Wednesday 28 May 2014

Testing..testing...1, 2, 3.

I was reminded this week of a number of ways in which you can assess cartographic work in simple ways. A conversation between Alberto Cairo and Moritz Stefaner trod over some old ground but their conversation is worth exploring because much of what I see fails these simple tests (and leads to me blogging). They debated the first and second of the simple tests I set out below. I added the third. These are tests that I (and many others) apply when looking at and critiquing maps. They are the basic tests that anyone can apply:

So What?
The first test is simple...does the work you are looking at leave you asking so what?. This is how we used to assess student dissertation proposals and get them to reflect on whether their proposal was worth doing. Was it persuasive? Did it make me want to know explore or find something out? Did it make me care? All maps ought to, at some level, inspire their intended audience to want to care about what it is that's being illustrated and the message of the map. It has to have a function and if the form is well crafted that function should be visible. The map may very well have a good purpose to the map-maker but has that been extended to an audience?

This isn't an exact science though. Different people and user groups have different so what thresholds and so what works for one may not necessarily work for another. This is where a consideration of the audience comes in when you are making a map. Engage your audience first. Bring along others if you can. Pleasing everyone all the time is impossible though.

It's also perfectly reasonable to experiment and at the moment we're in a period of cartographic development where technology is out-pacing best practice. Animation and 3D are just two areas that we've always played with but now the tools are mature enough to allow people to really get their hands dirty...and they are. At the moment there's too many failing the so what? test. This may not be a bad thing IF it leads to new ways of working that make good use of the techniques.

Let's assume people have got past the so what moment because, let's face it, if they haven't then they've already clicked to another web page or left dissatisfied with your work. Upon inspection, does the map give you some sort of mini-eureka moment? Is the message communicated with clarity and has the map-maker made it legible? Clarity and legibility are key though they are not the same thing. Clarity relates to the message. Has the message been encoded into the map's syntax effectively. Legibility is the way in which the map-maker has brought focus to that message through effective graphical structure.

Put you get it? This is the ah-ha! moment when you realise what it is you're supposed to learn or find out. It should come relatively easily.

The person that reads your map should leave with a deeper understanding of the theme or topic. They shouldn't have to work too hard to gain that understanding either. The ability of the map-maker to make you care enough to want to look at the map and give you some sort of clarity about a topic is what good cartography is about.

The squint
Does the story of the map immediately jump out at you? Given we cannot rely on people spending that much time or effort viewing your map, making the message legible is crucial and this has a lot to do with your ability to structure your map. This is down to what British geographer William Balchin termed graphicacy. He coined the phrase in a 1972 address to the Geographical Association. Graphicacy is the natural counterpart to other cognitive intelligent processes of communication such as literacy, numeracy and articulacy. Maps and other spatial documents are the tools of graphicacy and the very basis of geography. Cartography is the professional application of expertise in graphicacy.

Becoming proficient in graphicacy will help you tell your story more effectively in the same way that effective writing or speaking skills helps you communicate using the written or spoken word. If you know how to speak in a graphical language then you're half way to being able to communicate your message. This goes beyond knowing constructional techniques and mechanics for knowing how and when to use certain graph or map types though. It's just as much about how you organise them on the page or screen. While written and spoken language comes at us in word after another in a sequence that our eyes follow and our brain systematically decodes, pictures arrive at our eyes in parallel. Maps are presented all at once. So we need to encode them so that certain components appear more prominently to give our brains a chance at decoding into some sense of order. These lead the eye. they may be larger or more visually prominent, they may use lighter or desaturated or bolder or more saturated colour, they may appear in a certain animated sequence or they may require interaction but doing a squint test is a good way to determine whether what you are looking at is communicating well.

So...sit back as if you're in a wild west film, chewing on a cheroot and pretending to be Clint Eastwood. then squint and look at the map. What do you see? If you can still make out the main features and the central topic of the map then chances are it's got its graphical structure well proportioned and balanced. It's a simple way of seeing whether what you are seeing is what your brain is receiving. If your eyes are picking out peripheral or less important components under this test then that's going to cloud the message. There is some science behind this...what you're doing when squinting is reducing the amount of light entering your eye. Your peripheral vision is also impacted. You therefore have lower levels of visual acuity (visual resolution) and so you are trying your hardest to pick out key shapes and features.

And finally...some words from a master
As with everything, there will always be examples that break the rules. there will always be innovation that overrides some of this so be mindful of that when looking at maps. Also, remember that the value of a map is going to vary between audiences so that will undoubtedly affect your impression. Then there's the final matter of subjectivity. While the above are semi-objective tests there's no doubt that we all have preferences for certain types of maps and particular looks and feel. Do you prefer Monet, Turner or Banksy? We all bring our subjective preferences to the table.

In the week that the great designer Massimo Vignelli died it's worth reflecting on some of his basic tenets in design and thoughts on why experts in a field are important in the context of shaping best practice. This gives context to the simple tests described above:

"I like design to be semantically correct, syntactically consistent, and pragmatically understandable. I like it to be visually powerful, intellectually elegant, and above all timeless."

"If you can design one thing, you can design everything."

"I thought that it might be useful to pass some of my professional knowledge around, with the hope of improving [young designers'] design skills. Creativity needs the support of knowledge to be able to perform at its best."

"If you do it right, it will last forever."

"The life of a designer is a life of fight against the ugliness."

"There is no design without discipline. There is no discipline without intelligence."

"Good design lasts longer."

"...and that is why I love Design."

The three tests outlined here are basic things you can do to see if your own designs are working and to look at whether other designs are working. It's not rocket science but it may just help you to take a step back and reflect on the quality of the work. There's lots of fancy ways to make maps but fundamentally...are they working?

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