MapCarte 370/365: A world of lotus, a world of harmony by Liao Zhi Yuan, 2015


Cartography has always been, in part, an artistic pursuit and in a world where many more maps are now made digitally we see a lot of bland cartography in design terms. Still, hand drawn maps inspire and have something very human about them. The marks of the pen and the shades of the colouring give the map character. Of course, when we’re growing up we routinely draw with pen and paper and the recent entries to the International Cartographic Association’s Barbara Petchenik children’s map competition evidence the imagination and artistry among the world’s youngsters.

This beautiful map from 15 year old Liao Zhi Yuan of China typifies not only a high level of artistry but also in interpretation and use of the map form. Pictorial maps often make heavy use of non-map imagery or combine elements to make up a map form. Here, the use of the aquatic lotus flower, reflecting cultural significance, forms the shape of the landmasses of the world map within an ornamental pond. It’s a simple yet effective idea that communicates a message of harmony using established symbolic visual metaphors. The map itself is a lovely piece of cartographic art and well drawn.

Of course, we don’t all have to have an artistic talent to make maps but if you’re going to make maps like these it certainly helps. It should also act more generally as an inspiration to think creatively and to aspire to make maps that are set apart from the rest.

The next four years

At the International Cartographic Conference recently held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the International Cartographic Association General Assembly voted to re-approve the Map Design Commission for the term 2015-2019. As part of the process, we presented the tangible outputs from the first four years of our collective efforts. We have met, and exceeded our original terms of reference. The following activities (with lead organizer or contributor in parentheses) highlight the work of the Commission to date:

  • Set up a new web site ( and Twitter account (@ICAMapDesign) (Field). At time of writing, 120 web site subscribers.
  • Themed session at the 2011 NACIS conference in Madison Wisconsin (Field, Oct 2011)
  • Co-organised (with ICA Commission on Cog. Viz.) two sessions at Association of American Geographers conference in New York (Field, Feb 2012)
  • Special Issue of The Cartographic Journal based on papers from AAG sessions in February (Griffin, Fabrikant & Kent eds, Nov 2012)
  • Field & Demaj two-part paper arising from Commission research published in The Cartographic Journal Vol 49.1 (subsequently won Henry Johns award for Best Paper in 2013)
  • Presentations at BCS Annual Symposium (Field, Kent Jul 2012)
  • Hosted paper session at GeoCart 2012 in Auckland, New Zealand (Field, Aug 2012)
  • Two-day pre-conference workshop ahead of GeoCart 2012 in Auckland, New Zealand focusing on thematic map design (Field, Aug 2012)
  • Hosted discussion meetings at Esri User Conferences (Field, July 2012, 2013, 2014)
  • One-day ‘Aesthetics of Mapping’ forum at NACIS conference in Portland, Oregon (Jenny, Oct 2012)
  • Series of three paper sessions on Map Design at Association of American Geographers conference in Los Angeles (Field & Turner, co-convened with Commission on NeoCartography, April 2013)
  • Special Issue of Cartographic Perspectives on Aesthetics in Mapping (edited by Jenny with lead article by Kent and further article by Kent, Field, Jenny & Hopfstock, No.73, 2012)
  • ICA Dresden pre-conference workshop (co-convened with ICA Commission on NeoCartography) (Field, Kent, Chilton, Turner Aug 2013)
  • Strong presence at ICC Dresden including paper sessions, business meetings. (Field, Kent, Jenny and Hopfstock all presented papers and chaired sessions, Aug 2013)
  • Organised, co-sponsored and managed the judging and awards for the FOSS4G Map Gallery, Nottingham (Field, Sep 2013)
  • Presentations at Society of Cartographers Summer School (Field, Kent, Chilton Sep 2013)
  • Lead article in GIM International tie-in with ICC Dresden (Field, Aug 2013)
  • MapCarte initiative: a daily blog highlighting and discussing great classic and contemporary cartography (Field, with some additional contributions by Kent, Demaj, Hopfstock, Jenny & others 2014)
  • Pinterest gallery of classic and contemporary cartography (com/icamapdesign/mapcarte) (Field, 2014)
  • Sponsored the world’s first ‘Mapathon’ at BCS Symposium (Field & Sharpe, Jun 2014)
  • Keynote address at GeoCart 2014, Auckland New Zealand (Field, Sep 2014)
  • Keynote at Society of Cartographers 50th Annual Summer School, Glasgow (Kent, Sep 2014)
  • Keynote address at IMIA (Americas) conference in Denver CO, USA (Field, Nov 2014)
  • Lead essay in NACIS Atlas of Design Volume 2 (Field, 2014)
  • Both Kenneth Field and Bernie Jenny have won multiple awards during the period for maps and work in map design including ICA Best Paper map Dresden 2013, BCS Special Commendation 2013, GeoCart 2014 People’s Choice, FOSS4G Best map and People’s Choice 2014
  • Co-hosted a series of paper sessions (with the Commission for Cog. Viz) at the AAG meeting in Chicago, April 2015 (Field, April 2015).
  • Co-organized a pre-conference workshop for ICC Rio 2015 as well as Commission members organizing paper sessions and giving papers (Field, Kent, Muehlenhaus, Aug 2015).

As we look forward to the second four years Bernie Jenny and Anja Hopfstock will be stepping down from their role as vice chairs of the Commission. Alex Kent will also step down as he is keen to pursue the development of a new ICA Commission on Topographic Mapping (approved at ICC 2015). We’re delighted to announce that Dr Ian Muehlenhaus (Geography Department, University of Wisconsin-Madison), who has been actively involved in a number of Commission activities, will become vice-chair for the period 2015-2019. Additionally, Damian Saunder (Esri Inc) will take on the role of vice-chair. Dr Kenneth Field will continue in the role of Chair of the Commission and records his thanks for the work Bernie, Anja and Alex put in to helping make the first four years such a successful one for the Commission.

The terms of reference for the period 2015-2019 will be:

  • To maintain, expand and improve the content on our web site and across our various social media platforms;
  • To add to the MapCarte initiative and develop the content into a book;
  • To prepare a major book that explores the interface of cartography, graphic and information design;
  • To take a leading role in the organization of awards at ICA conferences (at the request of the ICA Executive);
  • To organize sessions at ICA conferences in 2017 and 2019 focused on map design theory and practice;
  • To organize, sponsor or co-host Commission meetings either independent of or in conjunction with other cartographic events to promote map design discourse and practice;
  • To prepare one Special Issue of a leading journal of cartography to explore map design for new mapmakers; and
  • To collaborate with colleagues in other ICA Commissions as appropriate in complementary areas of interest.

Many of these initiatives are already underway. We’ve contributed in the region of 40 written entries to the new book ‘MAP’ by Phaidon Press. Ken and Damien are currently mid-way through writing a new text on cartography and MapCarte will continue as an occasional series.

If you have ideas, papers, blog entries, map critiques or, well, anything that relates to the role of design in cartography, that you wish to share through our web site then please get in touch with either myself, Ian or Damien. Similarly, if you are interested in the Commission sponsoring a workshop of small event focused on map design themes then get in touch!


The legacy of MapCarte

When we embarked upon our MapCarte series last year we wanted to inspire people with examples of beautiful, creative and well designed cartography. Showing people examples of quality was an attempt to counter the tsunami of poor mapping that passes across our digital devices daily. There’s no reason that a general public fascinated with maps can be expected to sift the quality from the quantity. MapCarte was our way of curating a set of maps of all genres that demonstrate the very best in map design. Curated by cartographers for everyone. While we cannot claim credit for a swing in the public desire for better mapping we’d like to think we’ve played a small part and some of the previous offenders are buying into the shift (e.g. here, here, and here for example). It’s what the Commission is designed to do…to promote quality in cartography and be an evangelist for work that showcases the very best in the art and science of map design.

The last year or so have seen the publication of a number of excellent books that perform a similar task. These include Jerry Brotton’s ‘Great Maps‘, Daniel Huffman and Sam Mathews’ ‘Atlas of Design Vol 2‘, Rose Mitchell and Andrew Janes’ ‘Maps: Their untold stories‘ and The Times History of the World in Maps. These all contribute to the canon of work that showcases, describes and promotes cartographic design. Commission Chair Kenneth Field contributed to the Atlas of Design with an introductory essay and to The Times’ publication with a discussion of Google Maps. Ken is also involved in his day job at Esri helping a wider team to curate an online gallery of maps that demonstrate the cartographic potential for people using Esri’s ArcGIS platform. The site’s called Maps We Love and while you may not love them all, it performs a parallel purpose to MapCarte. Indeed, the idea of Maps We Love was inspired by what we did with MapCarte more generally.

The trend of publishing collections or compilations of examples of good quality map design has also been implemented by many other mapping organisations and publishers continue their fascination with great cartography. There’s a new book on the market that continues this trend…’MAP‘ by Phaidon Press (published 28th September).

MAPKen was asked to contribute to this edited collection of 300 maps and this became a great opportunity to use the words we penned for MapCarte in a different way. Ken wrote descriptions for 23 of the maps alongside a huge team of contributors. Edited by John Hessler from the Map Division, U.S. Library of Congress, the maps are given space to shine in the 12″ by 10″ hardback book. Heavy duty paper literally adds weight to the tome and the text is kept to a minimum by simply identifying key characteristics or aspects of importance. Curated content is the key to this and other publications alike. It’s authoritative and provides a terrific window onto cartography and maps more generally. It also includes a timeline of the history of cartography, a glossary of useful cartographic terms and links to further reading.

Much like MapCarte the collection is eclectic and it’s fascinating to see there’s probably only an overlap of 100 or so maps between our own collection and the maps featured in MAP. This is to be expected…any collection of maps chosen by one group of people will include examples not selected by others. That’s part of the beauty and breadth of cartography. On reflection, yes, there’s probably some from MAP that we might have put in MapCarte but if you join the dots in all of the above collections there’s commonality as well as divergence. The simple fact is as a group of academics, practitioners and map experts we’re finally taking what we know to the general public. Taking responsibility to share some of what we know as cartographic experts is vital to informing people about map design. It’s also important that this drives their yearning to become smarter map-makers. Knowing a little of the cartographic design process allows people to better understand what they require for their own work, and how to discern quality from the plethora of rather uninspiring (or plain wrong) work out in our world.

It’s been tremendous to see how MapCarte has both inspired and sat alongside other similar projects. This can only support the dissemination of better mapping and help people to demand more of their maps. We’ll continue to publish infrequent MapCarte entries as and when the whim takes us…and as we look toward the culmination of our first 4 years as an ICA Commission we look forward to our second term.

MapCarte 369/365: Illustrated London by Mike Hall, 2011-present

MapCarte369_hallHigh quality linework and meticulous colouring give rise to clean cartography. In this age of web maps it’s good to see that illustrators still find value in crafting maps by hand to create one-off sheets. Mike Hall has been creating a series of maps of London’s Boroughs since 2011. This example of tower hamlets is an example of the skill with which he fashions beautiful, well balanced maps that combine detailed cartography with marginalia that harks back to historic maps.

The inclusion of crests, shields, illustrations and views of key places along with decorative borders and typography show mastery in layout that displays a keen sense of the importance of form as well as function. The map is intended to delight; to be seen and used as much as an artistic piece as a way of exploring the geography. Maps always did ‘fill in the gaps’ to create a whole that was greater than the sum of the parts and Hall brings the philosophy up to date with his creative cartography.

Each of the maps in the series riffs off particular themes or historical events from the Borough so each has a unique identity. As a set, they bring to life the rich variety of London’s landscapes as a tapestry of maps that reflect their very different characters.

Hall’s work goes beyond this series of maps. His isometric drawings and other map-based illustrations are equally impressive. Modern map-makers can certainly learn a few things about the art and craft of cartography by studying his work.

See this series of maps and Hall’s other work at his web site here.

MapCarte 368/365: PAC-MAN Google Maps by Google, 2015

MapCarte368_pacmanPAC-MAN Google Maps at Taj Mahal, India

Take a classic map and combine it with arguably the world’s most loved video arcade game PAC-MAN. Genius! We’ve highlighted the importance and design credentials of Google Maps in MapCarte already (MapCarte 116) but the ability of Google to take their platform and come up with imaginative ways for us to engage with maps knows no end. Of course, they’re no strangers to using their map as a basis for a game as their Cube game demonstrated in 2012 (MapCarte 90)

You navigate the maze of streets as PAC-MAN, consuming pac dots and other bonus items while avoiding Blinky, Inky, Pinky and Clyde. The bonus items include the typical fruit icons from the original game but added are a Google Maps marker and Peg Man – nice touches. The game play is superb and very faithful to the original as you use cursor keys to move PAC-MAN around. They’ve even managed to get it working nicely on mobile devices using swipe gestures.

The re-styling of streets from Google Maps into the PAC-MAN maze is also faithful to the original with the dark background and neon blue maze structure being applied to street casings. It’s wuite simply a lovely re-imagination of the game and a fun way to repurpose the map to provide an entertainment medium.

Sadly, the game appears to be a temporary fixture for Google Maps but in marrying these two design greats they’ve proven that maps really can afford a template for all manner of purposes.

This video from C:NET illustrates the gameplay


Instructions to play Google Maps PAC-MAN are here.

MapCarte 367/365: ATP Tennis World Tour Venue Map by Damien Saunder, 2015

MapCarte367_saunderClick on the map to view the web map

We’re currently awash with web maps of this and that which is inevitable as the availability of data and the tools necessary to make maps increases. Quality web maps are still a rare commodity because many still lack the thought required that turns data into something useful and useable. This map is a refreshing highlight. It does one job and does it remarkably well.

Take a dataset of the locations of all the men’s tennis tournaments for the year and present them across a map. Simple yes…the map could just have a dot for every tournament but at small scales it would look ugly and the dots would be lost amongst the background at large scales. Here, Saunder has taken advantage of the tool of production to have locations aggregate at small scales and ‘explode’ to reveal individual tournaments as you zoom in or you click on the numbered symbols. The fact a few always appear gives the user a clear hint of what to expect when you tackle the numbers.

The side panel is unencumbered and presents the taxonomy of tournaments with simple colour motifs that link to the map. Expanding the side panel allows you to access the tournaments by name or location and is sensibly presented in date order. The information panel opens when you click a tournament to reveal consistent information and the pictures go beyond just showing us the main court of play. Across the map, they reveal a pattern of surface types with hard courts, clay and grass tending to occupy discrete regions. These also tend to reflect the seasons in which a tournament takes place. While the panels contain a lot of content, brevity has been achieved using icons to avoid the need for superfluous text and which presents prize money, the current champion etc in a different visual style. This adds interest and breaks up what might otherwise have been a dense panel of text. The large symbols are a bold statement but they work to fill space and to make the theme and function of the map explicitly figural.  They also work well across an imagery basemap and of course, using imagery means we get to zoom into and see the actual venues.

Fundamentally, a simple but detailed dataset that is handled well in a web map. Clean and clear design thinking underpins the map and elevates it beyond many of its contemporaries that simply dump data and expect the map to work.

ICC2015 Pre-Conference Workshop details

The International Cartographic Conference takes place in Rio de Janeiro from 23 to 28 August 2015 (see Decisions on acceptance of papers for the main conference have recently been shared with authors and so you may have started thinking about your travel plans this summer. We hope that in these travel plans there will also be room to participate in the pre-ICC2015 workshops that we are organizing with the Federal University of Paraná in the city of Curitiba, Brazil. These workshops will take place on Thursday 20 and Friday 21 August 2015. This means you will have ample time to travel from Curitiba to Rio de Janeiro, which, by the way, is relatively cheap and only lasts 1 hour and 30 minutes.

Curitiba will host two different one-day workshops through collaborations between ICA Commissions including the Commission on Map Design.

Workshop 1 (on 20 August 2015): Designing and Conducting User Studies
This workshop is co-organized by the ICA Commissions on Use and User Issues and Cognitive Visualization. It is typically a training workshop which is meant for people who want to learn more about how to execute user research. Members of both commissions will moderate a series of teaching modules.

Workshop 2 (on 21 August 2015): Envisioning the Future of Cartographic Research
This workshop is co-organized by four ICA Commissions:  Cognitive Visualization; Use and User Issues; Geovisualization and Map Design. The nature of this interactive workshop is completely different from Workshop 1. It is directed towards making progress on a new research agenda for interactive cartography and geovisualization. Preparations for this workshop have already begun with the involvement of a variety of commission members who made submissions to our call for proposals of what are the current ‘big problems’ in interactive cartography.

We received 19 submissions, some of which had overlaps with others. In the process of narrowing down these topics to what we can reasonably work on in a workshop, the workshop steering committee has decided to see further input from our commissions:

Therefore, whether or not you can come to the workshop, we would like to ask for five minutes of your time before 8 March to rate the topics, which we have distilled into a question or short statement. Please visit our Google Moderator page: (click on the View Ideas button to see the questions) and rate each proposal – whether you like or don’t like it. We will then use this as an input to make a final decision on which three or four topics we will choose. These topics will then be posted on the webpage and those attending the workshop can nominate which one they would most like to work on.

After you have done this, we would like to invite you to visit the webpage

This webpage contains all the information you may need about the two workshops and also offers facilities to register for one or both workshops in Curitiba. We would like to ask you to register a.s.a.p. but, in any case, before 1 July 2015. Registration for our workshops will only be possible through this website and not through the main ICC2015 website.

You will have to book your own travel and overnight accommodation in Curitiba. The website provides information to help you with this.

We hope to welcome many of you in Curitiba this summer!

MapCarte 366/365: Non-stop by Alberto Lucas López, 2015

MapCarte366_lopezJust when you thought your daily dose of MapCarte from 2014 had finished…here’s the beginnings of a less frequent, intermittent post of great maps on which to feast your cartographic senses.

In an age where flashy, spinning, animated, colourful web maps seem to be all the rage it’s refreshing to see that applying some control on your cartography can still bring to life a fantastic example of the art of map-making. Here, Alberto López has created a simple but graphically effective map showing the non-stop flight paths from Hong Kong. The first aspect that grabs you is the use of RB Fuller’s Dymaxion projection. Visually interesting, it adds something unique to the display. The same data could easily be shown across a cylindrical projection or, if we wanted concentric flight time zones, an azimuthal projection dentred on Hong Kong…but the map would not have been as interesting or stimulating.

Similarly, instead of the usual use of flowlines that arc across the map (on a cylindrical projection) or which would radiate from a point (on the azimuthal), López has chosen instead to use time bands.  The simple two colour approach to showing time also echoes the coastline, graticule, map frame and other components. The use of blues for the destinations and also the outline of the area outside the range of non-stop aircraft is subtle and uses contrast to good effect.

There’s a subtle use of two different typefaces, one for the main map components and descriptions and another for the introductory panel that again creates a visually useful and pleasing contrast. The inverted distance band labels in white situates them well in the visual hierarchy. The simple but useful graphs add to the story by showing us some of the salient aspects of the data in a more useful way.

This is effectively a two-colour map (maybe use the blue for all textual components instead of black?) which creates an interesting and engaging map. There’s a lot of good cartographic design going on here to establish good hierarchy, contrast and balance which when brought together creates a great finished product. It doesn’t need to be anything more than it is and proves that keeping things simple is both an art and an effective solution.

The map was published as part of the South China Morning Post’s infographics feature here including links to a larger version.

ICC 2015 Pre-Conference Workshop

The Commission on Map Design has joined with the Commissions on Cognitive Visualization, Geovisialization, and Use and User Issues for a pre-conference workshop ahead of the International Cartographic Conference in Rio, August 2015. This will take place on August 21, 2015 at the Paraná Federal University (UFPR) in Curitiba, Brazil.

“The leadership of the ICA commissions believes that it is time to consider the cartographic research landscape as a whole, along with its relationships to cognate fields (e.g., computer science, information visualization, user experience research, cognitive science & psychology), in order to identify areas of research that could benefit from our collective efforts. The workshop will take the first step towards producing a research agenda that reflects current challenges and to define how, as a group, we could tackle them.”

Please see the full announcement on the workshop web page and consider getting involved to establish a platform for defining and addressing ‘big problems’ in cartography.

A year of MapCarte

Wow! I did it. This time last year I was getting so disillusioned with the avalanche of bad maps and the criticism, from some, that cartographers do nothing but moan about bad maps that I decided to turn the tables. I committed to writing a daily blog about great maps. We all have our personal favourites but I wanted a broad selection that reflected a diverse view rather than it being my list. I think I just about managed it with a little help from my friends.

The idea was simply to create a repository of maps, along with short commentaries, that exhibit high quality design principles. The collection proves that design can morph and be presented in a multitude of different ways but this is precisely what makes cartography such a wonderful subject. In essence, everything is designed…it’s just that some designs end up being better than others. They may be beautiful to look at; they may support a particular function with clarity and efficiency; and they may become recognised as classics. Many maps are based strongly in science and the display of ‘truth’ so they are constructed in a particular way. But they are also an artistic endeavor and they display their wares according to many influences. As such, they pique our interest as much based on our own likes and dislikes in style. Fashion and trends play a major part in map design and we can also chart the way in which maps have changed in appearance over time. perhaps due to technological change and the instruments we use to make the map; perhaps also as our preferences change in the same way we see genres develop in both art, literature and film.

My hope for this collection is that whenever we are stuck for inspiration, or whenever someone says ‘show me a good map’ then here are 365 examples to whet the appetite. They represent as broad a definition of cartography as you could possibly see in a single collection. They’re authoritative because they’ve been compiled by cartographers. There’s probably some of your own favourites missing. Some of mine are too…but that’s not the point. It’s a collection that illustrates the diverse, rich world of cartographic design from the perspective of the professionals that inhabit that world.

A quick way to get an overview is to visit the accompanying MapCarte Pinterest Board at

So here’s a few thank yous to those who have helped…

I ended up writing all but 5 of the entries. Alex Kent wrote the other 5. I’ve also had maps suggested to me by many people including Damien Saunder, Linda Beale, Daniel Huffman, William Cartwright, Georg Gartner, Anja Hopfstock, Steve Chilton, Bernie Jenny, Manuella Schmidt, David Fairbarin, Craig Molyneux, Roger Smith, Geoff Aitken, Gennady Adrienko, Craig Williams, David Watkins, Peter Jones, Karel Kriz, Keith Clarke, Eric Steiner and Rollo Home. There are likely many others and I am sorry if I have forgotten to mention you personally but your suggestions have been invaluable. I’d also like to thank the many, many people who have sent me messages of support over the year. There’s been the odd evening where the last thing I wanted to do was write about yet another bloody map…but as the series has taken off and more people saw the posts, ‘liked’ them or retweeted them it became clear it was worthwhile. There’s little point starting something like this unless it’s going to be seen so to all of you who have taken the time to read, whether you’ve told me or not, I thank you sincerely and hope you’ve found the examples useful. It was nice that one person has commented that the effort has been ‘legendary’. If nothing else, I’ve had fewer naysayers whinge about a lack of good examples of great cartography this year…they seem to have gone back into their box. Thanks everyone!

What next…well I’m not going to start MapCarte II. Given 99% of it has been done outside work time it’s been a challenging commitment and I’m moving on to other exciting projects in 2015. It’s likely I’ll add to MapCarte as and when fascinating new maps are published that deserve mentioning so you’ll see the series continue albeit infrequently. As for a book on MapCarte – watch this space…

Happy map designing in 2015. I’m off for a lie down.