3. What Is a Good Map?
If cartography is a form of communication, the measure of a good map is
how well it conveys information to its readers to enlighten, convince,
or persuade. Too often the pure aesthetic appeal of a map is equated with
its communicational value. Aesthetic issues certainly play a role in effective
cartography, but it is the issue of communication that holds the central
role in cartographic design. To ask "what is a good map?" is to ask how
well it communicates with its audience.
This means that one always begins a project by considering the
message to be conveyed and the audience to be addressed. This raises a
series of questions that must be addresses at the start of a project:
3.1 What is the motive, intent, or goal of the
In effect, the question asks what the reader should gain from the map
or how the reader should respond. Motives vary greatly. Many maps are intended
solely to convey accurate information about spatial relationships, others
to sway public debate. Obviously, the motive will have a great bearing
on the content of the map (the information included) and its form (the
cartographic strategies employed).
3.2 Who will read the map?
sightings in the Pacific Northwest by Chad Shuey, George Mason University
A cartographer must be able to identify the type of reader being addressed
for two principal reasons. First, it is important to have an idea about
what the audience is likely to know about the subject matter of the map.
Second, it is useful to know how much background the readers have in using
maps. A map intended for specialists who have a background in cartography
might be organized far differently than one intended for use as a prop
in a public debate.
3.3 Where will the map be used?
An audience is always addressed within a particular context or frame
of reference which has a bearing on map design. Maps may be published alone,
or in newspapers, magazines, journals, books, or atlases. They may appear
in reports, term papers, theses, and dissertations. They may be used in
lectures, briefings, presentations, speeches, and announcements. Some maps
are used only once and then discarded. Others are intended to used for
reference for decades or centuries. For these reasons, context can influence
both the form and content of a map in ways both great and small.
3.4 What data is available for the composition of
Decisions about map design are tempered greatly by source materials
themselves, by what is available and how easily it can be communicated.
Sometimes our source materials have limitations or are incomplete. They
may present special problems of presentation because of technical terminology
or because of the quantities of detail required to make a point. Some data
needs to be qualified. These limitations must be considered from the very
start of a project so that they can be addressed in the design of the map.
3.5 What resources are available in terms of both
time and equipment?
Finally, one must consider the twin questions of how much time to invest
in a project and what systems to use, whether manual or automated and,
if automated, what type of software. Both questions are, of course, best
addressed with experience. However, it is important to realize that production
time drops dramatically with practice. Sometimes scholars avoid using maps
because of the time expense involved in their production. Yet once a person
has a learned a few basics, this expense is greatly reduced. Computer systems
have also made it much easier to produce maps, but, again, practice is
required. Situations remain where manual or semi-manual production remains
time effective. One must also remain aware of the strengths and weaknesses
of various automated systems (see discussion below) and that, in practice,
a variety of software systems may be used together to achieve the desired
on to Basic Elements of Map Composition
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