Cartography: Path or Profession?

March 26, 2013

I recently had a conversation with Sam Pepple (@drsvalbard) about cartography and its place as a profession and a practice. It was a quick and spontaneous chat but it made me think about cartography as a study. When I began cartography courses in school, I assumed I was learning how to become a cartographer. How to make maps and take that skill into the professional world as a map maker.

I was so wrong.

What Mr. Pepple and I discussed was the role cartography plays in our personal and professional progressions. Often we find ourselves working on many things besides maps; graphic design, computer programming, web design, and database management to name a few. For putting such a silly amount of federal loans into my map-based education, I don’t find myself making maps anymore. Not to say the money was poorly spent in the least, it introduced me to concepts and ideas that have molded my professional aspirations as they are now. But one does begin asking questions when the best cartographic products and designs are coming from folks without an ounce of pure cartographic education because of our current online web-map options. Can cartographers compete with computer scientists? Can they stand among graphic designers? I like to think so.

What is it that cartography offers if not a profession in cartography? Well, it depends on how you look at it. In a greater sense, which seems to be how Mr. Pepple and I see things, cartography offers an active learner the necessary experience to understand graphic balance. Studying things through a spatial lens from the get-go means you create in a mindset of methodological distribution. The conscious understanding of layout and distribution allows us to take this idea of balance and apply it to non-geographic creations (i.e. web pages).

Secondly, maps are, by nature, created to display information. Without that information, we have no reason for a map. Subsequently, if you do not have a reason or the necessary understanding of the specific information to make a graphic or information-based product, you shouldn’t. Cartographers can objectively see through a process of creation from beginning to end because of this understanding of data origins and methods of displaying such data.

Finally, we strive to understand our audience. You can’t make a map for everyone, but you can make a map as effective as possible for the most necessary viewers. Understanding your audience is key to making compelling and holistic products.

These core concepts are what allow cartographers to move towards non map related professions. All in all, we know how to look at a situation from different and intentional perspectives. With the Spatial IT workforce coming into play, we’re introduced to many technologies and concepts that don’t fall into the general cartographic curriculum directly, but we find ourselves willing and able to learn.

To me, cartography is a path. To the lucky few, cartography is a profession. To all of us, it’s a broad lens that allows us to find our own creative niches because of the holistic nature in which cartography exists.

Thanks, cartography.

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