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

NACIS annual meeting: aesthetics of mapping

The North American Cartographic Information Society (NACIS) is holding its annual meeting in Portland, Oregon next week (17-19th Oct). The annual carto-fest will cover a range of themes including a special series of sessions on the aesthetics of mapping co-sponsored by the ICA Map Design Commission. The idea behind the sessions is to bring together a wide range of academic, practicing, commercial and entrepreneurial cartographers to discuss the definition, role, value and purpose of ‘aesthetics’ in modern cartography.  There is no agenda other than to bring light on the often thorny subject of the importance of beauty and the aesthetic in mapping.  If you’re going to NACIS, or indeed are taking part then please do join in what promises to be a fascinating discussion. Commission co-chair Bernhard Jenny is attending the conference and we’ll report the key findings here after the conference.

Aesthetics of mapping I Thursday 8:15-10:00
Beyond Map Layout and Design… Aesthetics? George F. McCleary, Jr, University of Kansas

Forum discussion
Victoria Vesna, School of the Arts–UCLA
Elijah Meeks, Digital Humanities–Stanford University
Johannes Moenius, Spatial Economic Analysis–University of Redlands
Stuart Allan, Raven Maps
George McCleary, University of Kansas
Nathaniel Vaughn Kelso, Stamen Design
Bernard Jenny Geosciences, Oregon State University

Break-out discussion
Maps as Destinations and Portals
Design Principles
Tools, Techniques, and Technology

Aesthetics of mapping II Thursday 10:15-12:00

Design is Not Making Things Pretty. It is (not-so-simply) Making Things Sam Pepple, Sample Cartography

Style and Taste, Mark Denil, National Ice Center

The Impotence of Maps, or Deconstructing the Deconstruction of their Construction, Daniel “daan” Strebe, Mapthematics

Aesthetics of mapping summary Friday 3:45-5:00

Findings, conclusions, recommendations (to be presented at the closing session


Zen and the art of cartography

Here’s a copy of the talk I recently gave at the BCS conference in the UK (June 2012) and Geocart in New Zealand (August 2012) that explored design in cartography.  It focuses on the juxtaposition of art and science and the white elephant of technology that means cartography is in a constant state of reinvention.  Click through to view on slideshare where I’ve fleshed out some bottom notes.


Reasserting design relevance in cartography

Alongside Commission member Damien Demaj, I recently completed a survey of cartographic experts to establish what the profession considers to be some of its best work.  The general idea behind the survey was to provide a set of examples that showcase high quality cartographic design; work that exemplifies how excellence in cartography transcends the purely functional map into something more-a map that invites scrutiny, exploration, engagement and fascination.  The work is presented in two articles in the latest issue of The Cartographic Journal.  In the first, Reasserting design relevance in cartography: some concepts, we explain a little of what design is and why it is important in cartography.  In a second paper, Reasserting design relevance in cartography: some examples, we showcase 39 maps that demonstrate excellence in design accompanied by comments on what it is that makes them so engaging as a map product.

The articles are only available to subscribers of The Journal through IngentaConnect but over the coming weeks we will also be showcasing these examples and hosting links to accompanying resources on the Commission web site.

Jack Dangermond comments on map design

In a recent ArcWatch article, Esri president Jack Dangermond provides some comments on how he sees the mapping landscape developing over the next few years.  He sees web maps (which he refers to as intelligent web maps) as becoming the new medium for the way information is delivered.  Well, paper is probably a long way from being dead but certainly, web maps are increasingly important and increasingly used.

We’d agree…and we also agree fundamentally with his opening quote: “We need to spend more time designing maps and not just producing them”.  It doesn’t matter in what medium your map is made but design is crucial to its success as a communication device.  If you have something to say then your map should contain good content, clearly illustrated in a way that captures and holds your reader’s interest.

Far too many web maps are poorly designed, partly because of the lack of maturity of web mapping tools, but as with any developing technology, potential is not always fully explored.  Dangermound continues… “The problem is that most of these maps are not effectively designed.” and that “You need to understand the issue [that] you are going to communicate, and you need to bring the appropriate data to it and do analytics and manipulation, and then come up with a compelling graphic design that helps us understand”.

Good web maps can be made and useful tools do exist.  What we need to encourage in map makers is for them to see design as an important component of their work.  That, of course, is what this Commission on Map Design is focused on and we endorse Dangermond’s comments and look forward to a future populated by excellence in web mapping.  Much work to do to realize that of course…and we’ll be helping shape the conceptual and practical landscape to support that aim.

Map Design alive and well at AAG2012

Alongside the new ICA Commission on Cognitive Visualization, the Map Design Commission held a series of very well attended sessions at the Association of American Geographer’s annual meeting in New York 23-28 February.

A wide array of papers explored overarching issues of the value of design in mapping to specifics including the way colour is applied in particular circumstances and reworkings of the Minard map.  The best papers from the sessions will be published as part of a Special Issue of The Cartographic Journal later this year and evidences the importance of design in mapping.

More generally, there was quite a focus on mapping at the conference and a particularly well attended session by the team at the New York Times graphics department gave an insight into their work.  The maps and infographics in the New York Times are widely recognised as being some of the clearest, cleanest contemporary examples of good design and the session showcased much of their work and processes.

Map Design Commission at AAG2012

The ICA Commission on Map Design is co-organizing (with the ICA Commission on Cognitive Visualization) a range of paper sessions at the Annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers 24-28 Feb in New York City.  We have 7 sessions themed Cognition, Behavior and Representation dealing with design, color, people and design, user interactions and map interpretation, space reasoning, movement in real and virtual spaces, wayfinding and research challenges.

The sessions bring together a vibrant group of researchers and practitioners and we look forward to a highly engaging forum with 40 papers from both renowned speakers and early career researchers. The sessions also give us a platform to promote the work of the two Commissions and encourage participation.  A special issue of The Cartographic Journal is already slated for the end of 2012 to showcase the very best papers from these sessions.

If you are at the AAG then please come along and take part.  We very much look forward to seeing you in NYC!