Monday 14 August 2017

Map Mediocrity

I often get accused of holding maps and map makers to too high a standard. I can live with that. The people who make such accusations generally demonstrate low cartographic standards and tend to use them as an excuse for their lack of taste in cartographic decency or the standard of their own maps. It's a very easy accusation for people to make to justify their own lack of standards.
In a few weeks I'm presenting at the Society of Cartographers/British Cartographic Society Maps for Changing Reality conference in Durham in the UK and then, a short time after, the TOSCA 25th anniversary celebration conference on Enlightening Maps in Oxford. Both talks are loosely based on the idea of fake maps so I've been mulling over this idea of map mediocrity and why it is that there's a general malaise. Sure, we see some terrific maps but where are our standard bearers? What are we comparing maps to and what is the baseline of quality that we should seek?
I spent some time recently leafing through some beautiful maps from the 1950s and 1960s. Maps made over half a century ago by people who had nothing more than pens, rulers, scribecoat and so on. Now, granted, the collection is obviously heavily slanted towards a set of high quality work so there weren't many duds but my word, the maps were just simply beautiful. They were intricate, clear, made with a meticulous eye for detail and just superb works of art. This isn't to say fake maps never existed. They did and they came in many guises. And I'm not trying to yearn for a glorious golden age of cartography to resurface. What I hope to do is persuade people that we can up our modern game by simply taking on board some of the ethos of our cartographers of yesteryear or, at the very least, properly promote true quality in both maps and the cartographers that make them in our contemporary mapping landscape.
So many modern maps are fĂȘted and held up as 'great maps' or they go viral or they're liked a gazzilion times but compare them to maps made 50+ yrs ago by likes of Hal Shelton and you'll see them for what they are. They are mediocre at best. People's general standards are at an all time low and despite many attempts to improve people's level of expectation it seems to be against a huge tidal swell of populist, pointless and poorly made maps.
Part of the presentation in Durham will be Steve Chilton and I sharing our list of #cartofail maps ahead of the 2017 Society of Cartographer's Gromit award. And there's dozens of contenders. This will be the fourth or fifth annual award. It doesn't matter much - it's just a bit of fun really; but there is an important subtext. The need to change people's expectations and reset them to something better has to take hold at some point else we'll forever be looking at rainbow colour scales, incorrectly projected data, non-normalized choropleths, glitzy animations (and sometimes all of these on one map!) and, worse, people constantly saying how a particular map is great, or trending, as if that actually matters.
What matters is that these people who clearly don't know the difference between a good and bad map need to stop. They need to give up the rhetoric, stop trying to sell shit and spend a little more time being considerate about cartography. Not every map is made equally. We should reserve our praise for those maps that really do offer something both functionally and visually. We should help people learn the difference and if they don't want to then they should be politely be invited to go find something else to comment on.
Mediocrity breeds mediocrity. It should embarrass people that their map, made with modern tech that supports so much gets nowhere near what someone with a pen could do decades ago. Yet it so often doesn't. I know people who brazenly showcase maps and talk about them as if they are something genuinely new, innovative, creative and beautiful when they are anything but. The sadness is they likely aren't aware they don't know the difference. I've tried talking to some of these types of people but it's intriguing that the old accusation of holding too high a standard resurfaces. It seems that the idea that if you say it, it must be true, is the only mantra they believe because these sort of people don't care anyway. But if we held maps to a higher standard and had more quality with which to challenge their mediocrity they would eventually have to step up or move on.
We live in an era where a lack of thinking, awareness and time spent on map design is accepted. Study old maps. Explore the craft. See how modern gems evidence lineage and show a development in the craft. As Bruce Lee said "Absorb what is useful. Discard what is not. Add what is uniquely your own". But to be able to make a decent map you must first know a little about what makes one and, importantly, what makes a poor one.
Far too many people just make noise with their daily claims of another 'great map'. Hold it up to scrutiny. Hold them up to scrutiny. Beware hyperbole and don't give mediocrity a place in the cartographic canon.
I don't have particularly high standards. But I do compare work across the ages and wonder how we became satisfied with mediocrity. I simply think if a job is worth doing it's worth doing right and that's really what I hold my own work accountable to. Mediocrity leads to fake maps or, put another way, a load of maps that ought to be considered fakes. They are dressed up but they all too often mislead the innocent.
We should be making maps that are so much better. A few are. Far too many fool themselves with their own acceptance of mediocrity and they consequently translate that to their readers. We can all do better.
I'll be talking about this at #mapreality & #TOSCA25. Don't forget to share your examples for the 2017 #Gromit award by tweeting your favourite #cartofail maps to either me @kennethfield or Steve Chilton @steev8. If you're coming to either event then bring something to wipe that eye - you'll either be laughing or crying or both!


  1. Just blindly speculating, but is the push for mediocrity economically-driven? Better work takes more time; was there a willingness to spend more (and charge consumers more) a half-century ago? Probably the sort of thing we'd need hard data to really get at, but it would be an interesting angle to consider.

  2. Quite possibly. To me the compression of time has led to these, perhaps, unintended consequences. Making the map fast seems to be paramount for many and yes, there's a high chance this has a lot to do with an economically driven environment. What used to take months now takes minutes. Maybe in the olde worlde time allowed you to build in more of the art. If it was going to take time you may as well make it look like it did!