Confessions of a Cartographic Pragmatist

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I admit it.

We've cut corners on client mapping projects.

Left off a compass rose here. Skipped a label optimization there. Little things that any cartographer worth her salt would know from Cartography 101 shouldn't be dropped.

[A great discussion got started last week here about the look and feel of maps and cartography vs. GIS vs. web mapping. But read below for a more practical view.]

But the truth is, in those cases our client didn't care about compass roses (or whatever was left off). With over 100,000 maps made in the past few years, I can conclusively say that many of our business customers care about one thing: making a better business decision.

"Does it Make Me Money?"

If a mapping project costs them $x and saves them $y or produces an extra $z in profit, as long as y>x or z>x, they are happy. And of course, they want $x to be as low as possible.

In your business, aren't you concerned primarily with return on investment?

If you don't care about the look and feel, I don't want to charge you for extra polish just because our training says we have to spend an extra two hours getting some obscure visual thing just right. If it doesn't improve your ability to make a good business decision, then we skip it.

Meaty Examples

zip code map imageHere's an example for a semi-commodity product like ZIP Code Maps:

Now, this is a fine map for making a business decision based on the latest (monthly) updates of USPS ZIP Codes. Given the vast numbers of orders we get for maps like these, we spend a little extra time making sure it looks good. But are there things that "cartography fanatics" might say should be in the maps? Probably.

publication map imageBut for under $70 you can get a great map that you make a decision from. You probably wouldn't want to pay $200+ for a map that more religiously follows some obscure cartographic standard. In fact, we may even want to automate this kind of project to give you the lowest cost and highest return on your investment.

A different example is when a customer wants a high-end map to reproduce in a publication or hang on a wall at headquarters. Most business maps aren't in this category, but some are.

In these cases, we spend an incredible amount of time getting things just right. Manual labeling, custom layouts and legends, etc. But in these cases, that's what you want and the extra costs are justified.

What About Free Web Maps?

Web maps have come a long way since the early versions of MapQuest. Those early online maps were, well, just plain ugly. But they were free so the return on investment was still high.

Now, all the online players have really nice looking cartography. That makes the ROI even higher right?

It's still not possible to create a truly custom map from Google, Yahoo, Virtual Earth, etc. And they all prohibit reproduction for business use. So you still need a mapping service provider for most business maps. But what they've done, by making their maps look so much better, is raised the bar for all of us - businesses expect even "throw away" maps to look pretty good.

So in the end cartography is becoming more important over time. It looks like all those years of cartography classes are paying off after all!