Written by Matt Przyborski
For many of us just developing our GIS skills, mastering the art of map making can seem daunting. Even the acronym “GIS” can be a bit intimidating. “Geographic” references an entire scientific discipline, “Information” sounds both vague and all-encompassing, and “Systems” implies that we are dealing with a myriad of inputs and components, all of which we will have to understand to some degree to do our job. As someone who knows only the bare basics of computers and is not a web designer, map making can be challenging for me at times. Instead of focusing on what I know I can do, I often find myself getting overwhelmed at all the options available and all the steps involved in going from a blank screen to a map I’m proud to show off.
A recent presentation by map and web developer Nik Wise helped me to look at map making with a new perspective. There were three main points I took away from Nik’s discussion that I think will benefit me immensely going forward
“The maps we make are really just big spreadsheets”
When I think about it, this statement is obvious. After all, when we make maps we are simply showcasing data in a spatial format. However, hearing an accomplished map maker like Nik say this offhandedly, making it seem like it’s the simplest concept in the world, was very helpful to me. I deal with excel sheets a lot at my current job. When I remember that what I’m dealing with is simply a spreadsheet of data with an additional column for location, my entry point into making the map I want becomes a bit clearer and the whole process much less intimidating
Keep it simple and follow your intuition
Although the task of creating my map is now less daunting, I still need to find the best way to display the data that I’m dealing with. This is another step where I can find myself overwhelmed by the options available or overthinking how the data should be displayed. Nik had some great examples of his favorite maps, all of which were among the most simple and straightforward ones I’ve seen. One was a map of Portland, with a simple color scheme and delineation separating the city into “types” of neighborhoods as he viewed them. Another map was simply points with labels and nothing else. These were good reminders for me that trying to force data to look how I assume it should look on a map is not always the best approach. Simple maps with intuitive layouts can be much more effective at telling the story you want to tell.
Map making as a language
Lastly, when asked if GIS is something everyone should be doing or not, Nik made a great analogy to reading and writing. Not everyone in the world has a PhD in writing or language but most can read and write and we’re much better off for the latter. Thinking of map making as a language that not everyone is an expert at but that most can use to communicate basic ideas is very helpful to me. For one thing, it gives me the confidence that whatever level of map making skills I have, I can still communicate what I want to others. Also, it’s a good reminder that what I’m communicating doesn’t have to be overly complicated.
As I continue to accumulate more GIS skills and knowledge, I think returning to the basic ideas above will serve me well in my map making abilities.