Book Review: GIS Cartography (2nd Ed)

GIS software is used by many professionals to process spatial information, but the results are often poorly presented and the resulting map can be unattractive. GIS packages, such as QGIS, are increasingly including a broad range of cartographic styling and map design options, to present synthesised spatial data attractively, but it remains all too easy to produce a map without due consideration for its presentation. The old, non-geospatial approach produces beautiful maps in regular graphic applications, e.g. Illustrator, but these lose the data linkages and spatial analysis capabilities of GIS that produce the data to be mapped in the first place. Then there’s the new “slippy map” online map websites that provide a whole new set of tools to allow anyone – be they a geospatial professional or not – to create maps. It can however be all to easy to produce maps with these tools that are unhelpful, look ugly, are difficult to interpret or worst of all are downright misleading.

GIS Cartography, by Gretchen Peterson, is a book that seeks to address these problems, seeking to guide GIS software users and web designers alike to produce maps that contain good cartographic design, harking back to when maps were produced by a dedicated “offline” cartographer. The book does this by taking a structured approach to the elements of data-driven maps, and examining and commenting on each of these in detail.

The book is largely technology-agnostic, not detailing operations for specific GIS software or online mapping APIs but instead outlining the basic concepts of good digital maps that users of such software should normally be able to implement. Peterson is not afraid to espouse her opinion – her experience in the field means that her view is a salient and sensible one. For example, the author has a distinct dislike for the use of logos on maps – arguing for them to be minimised – or ideally dropped altogether, while making the creator’s name more prominent than is often the case. I particularly liked the discussion on fonts and the display of text – perhaps not an area traditionally dwelled on by GIS-focused map makers. For example, different kinds of text halo application are demonstrated well, with a set of excellent graphics. One section of the book that I felt was overlong however was the section on the colour palettes for feature types. Gretchen is attempting to cover all common types of GIS maps (from political to soil) but the detail is overwhelming. By contrast, the section detailing colour blindness issues with maps (which I frequently get caught out with) was succinct.

Online cartography is dealt with in the last chapter “Zoom-Level Design”. This section reflects the recent rise of online mapping software (Google Maps, OpenLayers, Leaflet, etc) used by non-professionals, with the core part of the book solidly focused on the regular desktop GIS (ArcGIS, QGIS, MapInfo, etc). The section focuses on the issues of scale and generalisation for maps designed to be viewed rapidly at multiple zoom levels. Ideally the book would integrate the online and offline (or “slippy map” and “GIS window”) worlds throughout its length rather than addressing online mapping in a single chapter. Of course, many of the aspects presented in the main part of the book – particularly relating to colour and adornments – are also applicable to this kind of mapping.

One slight irony is the variable quality in the design and reproduction of the illustrations in the book itself. Many of them are rather traditional looking, and some are quite pixellated. The generic look is likely because of the desire of the author to keep the book as neutral and platform-independent as possible.

Overall this is an excellent and comprehensive guide to ensuring high quality cartographic output from GIS users and slippy map creators. If you read it from cover you’ll build up an excellent set of guidelines for maps with a rigorous high quality. Alternatively you can dip in to it from time to time when you need advice on specific aspects of your mapmaking, such as tips on how to do scale bars or inset maps well. Even if you are already experienced with mapmaking from GIS software, you’ll quite become aware of design aspects you hadn’t previously considered. If you regularly create online maps, or find yourself increasingly using a GIS to create and output maps straight for presentation, this is an essential book in your professional collection.

GIS Cartography: A Guide to Effective Map Design (Second Edition)
Author: Gretchen Peterson, Publisher: CRC Press. 299 pages. Out now.

Further information on Amazon.

Thanks to the Society of Cartographers for arranging a review copy. This review may appear in the society’s Bulletin in due course. I am happy to accept copies for review of other books in this and related fields – send to Oliver O’Brien, Dept of Geography, UCL, Gower Street, London WC1E 6BT. Review copies can be returned on request, if an SAE is included.

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High quality lithographic prints of London data, designed by Oliver O'Brien

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