This holiday season I got to thinking about the trains and village I used to help set up under the tree when I was a kid. I realize that the enjoyment I found in that bit of “urban planning” and detailed overview at small scale is not unrelated to my chosen profession of map design. Between then and my early adulthood, there was also enthusiasm for tracing maps in fourth grade, learning drafting in seventh, stage set design in college, and a brief stint as an architectural model builder–all precursors and perhaps predictors of my long term career. But it was not until fairly recently that I identified myself a cartographer.
My start in map design came from a limited familiarity with graphic design. Under the tutelage of designer Nobu Siraisi, I began to appreciate the subtle and nuanced craft that makes a map beautiful. My eye became trained to see detail, as my view expanded to envision the whole. The broad strokes of Design (with a capital D) that I had aimed for in theatre set design gave way to caring about how to represent a route line turning a street corner and how type follows a curving road. I was finding fulfillment in the details of graphic design as applied to maps. I built a company on the graphic design of cartographic information. During those years I thought of “cartography” as separate from the work I was doing. To my mind, cartography was caught up in map projections, surveying, and other esoteric fields eventually including GIS, which was clearly relegated to data processing.
Since that time, mapping has gone from a stagnant trade to a burgeoning and energized field. Maps have again shown themselves to be a common language, globally understood. Presenting geo-referenceable information on a map has become a default. And as placing data on a map becomes easier, the need for cartographers becomes greater. Cartographers have an opportunity to transform geodata and base maps into compelling, artistic communication–something that is of great value as overwhelming data begs for synthesis.
So now I am a cartographer for two reasons.
First, what started for me as a graphic design pursuit, now comprises an understanding of sophisticated software (yes, including GIS), data visualization, typography, color theory, coding, user experience, 3D manipulation, data curation, and on and on. Staying on a leading edge of map design requires understanding how each of these aspects can come together to present an effective point of view. This is what makes cartography exciting.
And second, I am a cartographer because I believe that maps, their look and feel, each cartographic element, and the information they reveal are a worthy interface and an important story to tell.