Cartographers are [not] Designers

After 30 years of practice, I think this has a fundamental truth to it, but I need to qualify the purpose of this piece. Firstly, what is a cartographer these days? In the past, there were traditional and dedicated cartography courses available in further and higher education. It was a well-defined profession. Today, dedicated cartographic education is much more limited; you can probably count the number of courses worldwide on one hand. It has been absorbed in to new fields such as geographic information systems or science (GIS). Understandable to a large degree as the outputs of GIS are maps, though it has always surprised me that GIS did not become absorbed by cartography, as another tool? That makes more sense, as a discipline.

Whilst GIS is a wide-ranging profession, it is technically focused—the clue is in the title. Design, in any real sense, has no substance in the field. A few modules on basic cartographic theory do not qualify in this respect. This observation should be of no surprise as the discipline of cartography tends to sit within the ‘geography’ subject field of education, not design. As with all professions, there are practioners who focus on specific areas that play to their strengths and interests.

These days, most practising cartographers, or map-makers—and especially GIS users—have had barely any design education, most certainly nowhere near the depth that graphic designers gain. And for the most part, it shows. As eluded to previously, when cartography exisited as its own subject, design was much more embedded in the education. With the current focus of cartography as a ‘module’ of GIS education—the map being a vehicle for data—design only plays a bit part, and that is a shame. That’s not to say there are not cartographers (map-makers), from all backgrounds, who are not making great maps—they are—including graphic designers, and non-GIS professionals.

Cartography is probably one of the broadest disciplines available; a true art and science. Traditional education covered a wide variety of fields that impacted upon the design and production of a map, including handling and working with data, statistics, surveying, geography, typography, graphic design, psychology, and much more, though could be even broader these days. It could also readily sit within the broader design discipline, being arguably, the purest form of information design—spatial information design, perhaps?

“In a world where more maps are being made than ever before, cartography doesn’t need reinvention; it needs understanding!”

—Dr Kenneth Field

We inhabit and work in a world with blurred disciplinary boundaries and where technologies allow us all to ‘wear other hats’—whether we understand what we are doing, or not! Are we becoming ever more jacks of all trades, but masters of nothing? Possibly, but as there are also two-sides to every situation, this also enables new and innovative approaches. That said, the transistion to new fields is not without problems.

There is an assumption that the transition (knowledge and skills required) is not that great. For example, the GIS field tends to have a narrow and clichéd view that graphic designers simply make things look nice, in some intuitive and untrained way—style over substance. Equally, unfortunately, some cartographers also assume they can carry out all types of design work, covering communication or environmental design. Some are more than able, of course, but the examples of this are relatively few and far between. This is evident in both the worlds of print and screen design, and further examples our broader range of practice these days, often in fields we have little or no real understanding or experience in. The tools of creation are advanced enough and accessible enough to let anyone create anything these days.

This issue infects academia as much as professional practice. A recent academic paper I read considered the redesign, and creation of, new cartographic pictograms only to demonstrate how badly designed and artworked their new symbols were (IMHO), rendering the study somewhat meaningless. Why not carry out the study working with a professional graphic designer?!

I’ve observed that graphic designers who embark on a ‘full’ cartographic journery seem to create nicer (better?) maps than cartographers themselves, all else being equal. By that I mean having the professionalism to acquire the knowledge and skills in working with data, gaining an understanding of cartographic history, theory and practice—all fundamental to effective crossdisciplinary practice. Of course, there are numerous branches to cartographic design and compilation, and I’m not trying to over-simplify the practice, but unless design takes a a front row seat, the effort of map-making will ultimately be in vain.

Notwithstanding the increasing sophistication of applications that improve the ‘default’ value settings in map creation, through AI, neural processing and other means, it seems a shame that design and visual communication are not more fundamental to cartographic education and practice, particularly in this age when anyone can create a map and misinformation is prevalent. No one wants to be hoodwinked by overly-clever software. That said, it does seem like jobs in the future may become more focused on curation rather than creation. We should all learn to be more self-critical and understand when we should be using more appropriate resources rather than trying to do everything ourselves. We need to learn how to learn.!

Personally, I feel it is important to have a solid grasp of a disciplinary field before trying to tread that path, but doing so will generate more successful maps. I have trained and studied in both cartography and graphic design, and continue to practice both fields, understanding how mutually beneficial this can be. I also acknowledge it’s a continuous journey of lifelong learning and improvement. I still feel like a student after 30 years of practice as there is always something new to learn!