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The Business Of Cartography: A Survey

Wednesday, November 26th 2003
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Before the North American Cartographic Information Society’s (NACIS) practical cartography day, I put a survey online.The survey was intended to provide
feedback that could be used in a round table discussion at the NACIS Conference…read about the results of this survey, here…

Before the North American Cartographic Information Society's (NACIS) practical cartography day, I put a survey online. The survey was intended to provide feedback that could be used in a round table discussion at the NACIS Conference, and so the questions were somewhat open ended.

Over a ten-day period, 38 people responded. Of those who responded, eleven are self-employed, ten work for government, and seven are employed by cartography firms. Nine fit into the other category, which includes non-profits organizations and educational institutions.

In response to what is most important when making a map, quality, deadlines, efficiency, and client satisfaction seem to be a common response. Some respondents mentioned the importance of enjoying their work, learning about the areas being mapped, and teaching. At different times of the year, priorities will vary for some. For instance, at one point, the focus will be on GIS and database development. During another time, the focus is on map design. Profit was also mentioned as a priority.

The business models were split into three categories.The bulk of the respondents have clients or a combination of clients and retail.The value of selling retail maps came up in conversations at the conference.Potential clients can learn about the cartographers via the retail products.Only four respondents focus strictly on retail, and one mentioned that having many titles seems key to success in retail.Others mentioned that they are involved in membership organizations or developing maps for use within an organization.

While some cartographers work alone, most work with a combination of team members.Sometimes there is a lead cartographer who distributes work to other cartographers.Project teams might include an editor, authors, GIS technicians, designers, planners, outside contractors, students, researchers, and pre-press people.

As a cartographer, not all of one's time is necessarily spent developing maps.Below is a summary of the hours per day each cartographer works:

Hours Worked
Number of People

Respondents wrote a lot about how they handle pricing. Charging by the hour was not generally preferable.One challenge of trying to review hourly rates is that two people will take different amounts of time to get the map done.Generally, when a client needs a firm quote, one method involves estimating the number of hours a project will take, licensing, mark up of out-of-pocket expenses, hidden costs for new clients, salaries, and overhead.Some utilize salary surveys from AIGA or the Graphic Designers of Canada.

One justification for developing a price for a project rather than relying on an hourly rate is that lower wages may be justified to help develop or refine a map that will be resold later.Other justifications for developing a price for a project are so that the cartographer can charge enough to make the maps as nice as possible or set a charge based on the perceived value of the map.

Some clients, such as magazines, will often pay based on the size of the artwork.This can be very little.

So, what is a fare wage for employees? The answers were all over the place.Salary depends on experience, cost of living in an area, and other factors.The responses were as low as $10-12/hour for students and as high as $70,000.Discussions about this seemed to put salaries in the $40,000-$65,000 range for a cartographer with a fair amount of experience.One respondent wrote, "I'm shocked at how little cartographers charge." Some larger mapping firms are outsourcing work to India at rates as low as $7.50 an hour.

Subcontractors are important to many cartographers.Subcontractors are used to meet a timeline or to provide skills not available in-house.Even with the higher hourly rate, it is usually advantageous to outsource work. Generally, a project budget is presented, and the subcontractors determine if they can work with that budget.Rates mentioned for subcontractors were mostly between $18 and $45 an hour.

Not all cartographers use contracts.When they are used, they outline project specifications, printing, deadlines, terms of payment, licensing or ownership, project hours, and are used for making sure that the expectations are clear.In many cases, these will be email agreements.Some cartographers prefer handshake or simple emails of understanding, and some seldom use contracts.

There were few responses to the question of how copyrights are dealt with.In general, more rights = more costs.Sometimes clients want the rights, and an understanding is met.Sometimes there is a joint copyright.

Projects can be classified into large projects, moderate sized projects, small projects and map updates.Or, they could be broken down into long term and short term projects.The number of projects varies pretty dramatically, but I think this is partly due to the size firm. One respondent wrote that he would rather work with a few organizations on long projects or several small projects.

Project types that cartographers mentioned they are working on include travel guides, maps for educational uses, maps for the scientific community, planning maps, or "no particular focus". Several respondents wrote that they work in particular regions: County, statewide, mostly local, and regional.

In terms of marketing, word of mouth goes a long way.Many maps contain a logo or contact information. Other marketing includes trade shows, Internet presence, working in a local community, advertising in journals, participating in professional organizations, and responding to requests for proposals.

Competition has not been much of an issue for cartographers who responded. There were comments such as, "Competition hasn't been much of an issue", or "We often refer jobs". Competitors mentioned include local publishers in the same region, similar sized cartography firms, firms that lower the bar on maps in general by providing inferior quality at lower prices, other institutions, state agencies, and GIS telecommunications data providers. The "Lack of love for maps" was also sited as a response to competition.

Maybe more important that the competition was the sentiment that providing a quality service promptly leads to more work.And letting maps speak for themselves leads to more work.

The final question of the survey asked cartographers where they turn to for inspiration. Responses included the following: Colleagues, manuals, NACIS conferences, Canadian Cartographic Association, Geospatial Solutions Magazine, Map-Mac, ERIS discussion forums, Cartographers who lead by example and share their knowledge, Atlases like the Swiss Atlas or the Atlas of Oregon,,, "Album of Projections", "Elements of Cartography", "Thematic Cartography", the Tufte book collection, National Geographic, dreaming, and experience.

I want to thank everyone who participated in the survey.

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