The Principles of Cartography

There are some pretty amazing software packages out there that can turn real world features and objects into geometrically perfect representations….but this is exactly what they are, brilliant mathematical representations of the data, I am not inspired, some of them I can’t even look at without yawning…..where is the cartography, the combination of science & aesthetics?

Even though I’ve been making maps for a long time, I was at a recent British Cartographic Society meet where the principles of cartography were re-iterated and it made me think again about what it is that I am doing, I thought it might be something the newer GIS users might like or an interesting read for the pros.


The science or practice of drawing maps.

From Wikipedia: “Cartography (from Greek Χάρτης, khartes = papyrus (paper) and graphein = to write) is the study and practice of making maps. Combining science, aesthetics, and technique, cartography builds on the premise that reality can be modeled in ways that communicate spatial information effectively.”

Three Statements of Cartographic Design

– The purpose of design is to focus the attention of the user
– The Principles of Cartographic Design are Timeless, the Results are not
– The Rules of Cartographic Design can be taught and learnt, principles and concepts have to be acquired

Five Principals of Map Design

  1. Concept before Compilation
    Without a grasp of concept, the whole of the design process is negated. The parts embarrass the whole. Once concept is understood, no design or content feature will be included which does not fit it. Design the whole before the part. Design comes in two stages, concept and parameters, and detail in execution. Design once, devise, design again. User first, user last. What does the user want from this map? What can the user get from this map? Is that what they want? If a map were a building, it shouldn’t fall over.
  2. Hierarchy with Harmony
    Important things must look important, and the most important thing should look the most important. “They also serve who only stand and wait.” Lesser things have their place and should serve to complement the important. From the whole to the part, and all the parts, contributing to the whole. Associated items must have associated treatment. Harmony is to do with the whole map being happy with itself. Successful harmony leads to repose. Perfect harmony of elements leads to a neutral bloom. Harmony is subliminal.
  3. Simplicity from Sacrifice
    Great design tends towards simplicity (Bertin). Its not what you put in that makes a great map but what you take out. The map design stage is complete when you can take nothing else out. Running the film of an explosion backwards, all possibilities rush to one point. They become the right point. This is the designer’s skill. Content may determine scale or scale may determine content, and each determines the level of generalization (sacrifice).
  4. Maximum Information at Minimum Cost (after Ziff)
    How much information can be gained from this map, at a glance. Functionality not utility. Design makes utility functional. All designs are a compromise, just as a new born baby is a compromise between its father and mother. The spark which makes a map special often only comes when the map is complete.
  5. Engage the Emotion to Engage the Understanding
    Design with emotion to engage the emotion. Only by feeling what the user feels can we see what the user sees. Good designers use Cartographic fictions, Cartographic impressions, Cartographic illusions to make a map. All of these have emotive contents. The image is the message. Good design is a result of the tension between the environment (the facts) and the designer. Only when the reader engages the emotion, the desire, will they be receptive to the map’s message. Design uses aesthetics but the principles of aesthetics are not those of design. We are not just prettying maps up. The philosophy is simple, beauty (aesthetics) focuses the attention. Focusing the attention is the purpose of map design!


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