as possible. Every detail we are forced to add to the legend can be seen as a failure of the map to convey that information in a more direct or intuitive manner.

      On N arrows and scale bars, I often scoff at those who think that these are what make a map. While a scale bar can usually be of at least some referential importance to even the simplest map graphic a N arrow on every map can be useless or worse… misleading. There are many times when a N arrow should not or need not be included on your map such as when N is not the same across the entire map or when the map is of a particular scale and familiar subject that no one looking at it would fail to automatically understand where N was. Continental maps of the US for example don’t particularly benefit from having a N arrow when the maps primary audience are other North Americans. In fact one of the major tenants of good cartography is a certain elegance or efficiency in design where the maps quality can be tied to your ability to take detail and map clutter away rather than slavishly add it to all your work. Taking off N arrows and scale bars doesn’t exactly fall into that category of map editing but if your the sort that thinks EVERY map needs one than you are likely to fail the elegance test as well.

  2. 4th June, 2011 at 1:18 pm

    It’s almost as if this map is posted in the Cairanne village square, and instead of the “Cairanne” in the legend, it says “You are here” (Vous ete ici)!

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