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GIS Cartography: A Guide to Effective Map Design by Gretchen N. Peterson

Monday, June 22nd 2009
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Summary:

Some percentage of those making maps with GIS have had limited or no map design training. Gretchen Peterson has written a very accessible book that highlights best practices while encouraging both new and experienced map makers to stretch their creativity. Executive Editor Adena Schutzberg has a review.

GIS Cartography: A Guide to Effective Map Design is aimed at the large number of GIS users who, for one reason or another, did not have training in cartography or map design. These individuals are still expected by bosses, clients and colleagues to produce effective maps that communicate necessary information.

To reach this population Peterson set out to write not so much a "how to" guide, but rather a reference book of best practices. Readers will not find any "click this menu choice" type instructions, as the book is virtually devoid of references to any particular software. A novice pen and ink cartographer would find the book just as useful as someone sitting in front of the latest GIS offering.

The book introduces the need for good design in the first two chapters, but really hits its stride beginning in Chapter 3, titled "Layout Design." Here the author presents a checklist of primary and secondary elements of map design, then walks through each one in detail. While I might quibble with where some elements fall in the checklist (I'd put data source information as a primary element, rather than a secondary one), this is a valuable list. Also valuable are the best practices for each of 25 elements gleaned from Peterson's 10 years of work and research in the field.
 
What follows are detailed chapters on font, color and features (that is, symbolizing map features). The "fonts" chapter goes into the serif versus san serif question and gives examples of modern fonts. The chapter on color covers theory, then best practices for figure-ground issues, the number of shades to use in choropleth maps, and addressing color vision deficiencies, among others. The chapter on features may be most valuable to those who are not surrounded by map making colleagues or organizational color and symbology standards. Peterson notes color options and symbology guidance for more than a dozen types of features from roads and streams, to elevation and hill shade, to land use and soils. I was surprised that a standard I learned (during my time at ESRI) for utilities (roads=red, water lines=blue, sewer lines=green) was not noted. Perhaps it's less of a standard or best practice than I believe it to be?

The final chapter addresses media.  That is, how a would-be cartographer prepares maps for use on paper, in printed posters and in PowerPoint presentations or the Web. While the discussion of factors to consider in designing maps for each of these is valuable, the lengthy discussion of conference PowerPoint presentation styles (fast and simple, slow and simple, slow and busy) seems out of place.

Peterson has an informal style and includes anecdotes from her life and work to illustrate her points. For example, she includes her young daughter's insights about paintings at a museum as an example of how to see things in different ways. She also adds a bit of humor when addressing mundane topics, like text on posters: "The Three Levels of Conference Squint: Level 1) The text on this poster is so close together that the words are blurring together (or is that due to the free drinks?)."

In short, this is a valuable book to skim through and then keep nearby while designing maps by hand or with a GIS. While focusing on some best practices, Peterson regularly invites users to think and design outside the box - so long as there is a good reason to do so. She also offers a companion website with resources and a poster to remind readers of the salient points in the book.



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