Saturday, March 31, 2007


I posted this in CartoTalk, but I thought it appropriate to post here too. It's a response to a posting in Speak Up:

It's funny, because I've been wondering lately about the limitations of our company calling itself a "map company", let alone calling myself a "cartographer.” It's certainly a name with a certain amount of cachet in the right circles, but it does mean often that my work (and the work my company is hired to do) stops at the neatline (actually my business card has always said "Head of Production").

So I am to some extent in line with what the article laments. Here's what I think is a crucial mistake he makes: he looks at renaming as solely an effort to sound like everyone else. I think the object is to point out what you can do better, and to redefine your way out of obsolescence.

An example from a hoary metaphor: livery manufacturers after World War I. Those who persisted in specializing in harnesses and bridlewhips were mostly out of business by the crash of 1929. However, I'l wager good money that some of them got into the fittings and construction business for the auto indutry. Instead of "livery" makers they became "manufacturers of leather fittings." Or something similar.

Professional writers didn't disappear after people started learning how to write their own letters. But "scribes" became "secretaries" or "authors." There are still professional photographers, but the bulk of them work for the media, while portrait photographers, where the real money was 120 years ago, got in large part replaced by amateurs and by big-box operations.

My point is, some of the things that set cartographers and graphic designers apart in the old days (you know how to do the process, you know how to use the arcane tools) have not become irrelevant, but they're heading away from (I'll be blunt) the real money.

When I started, we could think about drawing a street map from scratch, because that was how you got consistent linework without jaggies. And we field-checked everything because the base data was so unreliable. Now I look at GoogleMaps and 95% of the time I say, well, my work here is done. Or irrelevant. Or it will be eventually.

So the challenge is to look at what we do well (without using the word map—try it, it’s an interesting exercise), and find a way to frame that that doesn’t restrict us into livery-makers.