2. Cartography as Communication

One of the most useful approaches to the study of cartography is to view maps as a form of visual communication--a special-purpose language for describing spatial relationships. Although it is perhaps unwise to draw a direct analogy between cartography and language, concepts such as "grammar" and "syntax" help to explain, at least metaphorically, the sorts of decisions cartographers make as they compose maps. Cartographers seek to make use of visual resources such as color, shape and pattern to communicate information about spatial relationships. The analogy with language also helps explain why training in principles of effective cartography is so important--it allows us to communicate more effectively. Without a knowledge of some of these basic principles, the beginning cartographer is likely to be misunderstood or cause confusion.

2.1 Cartography is closely related to graphical communication

Cartography is related to, but different from other forms of visual communication. Cartographers must pay special attention to coordinate systems, map projections, and issues of scale and direction that are in most cases of relatively little concern to other graphic designers or artists. But, because cartography is a type of graphical communication, some insights to the demands of cartography can be gleaned from the literature of graphical communication and statistical graphics. Often cartographers are faced with some of the same challenges faced by graphical designers and can learn much from their insights. As you begin to study cartographic design, you may find it useful to consult some of the standard works on graphical communication. You will find the following books particularly interesting, and maps are often the focus of discussion.

2.2 Maps are symbolic abstractions--"generalizations" or "representations"--of reality


By stressing cartography as a form of communication, it is easier to make the point that maps are really symbolic abstractions--or representations--of real world phenomena. In most cases, this means that the world represented on a map has been greatly simplified, or generalized, with symbols being used like words to stand for real things. Some of the most important decisions cartographers make in the process of cartographic design revolve around: 1) how much to simplify the situation being depicted; and 2) how to symbolize the relationships being represented.

For further discussion of these issues, you may wish to consult:

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