Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Pretty Maps

I've felt out of the loop for a few months, busy with other stuff. There was a thread recently in Carto-Talk about GIS folks and "pretty maps" that got me going. My response was:

It's the phrase "making the map pretty" that gets me. I don't make pretty maps. It's like saying that the fine arts are about pretty pictures.

The world of modern cartography isn't about pretty, though sometimes that is a pleasant side-effect. It's about clarity and effectiveness as a visualization tool. But the same things that make a picture pleasant to look at (pretty), are core parts of effective, clear communication: awareness of emphasis, harmony and contrast of color sets, attention paid to the framed shapes and to an overall sense of visual balance. What makes a good piece of modern cartography work is that attention to these things is not in the service of "pretty"—a vacuous word—but in the service of meaning and understanding.

I'm going to recommend an obscure book that really helped me parse this out, by one of my favorite illustrators, Molly Bang. It's called Picture This, and I really enjoyed it.

I think what people who talk about pretty maps don't get is that visual harmony is not the same as pimping your ride. I came to cartography from graphic design 19 years ago because I didn't want to do any more ride-pimping. There's a distrust of design in some quarters because it is, in the wider world, often used to deceive and entice; it's an advertising and marketing field in large part.

And so, I think, some people resist the idea of cartographic design because it sounds like covering up the data with some rhinestones and lipstick. They believe that a map that is "plain" and unadorned, is one which is most honest.

But what I think most folks don't realize is that "plain" is not the same as "lazy." Plain is just as much of a carefully crafted visual statement. I certainly have made that mistake in my personal life: I'm a lazy dresser, and I think I sometimes excuse myself by painting myself as "plain." The Amish put a fair amount of effort in preserving their sober dress: cleaning, ironing, etc. That's different from slapping on a pair of jeans and a t-shirt.

"Pretty" is a straw-man used by those who want to get out of making a map work visually, by equating attention to visual flow and structure with propagandistic manipulation. Good "plain" design is just as much work, and requires just as much attention to design as an effectively pimped-up map will.

1 comment:

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