Is there a future for custom cartography?

When I explain what I do for a living people often ask me the stereotypical questions. “Isn’t the whole earth mapped already?” and “Do you have to actually visit all the places you’re mapping?” are the most common ones, but I also get “Aren’t you all out of business what with Google Maps?” (and it gets worse, a cartographic acquaintance once was told “So you’re a cartographer? That’s so sad…”). The answer is no, and here’s why.

It’s true that Google Maps has heralded a revolution in the way people use maps. All of a sudden anyone with a computer and an internet connection can access maps for the entire earth (well, not all of it, coverage differs per country and continent, but suffice to say there’s a whole lot of information readily available). This, in combination with similar developments such as the increase in popularity and usefullness of satnav devices and the rise of OpenStreetMap has hurt the sales of paper maps quite a bit. And let’s be fair, it’s extremely cool that I can just pick up my phone and access a map of say Paris or London in just a few seconds. But there’s still a use for custom maps and consequently a need for cartographers.

These new developments have targeted a very specific part of the cartographic spectrum: the general purpose road- and streetmaps. Granted, that’s the most popular kind of maps, but certainly not the only kind. There’s all kinds of other maps, topographic and thematic, interactive and static, paper and online, that people may need and that will have to be designed. And even in the part of the spectrum most heavily affected by Google, OpenStreetMap and other new developments there’s room for a well-designed map. Personally I find the London A-Z map to be one of the most beautifully designed maps. The density of information in the center is immense, but it has never let me down. It still hurts a bit when I see a (bad) screenshot from Google Maps with some arrows scrawled on it in MS Paint being used as a locator map on a website, or as a route map for a cycling event or something like that.

And that brings me to the main point I’m trying to make here. A map is a form of communication. A visual form of communication, but still communication. A map conveys a message and a skilled cartographer can make sure it’s the message of whoever commissions the map. By making a screenshot of Google Maps, or any other map engine, and using that you’re not necessarily conveying your message, you’re conveying the message from whoever maintains and designs that map engine. In addition to that, a cartographer can add or remove information from the map to suit whatever you want to tell. I’m not advocating large-scale removal or misrepresentation of facts (although one of my favourite books on cartography is “How To Lie With Maps”) but rather the “data to ink ratio” that Edward Tufte advocates for infographics. For every feature on the map, consider whether or not it’s necessary for telling the story.

Imagine you’re the owner of Joe’s Pizza and you want to place a map on your website showing potential customers where you are located and how to get there. Would you really want to show Bob’s Pizza across the street, your bitter rival, as well?


(original map by Google, edited by me)

I think the answer would be “no”. If you hire a cartographer to design this map for you you might get something like this, which shows exactly the same amount of useful information (i.e. information that’s used to communicate where the restaurant is), doesn’t show the competing restaurant and overall is a much more subdued image.


(And on the subject of using Google Maps for locator maps, I have seen some where the marker was in the wrong location)

I’m not saying Google Maps or other map engines shouldn’t be used by the way. They certainly have their benefits and I use them a lot myself. An added benefit is that thanks to Google Maps more people know what it is that I do for a living (but as I said earlier, it brings on more questions too…)

A whole other area of cartography that remains almost untouched by these modern developments is the more special products. Think for example of the hand-made globes by Bellerby (or the soon-to-be-launched inflatable Balanceplanet which I showed at NACIS last year), the Bathymetry book (and related projects) by Caroline Rose and the 3d campus maps that are done by the Mapformation team. This is an area where cartography becomes art and I strongly believe there will always be a market for this. I’ve been fortunate enough to work on some projects that fall in this category and I am very happy with the results.

So in short, if you have a message to convey and it has a geographical component, a cartographer can often help you make sure that your message is communicated in a clear and concise way. They can help you make it fit in with your corporate style and help you make the right decisions. Yes, Google Maps or OpenStreetMap may be free, but a well-designed map doesn’t necessarily have to be a very expensive one, and if it tells your story it’ll be a good investment.

Please note that this is not a discussion about paper vs digital maps. I strongly feel both have their pros and cons and while I still love to use paper maps I also find it very useful that I can access Google Maps on my phone (if… I have an internet connection…), or use something like Avenza’s PDF Maps, which is a little bit of both.

Finally, if you’re a cartographer and want to get in touch with other cartographers, I urge you to check out the NACIS Annual meeting as well as the Cartotalk forum.

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