Anyone who has traveled somewhere new in their lives has used a map of some sort. Whether it’s navigating across North America on a road trip or simply trying to find the Food Court at the mall, maps allow the user to obtain large amounts of information with ease. What would otherwise be a novel-sized book of detail can be condensed onto one sheet of paper with a simple legend and scale. Most people use maps for navigation, but the possibilities for them are endless.
A cartographer, one who makes maps, needs to have the purpose of the map in mind when drafting it. As a land consultant I create maps not for navigation, but for representing certain key aspects of a parcel of land. These may be wetlands, soil types, property boundaries or existing structures. So how does one take a vast area of land and condense it onto a single foldable map, which can then be carried around in one’s pocket?
Like a tool, every map has a purpose. Therefore, there is no one tool that can fix everything, just as there is no one map that can represent everything. If your goal is to travel from New Hampshire to California as quickly and directly as possible, you probably do not care about topography or water bodies. You just want to get into a car and know when to turn onto the next road until you have reached your destination. Conversely, if you were planning a backpacking trip, you would be more concerned about topography and water bodies. Backpackers will be more concerned with how steep the terrain is or how often they will be able to refill their water bottle. The cartographer can then decide what is prevalent to the user and what would otherwise be clutter.
Once the cartographer has determined the purpose of the map, they can then start gathering the necessary data for creating an accurate representation of the area — this is often the most time-consuming part of creating a map. Today, we have multiple tools that help cartographs gather large amounts of accurate data with relative ease. Such tools include geographic positioning systems (GPS), survey total stations, lidar, arial imagery, etc.
As a land use consultant, I use all such tools, at different capacities, to make my maps. Each tool has its own purpose. If you are making a map to navigate around an office building you will not need a GPS. You would simply need to know the relative distance between offices to make an extremely helpful, user-friendly map of the building. With the data collected, drafting of the map can begin.
With the user in mind, the cartographer can start pondering how to represent this sometimes very large amount of data. Questions a cartographer will need to consider:
- What information is prevalent?
- What scale does my map need to be?
- How can I make it legible and easy to use?
- Is the map esthetically pleasing?
We have already touched on the first item. You may think that more information is always better, right? That is false. If you were to include everything on a map it would be impossible to read. Therefore, most things are left off. This is why a globe that sits on an office desk does not depict every town in the world but solely continents, oceans and maybe countries.
Item number two: scale. Most maps have a scale bar or a ratio (for example, 1 inch = 100 feet). To determine the scale of a map, a cartographer needs to decide what size the map needs to be. Does it need to fit onto an 8 ½ x 11-inch piece of paper or will it hang on the wall of a middle school geography class? This is where compromise comes into play. The smaller the map, the easier it is to transport, but on the other hand, it may become too cluttered. This brings us to item number three… legibility and usability.
Is the map going to be used by someone in the mall trying to get to the food court or someone looking at an engineered site plan for a multi-million-dollar mall construction project? The person trying to get to the food court wants to look at the map quickly and move on. Consequently, larger text and simple bond lines are used. Whereas an engineered site plan will be used by a contractor who will examine every little detail to ensure the mall is constructed accurately, efficiently and safely. This example may also be used for item number four — Is the map esthetically pleasing?
The map used to navigate around the mall will be posted in public areas with lots of traffic. Hence, an esthetically pleasing map will be necessary. They may add different colors or fonts to help the map look more appealing. A construction worker does not necessarily care if the engineered site plan has complementary colors or text styles. Both maps are correct but serve their own purpose. All maps need additional information for them to be used.
All maps need a few tools for the user to fully understand what the cartographer is trying to represent. Some common ones include legend, locus map, scale, title and descriptions. One might ask, “What does the blue dashed line represent?” This answer may be found using the map’s legend (or key). The legend helps identify what certain symbols or lines represent if they are not labeled on the map. When I make maps, I often use the legend to label certain items. This allows me to remove text from the map that would otherwise be clutter.
How do you know the map represents the area in which you are interested? If the cartographer did not use a locus map, you may never know. A locus map shows the user where the main map represents. For example, if you had a map of Keene but did not know where it was located, you may reference the locus map and see that it is located in the southwest region of the state.
Scale is one of the most important parts of a map. It allows the user to determine the distance between two items. Without first looking at the scale, one might think items look really close to one another, but then you notice the scale reads 1 inch = 100 miles. This would drastically change the way you read and interpret the area in detail. The map title describes what the map represents in real life. If one wants to know more about the map, they should reference the maps descriptions. In the descriptions, the cartographer may list the map’s limitations, purpose, descriptions of certain key features, or the data used to make the map. Almost all maps need additional tools; it might be useless without the right legend or scale.
Maps are one of the most useful tools ever invented by mankind. The user can gain vast amounts of information quickly and easily with the right map. As a land use consultant, I use and create maps every day. They allow me to condense large amounts of information onto one sheet of paper. So, when you are looking for a map, keep in mind that not all are equal. They are created for a purpose with the user — and their next big adventure — in mind.