My partner Kalisha and I are very fortunate to live in Albuquerque’s north valley on a lush piece of property abundant with diverse plants native to the area. As a way of honoring them, we’ve spent the past few years learning the scientific names of each plant and photographing them at different times of the year.
To conclude our work, Kalisha is putting together a photo book that she will self-publish with Artifact Uprising, and I’ve set out to prepare a map for the book that will provide readers with locational context for each of the plants showcased.
In an effort to understand my mapmaking process, I’ve decided to document its components.
Audience and Purpose
The audience and purpose of a map should drive every decision of the mapmaking process – from the datasets used to the font selection. For my map:
- The audience will be readers of the plant book.
- The purpose of the map is to show approximate locations of the plants described in the book
- The map will be printed in a landscape book that is 8″ wide by 6″ tall
I started the project with a few datasets:
- Aerial imagery shot with melodrone and stitched together with Maps Made Easy (a story for another day)
- Landscaping design plan made for our property by Judith Phillips in the 90’s
- A list of the book’s plants and their approximate locations
The problem with aerial imagery is that it is essentially a map of everything as seen from above. Showing all available information on a map can make it difficult for map readers to filter out irrelevant information in order to identify specific types of plants. The landscape design plan was made with a different purpose and audience than our map. Judith Phillips made this map to convey a design concept to her customer and the contractors who would install the landscape design. As any contractor would tell you, the implementation of the landscape design doesn’t always turn out exactly as the architect intended. Our property was no exception.
Maps are a representation, or a model, of the real world. The distillation process helps identify which elements are most relevant to the map’s purpose and uses those elements to construct a data model.
Reviewing both the aerial imagery and landscape design plan, I started thinking through what parts of the yard someone might use to orient themselves. I also walked around the yard several times.
Doing this, I identified six different data types the map could be distilled down to:
- Buildings (such as the home itself, shed, carport)
- The porch
- Garden beds
- Boundary lines (such as the one separating the driveway from a garden area)
This is a good starting point. Whether or not all of these data types will end up in the final map is a matter of the aesthetics as the map’s design evolves.
None of the datasets I started with contained a spatial reference. While I could georeference them using control points in my GIS software, I’ve opted to go “spatial reference free” using Adobe Illustrator. I’ve yet to delve into the world of the fancy ArcGIS Maps for Adobe Creative Cloud, so this was going to be a “vanilla” Illustrator project.
I call it initial because the layout inevitably changes while the map design is being fleshed out. My experience has proven that as you spend more time making maps, the initial layout choice improves and the number of times it ends up being changed reduces.
I created an 8” x 6” document in Illustrator and brought in the aerial imagery and landscape design plan as new layers. Using heads up digitizing, I drew each of the data types described above into separate layers and added the list of plants along with their corresponding numbers. I decided to forgo some of the traditional map elements because the map is only intended for approximately locating the plants. For example:
- Scale bar/text
I chose a number key system to avoid text cluttering in the map. This means that each plant will be represented by a number and the corresponding plant name will be presented in a legend list.
Again, initial style because it’s important to give flexibility to the map design’s ebb and flow. There are two primary style components I considered with this map: the color palette and the font selection. The plant book is going to be made entirely of black and white photos with text. So, I decided to take a stab at a black and color palette to accompany it. The book’s text is Didot (seriff), size 16. For this map I used typ.io for inspiration, and picked the sans serif Avenir font to accompany Didot.
Fleshing Out the Map Design
My process for fleshing out the map design goes something like this:
- Print the map
- Critique and markup changes
- Take a walk about outside with the printed map to check for accuracy
- Make adjustment to the style/layout
- Spend time away from the project (usually somewhere between 1 hour & 1 week)
I probably managed to go through 10 repetitions of the above steps before I ended up with something I was happy with, but this is my favorite part of making a map. Tweaking colors, line widths, and adding / removing datasets — sometimes even starting over — is worth every minute it takes to design a map that conveys exactly what a reader needs with as few distractions as possible. I especially love walking through these steps with other people. Having multiple sets of eyes on a map design, especially if you can work with a mentor, has the potential of teaching you about your own biases and how to be a better map maker. For me, it gives me an opportunity to practice patience and reminds me to maintain a sense of humor.
The Final Map