Making maps is relatively easy, you push a few buttons on your ArcGIS or QGIS and then hit the “Export” button, at least this is what you are led to believe if you scour the web for mapping “How to” guides.
With the new wave of casual map makers comes a wave of confusion. ESRI are right, every map should tell a story and the whole point of making a map is to relate your information as simply and easily as possible, though what we are getting are people using Google Earth backgrounds or Ordnance Survey backgrounds on their maps and then putting lots of colour information over the top.
The example above is a good example of the problem…..Look carefully and try to work out what it is showing. Unless you KNOW what the map is for, it is almost impossible to understand, there are several layers of colour which overlay some Ordnance Survey data which might or might not be of relevance. If you put yourself in place of the reader of your report or a casual member of the public you would have probably flicked past the map as your brain automatically tries to ignore the confusion of colour and information laid before you.
So where do a lot of people go wrong?
People falsely believe that they can just use Ordnance Survey, Google, ESRI basemaps or other background mapping and put their information on top, then all of a sudden they have a work of art, afterall, Ordnance Survey and Google are top mapping companies.
Sadly no, Google make maps for Google and are intended to relate as much information as possible across to the user with no intention of it supporting someone elses work, to use Google actually REDUCES the number of colours and schemes you have available. Just think about it, when using their road maps you are no longer able to use many your shades of buff/beige/pink or yello for onshore, redline boundaries cannot be used as it will get confused with the roads and the same with blue!
Using Ordnance Survey background data is even harder! They have spent decades perfecting their map products and use almost the whole spectrum of colour and have over 10,000 features all with their own icon, even using heavy transparency on the background data will not help in most instances.
So what is the best thing to do?
Greyscale, fewer background features, transparency….Don’t make the background map the priority, if you have a lot of information to relate, break it up into a couple of maps and don’t try and copy or use the styles which the major mapping companies use or your information will disappear into the background.
Most of all…REMEMBER YOU ARE TELLING A STORY. Once you’ve made your map, print it off and go make a cup of tea (or coffee or water) then when you come back, look at the map again. Is it immediately understandable? Does it get the message across quickly? If you are unsure, show it the a secretary or someone who doesn’t do mapping and ask them what the map is about. Never assume that you make the best maps or that your map is perfect without a second opinion, my benchmark is my daughter, always honest and always with good ideas (and clever enough not to want to be a GIS/Cartographer when she grows up!).