NACIS 2012 – The Aesthetics of Mapping Forum

The North American Cartographic Information Society (NACIS) held its annual meeting in Portland, Oregon (17-19th Oct). The conference hosted a forum on Aesthetics and Mapping, which was co-sponsored by the ICA Map Design Commission.

The Aesthetics of Mapping forum was a cross-disciplinary discussion led by participants with various backgrounds in cartography, economics, and the humanities. Forum leader Aileen Buckley (ESRI) began with an overview of her four key guidelines and rationales for aesthetics in cartography: iconography, design principles, tools and techniques, and the idea of maps as both destinations and portals.

The word “aesthetic” was derived from the Greek word for “perception.” George McCleary (KU) analyzed the meaning and importance of aesthetics by looking beyond map layout and design and focused instead on its psychological aspect. A large component of aesthetics is informational and graphical fidelity—how you show something in sync with what you are showing. This along with form, color, texture, and optics unifies the design and makes the map “look right and work.”

As stated by Johannes Moenis (Univ. of Redlands), maps must do three things: represent data accurately, show location, and be visually attractive. However, these three things cannot be accomplished simultaneously and it is the manner in which they are balanced that creates an aesthetically pleasing map. We should be drawn into a map because of its beauty and then read it because we want to know where the beauty comes from. During commentary, Nathaniel Vaughn Kelso offered his definition of aesthetics as the magic that happens when you spend a lot of time polishing and finishing a map. It is indisputable that aesthetics are important, but at the same time there is neither agreement on a definition of aesthetics nor on what makes a map “beautiful.”

Daniel Strebe (Mapthematics) addressed the utility of maps in the modern world and made the claim that maps have moved from the center to the periphery of source information and presentation medium. The information maps supply is available elsewhere in more accurate forms; maps have maintained their rhetorical power, but have lost their authoritative power. It is always important for cartographers to keep their audience in mind when mapping, but they need to abandon their quest for expanding their audience through obsessive simplifying and minimalizing and keep more of what’s important to the people who will use their maps.

By Brooke Marston, with contributions by Bojan Šavrič and Nick Arnold
Cartography and Geovisualization Group
Oregon State University