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Is there a future for custom cartography?

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#1
Hans van der Maarel

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This is something I've often been asked (or more specifically: "aren't you out of business what with Google Maps?") and today I sat down to write a reply (spoiler, the answer is yes), which may be a bit rambling, but I hope I got my message across.

 

http://redgeographic...om-cartography/

 

So... any thoughts?

 

 


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Red Geographics
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#2
David Medeiros

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I think the life span of this very question is in a way evidence that the answer is "yes". These questions of our impending doom are almost cliche to most cartographers at this point, and while I don't think that means we can be compalcent, I do think it speaks to the naive perception of map making most people have. In a way that naivety has always been there, it's just that until the advent of web mapping many individuals had never even thought about how their maps got made, and if they had, even 10 or 15 years ago, they might have asked these questions anyway. 

 

It reminds me of moving to Vermont from Hawaii during my freshman year of high school and being asked questions like "do you have TV there?" or "do people in Hawaii live in grass shacks?" (they really got a kick out me telling them that it actually snows on the Big Island). To a certain extent the questions are simply ludicrous, but they also reflect a simple lack of exposure on the part of the person asking.

 

I think the reality is that while digital, and automated, and web based maps have created a profound realignment in terms of who really needs a custom map, it has for the most part been a boon to custom mapping in the sense that it creates exposure, and exposure to so-so mapping creates demand for better work. It also means that a lot of work that at one time might have been 'custom' is now going to be automated (Google maps in place of AAA road maps). But not all mapping fits a custom use case and I think that's what we as cartographers have to come to terms with.

 

The biggest danger I think we as cartographers face today is having our industry equated simply with "paper maps". While paper map making has been the foundational use case for much of what constitutes cartographic design, the principles and expertise that covers is widely applicable to almost all kinds of map making (or visual communication). We have a lot to contribute to modern map making but are often marginalized by that perception. I think it's useful for cartographers (especially the 'old' gaurd) to try and understand how their skills apply to modern map making and make an effort to contribute wherever possible. 


GIS Reference and Instruction Specialist, Stanford Geospatial Center.

 

www.mapbliss.com

 


#3
Derek Tonn

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I think it's all a question of branding, marketing, and positioning strategies.  Designing with the end user in mind...NOT the way that we project the end user to need to think/interpret/navigate, the way that we do.  

 

When I go to NACIS conferences, I sometimes get the "vibe" from a few people (not nearly a majority, but an unnamed few) that "all the unwashed masses OBVIOUSLY don't recognize our genius/brilliance as cartographers...because if they did, they'd never look at another ___________ (Google Map, map on-screen, et al) again."  The same people who will chastise said unwashed masses for DARING to create a map by themselves (the NERVE, hehe), but will not hesitate to make their own websites, do their own books and taxes, and be their own "VP of Sales and Marketing" when it comes to their own freelance work.  ;)  We often talked about that phenomenon in my B.A. and MBA course work in Marketing/Advertising.  Where people in various fields are essentially taught "if you build it (well), they (clients) will come" as their entire exposure to topic of marketing.  But the real world doesn't work that way.  Does Google have the "best" maps, because they have the largest percentage of market penetration and visibility on the planet?  Is MS Internet Explorer the "best" browser, because they have a larger market share than any other browser?  Does Dominoes, Pizza Hut, or Papa John's have the "best" pizza, just because millions upon millions of Americans will consume their food?

Being "good" at mapping/cartography is only one small piece of the overall puzzle.  And people who lament the "unwashed masses" not recognizing their genius/brilliance, not hiring them to produce maps (on paper, no less) instead of looking at Google Maps, Bing, or OpenStreetMap on their smartphone, are the folks who we will be talking about in the past-tense in our industry in the not-too-distant future.  It's not what WE want to deliver.  Not how WE navigate space or interpret information.  It's what consumers want, NEED us to deliver.  And unless/until we get over ourselves and try to see the world through the eyes of consumers, instead of what we spent years being taught in the classroom, we'll chronically be befuddled and annoyed by our insistence that "zigging" is the correct, superior way to navigate space.  To make maps.  While most of the money in the industry?  Is spent zagging.  ;)


Derek Tonn
Founder and CEO
mapformation, LLC

datonn@mapformation.com
http://www.mapformation.com

#4
Charles Syrett

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Good points, Derek. Most of the marketing gurus I've looked at suggest that you find out what you're good at, or what you want to do/make, and then do __(fill in the blanks, as suggested by marketing experts)__ , so that you can make/give people what they want, and make "tons of money" doing it. In other words, if you have a passion for making ice cubes, and you live in the Arctic, you CAN find a way to sell them to the Inuits! But not by just going up to them and saying "wanna buy one?"

 

My own experience is that the customer is, by definition, correct, but that there are times when you have to give them a professional opinion (about a better way to do it than what they're asking for). And they almost always accept that.

 

And for the record, I have to say Google Maps is great! But if you want something much more specific, go to Hans. Or Derek. Or moi. :rolleyes:

 

Charles Syrett
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http://www.mapgraphics.com



#5
James Hines

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A subject that required a lot of contemplation of previous experiences in the field, offering a service to the public & getting nothing in return for the labour.  Life is a struggle to achieve the desirable results that is intended for the experience, afterall we are here to learn, grow and contribute to the whole.  It was as yesterday upon reflection that the choice to exit out of the field was made consciously after failure lead to failure, and what has it done for me?  Chronic unemployment! Why?  The chronic critical inner parent got the best of me saying, "you can not do this."  Realization with faith, fact finding, and searching deep within led me to new cosmic understanding of the contribution and talents capable within from within that while entities present blocks, there is always a way around them, find the path, stay the course, and know you can do it.

 

To ask if there is a future for custom cartography?  Why are you asking that question when we know the answer is yes, a dry period, yes, and as a whole, yes, though it is a good product in terms of gathering information, if of course you have the knowledge and have the required research ability to disseminate through the fallacy presented unintentional or intentional, either, or, on all of the free map servers.  Yet there is a quality that is missing in the modern field of Geographics, a lack of understanding that a left consciousness can not perfect a product of information that is visually pleasing, nor can it disseminate information to the general public to make it meaningful, and understandable to the general whole.  Cartography for the most part is a percept  where most of our projects are created by data, GIS, imagery taken from observations, and satellite imagery; the amateur, and GIS professional with no map interpretation does not have the skill to interpret features correctly or the research skills to make the maps readable.

 

Never the less free products that have what many of us call cool functionality cannot logically take over the cartographic industry without a general consensus that is largely ignorant of the reality that is technology can only give some much information, yet is it correct?  Is it readable?  Do I understand it?  Oh I can make my amateur maps, follow directions, go to the theme park, and end up driving off a cliff instead.  Cartographers in the traditional sense have broader minds then programmers, pure GIS programmers, web developers, etc.  This is due to the fact that we have the ability to be both creative, innovative, and partially to a point the light side of engineering.  

 

It is duly noted that while we have these skills of abilities from within ourselves, there is a lack of knowledge of our true abilities to provide a service for the betterment of the creation that is us and all of life on this planet due to the reality we have not been getting all of the information that we are capable of learning.  Cartography is a sacred art and a science in combination that brings good to humankind, a force that is of a service to others that is widely and ignorantly not understood by the general public because they gravel to a form that has no conscious, it is nothing but matter, and has more right in the eyes of the many because they provide jobs, and opportunities for the next materialistic gain.

 

Why are we not getting Trivium?  Or Quadrivium?  Why are cartographers being reduced?  Why is it that techies think they know more because they can program a language, and produce a machine.  Do they even see the beauty in the art, the vision, other then a piece of machinery that makes our lives easier so that there is less doing and learning, therefore not reaching our potential.  Shutting down creative drive in all aspects of life, limiting our education, and simplifying our capability to reach cosmic infinity.  To say the least in knowledge and understanding cartography has limitless potential, while Google, Microsoft, etc. is very limited in theirs.


"There is much beauty that we fail to see through our own eyes teeming with life forms that give us that perception of our reality.  Leaves on the trees blowing gently in the wind, or scarily, the waves pounding through high surf, or lightly on a warm summer’s day; that opportunity to sit or swim in the water on a white beach.   That comfort to shout, “The universal conscious do you hear me?  I am alive, guide me dear logos towards the path of rightnesses.”  Earned what has been kept, no longer to be absorbed into a life filled with cold damn winds and  that stubborn fog clouding  my vision with nothing but darkness."


#6
Dennis McClendon

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I have the uncomfortable sense that Derek is describing me.  In more than one place.

 

But I will say that I've seen a similar movie before.  In the early 1990s, desktop publishing made every administrative assistant a typesetter and layout artist, and we graphic designers worried that we would soon be unneeded.  Instead, all sorts of enterprises that previously were perfectly happy with typewritten reports and documents suddenly had a new awareness of design, and many of them recognized the need to have folks who understood this design stuff.

 

So, whistling past the graveyard of folded paper maps, I think the new popularity of maps in all online media will just whet the appetite of people for well-designed maps.  It may be true that we no longer need so many compilers of general-purpose reference maps, but the interest in special-topic or thematic maps of all kind will undoubtedly continue to grow, and surely that will be good for people who understand how to make them well.


Dennis McClendon, Chicago CartoGraphics
chicagocarto.com

#7
David Medeiros

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 ...I think the new popularity of maps in all online media will just whet the appetite of people for well-designed maps.  It may be true that we no longer need so many compilers of general-purpose reference maps, but the interest in special-topic or thematic maps of all kind will undoubtedly continue to grow, and surely that will be good for people who understand how to make them well.

 

I think that's exactly right. And I wish I had more then anecdotal evidence of this but I really feel like this is already a trend in the creation of so many design focused digital/dynamic map firms like Axis and Stamen as well as more design focused web map services and APIs like CartoDB and Mapbox.


GIS Reference and Instruction Specialist, Stanford Geospatial Center.

 

www.mapbliss.com

 


#8
Derek Tonn

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I have the uncomfortable sense that Derek is describing me.  In more than one place.

 

But I will say that I've seen a similar movie before.  In the early 1990s, desktop publishing made every administrative assistant a typesetter and layout artist, and we graphic designers worried that we would soon be unneeded.  Instead, all sorts of enterprises that previously were perfectly happy with typewritten reports and documents suddenly had a new awareness of design, and many of them recognized the need to have folks who understood this design stuff.

 

So, whistling past the graveyard of folded paper maps, I think the new popularity of maps in all online media will just whet the appetite of people for well-designed maps.  It may be true that we no longer need so many compilers of general-purpose reference maps, but the interest in special-topic or thematic maps of all kind will undoubtedly continue to grow, and surely that will be good for people who understand how to make them well.

No sir...not thinking about you at all when I made those comments.  You're one of the "good guys" who gets it, IMHO.    :)

This might offend a few people, but I'll lay it all out there in case it aids the conversation and maybe helps 1-2 people look at mapping FOR PAY a little differently.  A good friend of mine was asking me one time what it is like to be a cartographer.  I told him "I have no idea," as "cartographers" are people who typically use data to handle the accurate placement of design elements for them.  :)  I told him I am a graphic designer who LOVES drawing maps.  And more accurately, I am a marketing professional who had all but 3-4 art history classes needed to finish off a graphic design double-major.

I also told him that a percentage of cartographers seem to struggle with a bit of a "Creator" or "God complex."  Seeing the world, interacting with the world, DEPICTING the world, from somewhere high-up in the sky/atmosphere (removed from it all) ...drawing it at such a scale where people wouldn't even make it as a single pixel in their depictions!  Then proclaiming to everyone: "Thou shalt see the world and navigate space the way I do...or thy shall be naughty in my sight [/MontyPython, LOL]."  North on top (ALWAYS on top...or you're an imbecile/amateur), accurate specific to lat/long to within a few feet, using some universally-agreed upon "projection," et al.  When for (I would estimate) about half the planet's population, that is NOT how their brains are wired to navigate space.  

 

Distance, "North," street names?  Meaningless.  I needed my wife to pick me up after a meeting one time, and told her "Go North on Highway ____ for about three miles until you get to __________ Street, then turn West..."  She said "whoa-whoa-whoa!  It's dark outside!  How the HECK am I supposed to know which direction North is?!"  :)  Is this because she isn't "smart?"  Because they were fresh out of wayfinding genes when she was being constructed in her mother's womb?  Nope.  My wife is one of the smartest people I know...and her IQ probably runs laps around my own!  Rather, her brain simply isn't wired for distance or direction!  She needs me to tell her "Drive until you see the Target store, then hang a left at the next light.  Go past the mall and ball field, and you'll eventually see a three-story brick building on the right.  Go past it, then take your next right.  Two more blocks, and you'll see a grateful me, on your left."  BILLIONS on our planet are exactly like that!  Yet how many of our maps (as an industry) are created in such a way as to effectively serve their needs?

 

That is the core reason I created mapformation...the core reason we're still alive and kicking after 14 years (22 years, counting my freelance work).  To serve the needs of the OTHER half (?) of the population who unwillingly have "left-brained" maps crammed down their throats.  Or who are made to feel stupid for not being able to make sense of your average planimetric map (again, North on top, ALWAYS on top...or you're an imbecile/amateur, accurate specific to lat/long to within a few feet, et al).  Who don't think like your typical left-brained male (who seem to dominate our industry...which means it's no surprise...the majority of work our industry produces, how people are taught by other left-brained males to produce the "right" work in universities, etc.).  And without tooting our collective horn too loudly, we've been kicking ### and taking no prisoners related to custom cartography since around 2006.  Took 5-6 years to really get rolling, but once we got rolling, we've done okay for ourselves.  "Zagging," while most of the industry "zigs."

To really make great, effective maps, we've gotta get out there, come down from the clouds/atmosphere, and get our hands dirty.  Really talk with the end users of the maps we're creating...to see what they want, what they need.  Not spend all our time teaching people how to think/navigate the way we do ("correctly," sigh)!  Rather, spending as much time as we can afford having THEM teach US how to make what we create more useful.  People vote with their wallets.  And if people aren't voting for us with their wallets?  Either we're one of the best kept secrets out there (marketing problems), or we are not producing what people want/need.  Or some combination of both.  

Sorry for the novel!  But I don't know how to say stuff like this in "144 characters or less."


Derek Tonn
Founder and CEO
mapformation, LLC

datonn@mapformation.com
http://www.mapformation.com

#9
David Medeiros

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Derek, I like you, I think you are a good guy, you run a very successful business that produces some amazing work (some of it is even planimetric, with N on top!). But you seem to have a huge chip on your shoulder when it comes to "cartographers". I realize that part of your production niche necessarily requires differentiating what you provide from more typical custom map work but I think you draw too hard a line on those differences and what describes a cartographer today. The days of "N always on top" and "all maps have a scale and N arrow" are long gone in my opinion. They were a relic of academic cartography and really don't show up very much in modern thinking about cartographic design IMO (maybe in some GIS circles). Understanding the purpose of the map from the clients point of view first, understanding who the user is and designing the map around that knowledge is a primary design goal in most descriptions of the cartographic design process today.

 

I know a fair number of cartographers and don't know any who fit your description here (but most of them describe their cartography instructors the same way). So I wonder if this isn't a slightly outdated view of our industry?


GIS Reference and Instruction Specialist, Stanford Geospatial Center.

 

www.mapbliss.com

 


#10
Charles Syrett

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I have to agree with David. I also don't know anyone who fits that description, and never have! But Derek's points are still good. My wife would heartily agree with his wife! And even Google Maps (at least on smartphones) allows the user to rotate the map any old which-way, and the labels all politely rotate back to right-reading while you do it!

Charles Syrett
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http://www.mapgraphics.com



#11
Derek Tonn

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Derek, I like you, I think you are a good guy, you run a very successful business that produces some amazing work (some of it is even planimetric, with N on top!). But you seem to have a huge chip on your shoulder when it comes to "cartographers". I realize that part of your production niche necessarily requires differentiating what you provide from more typical custom map work but I think you draw too hard a line on those differences and what describes a cartographer today. The days of "N always on top" and "all maps have a scale and N arrow" are long gone in my opinion. They were a relic of academic cartography and really don't show up very much in modern thinking about cartographic design IMO (maybe in some GIS circles). Understanding the purpose of the map from the clients point of view first, understanding who the user is and designing the map around that knowledge is a primary design goal in most descriptions of the cartographic design process today.

 

I know a fair number of cartographers and don't know any who fit your description here (but most of them describe their cartography instructors the same way). So I wonder if this isn't a slightly outdated view of our industry?

Thanks David.  And again, I don't mean to be a bull running through a china shop!  Not at all.  I sincerely apologize if I come off that way.

I remember sitting in a session at NACIS a few years ago.  I think it was Alex Tait presenting.  Alex is awesome, an AMAZING talent!  And he was showing all of us some of the great maps that are/were being created out there related to 3D work and bird's eye/oblique/pictorial mapping.  Next to me were two of your stereotypical "academics" in the field (white, male, 50-something, went right from grad school probably into teaching, with no "real world" experience in between) who were snickering.  Projecting confidence/arrogance to probably mask their defensiveness at feeling as though the industry was evolving much faster than they were.  I remember one leaning over and commenting to the other...something to the effect of "Why are we even talking about this [at NACIS]?  This isn't cartography!"  Now, maybe they saw who they were sitting next to, a marketing/graphic design hanger-on, and were simply trying to get a rise out of me!  It worked, LOL.  :P

NACIS is changing though...rapidly.  I remember the conference/sessions in St. Louis and a few other places several years ago, as compared to this last NACIS in South Carolina.  I got home this Fall, and Becky asked: "how was the mapping conference?"  I told her: "I'm not sure I was in the right place...as I think I actually was attending a web developer's conference by mistake!"  :)  That's good though...exciting!  Change is AWESOME, not something to be feared or bemoaned.  I just hope I'm alive and kicking long enough to see "PCD" be the NACIS conference...rather than an additional day added to the front of the schedule.  Still incorporate the theoretical, history, and ideas of cartography!  But have the conference's primary focus be the actual "doing or use of something" as it pertains to both the science and art of map illustration.


Derek Tonn
Founder and CEO
mapformation, LLC

datonn@mapformation.com
http://www.mapformation.com

#12
Strebe

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People vote with their wallets.  And if people aren't voting for us with their wallets?  Either we're one of the best kept secrets out there (marketing problems), or we are not producing what people want/need.  Or some combination of both. 

 

There is a third interpretation, one that has been repeated dozens of times over the past couple of centuries. It’s not a marketing problem and it’s not that cartographers produce things people don’t want. It’s that the alternative is impossible to compete with in any large-scale way. John Henry didn’t lose for lack of fans or for an inapt product. Though he won the battle, he lost the war because automation obviated brawn. Automation is now obviating rote, as well, and let’s face it: A huge chunk of mapping is rote. When maps are provided for “free”, an awful lot of people are not willing to put out money and to deal with the friction of paying for a product when the immediate alternative suffices. Like myriad other products, the gap in price between automatically manufactured artifacts acceptable to most people, and the custom, artistic artifacts a few people are willing to pay more for, is only going to increase over time as automation becomes more efficient and as human wage expectations increase.

 

With the exception of the one or two things in their lives that matter most to them, most people aren’t willing to pay double, five times, ten times as much for a better product when the functionality is only marginally better, regardless of how good it looks. John Henry’s successor is a sculptor, and what she sells no longer has anything to do with infrastructure construction. It’s not clear to me what cartographers will sell in thirty years, but whatever it is, isn’t going to be what most people use frequently. It’s not even clear to me what computer programmers will sell in thirty years; by then computers just might be programming themselves and we’ll all be out of a job. There’s no point in thinking that far ahead, but what there is a point to is keeping in mind where you, as a cartographer, give the greatest value to your product. Exploit those skills to the hilt while they still matter, and automate as much of the rest as is feasible. Even then, if you can’t sell your maps, it may not be just because you didn’t give people what they want or because you didn’t work hard enough at marketing. It may be because the market just isn’t big enough for that many custom maps anymore.

 

Regards,

— daan Strebe



#13
DaveB

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I hope I'm out of a job before 30 more years are up! :P

 

Lots of good points all around. Good discussion.


Dave Barnes
Esri
Product Engineer
Map Geek




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