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How I first got into Cartography…

Earlier this week I was interviewed by the School of Graphic Design at Southampton Solent University in the UK. They were interested in getting an insight into process of map making and cartography. I’d thought I’d share the transcript of our conversation…

1)   How did you first get into cartography?

I failed to get into Architecture, so I quickly had to find a plan B! I figured mapping was the next best thing (as a 17 year old that was about as much thought as I used to put into things!). I didn’t know much about the process of map making then, I simply new I liked maps and that it would be cool to be a map maker! Thankfully I was accepted into the Cartography course at RMIT University in Melbourne where I spent the next 4 years learning about all of the quirky things in map making!

2)   When making a map what Is the first aspect you start with?

First always consider the what’s, who’s, where’s, how’s and when’s. You must know the map purpose (what), who the audience is, where and how the map will be used and when it will be used. Then you start thinking about what data is available, and the technology and design that will be used to build the map.

3)   How long does it take to complete a map?

That depends on many things. Data availability and/or processing. Research and compilation, design, format, level of detail, scale of map, technology available, and what the client’s expectation is with regards to overall map quality. All of the items above influence how long it takes to complete a map.

4)   Is there a signature element that you try to include to make your work stand out?

For me maps must connect at an emotional level, as well as meeting the users requirements (of course). They must be visually appealing (and useful!) in order to encourage them to explore deeper into the map to discover new places, stories or evoke further questions or insight about the topic on display.

5)   Is there a specific part of the process you enjoy most or find more rewarding?

Before automated text placement was available the process I enjoyed most was placing type on a map (as weird as that sounds). Beautiful label placement and typography is definitely an art form, and still has a massive influence on the overall appearance and legibility of the map. It also has a powerful emotional connection with the map user. Also, one of the great things about map making is that you can immerse yourself in one place or topic for weeks without leaving your desk!

6)   With advances in technology and software do you think cartography has lost some of its artistic quality?

The art in cartography is different now no doubt. Is it better or worse? That’s a tough call. The process of map making has become heavily automated which often results in machine driven maps (i.e. they tend to have the same automated look and feel). There are some digital maps that share the same artistic quality as paper maps. I think right now digital maps probably lack the art that paper maps once did, but I can see that gap closing as the technology driving digital maps gathers pace.

7)   How do you organise the massive amount of data required to be included in a map?

Great question. If you have poorly organized data then you are more than likely not going to be able to get the maximum benefit out the data.  Organising the data in relation to performance, and ensuring it is the right format, projection, has suitable positional accuracy, is up-to-date and contains the attribution (information) you require is on going challenge for cartographers. Data provides the backbone of any great map, and much time is spent mining and organising the data.

8) How often are maps renewed/ replaced?

That depends on the product, and the requirement. In the past large atlases might be updated annually or bi-annualy. National Topographic sheets by government agencies may have had a 5 to 10 year update cycle (for the not so popular ones). Now-a-days we are seeing the need for real time information, therefore the expectation is that the map is live and it is continually being updated on the fly.

9) What/who has influenced your career to-date?

Hmm, many things influence a career and have indeed influenced mine. These influences can range from opportunities, to people, to technology, to place, to projects, to family and friends. There is no doubt that co-workers and peers, and their products (over-time) have had a large influence on shaping my work to date. Of course living and working abroad has had an enormous impact on my career as well, I will certainly never forget my time working in London, Singapore and now California!

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