In keeping with annual tradition, students in this fall’s Urban Media Archaeology class will be reviewing a selection of maps and assessing what they illuminate and obfuscate, how they integrate form and content effectively and poorly, whether or not they serve their intended purpose, and what lessons we can take away from them and apply, or avoid, in our own mapping projects.Three years ago I developed a preliminary round-up of map critique resources, and now that we’ve had a few semesters’ practice, I thought it was time to revisit that post.

If we look at maps as multimodal media, we realize we can use some of the same critical lenses we use within media studies to critique any of a variety of media texts — films, graphic designs, interfaces, magazines, apps, etc. — and apply those lenses to maps. Let’s start with a (seemingly) easy one:

What’s on the map?

  • What’s its subject? 
    • What is this a map of?
    • The Harvard Graduate School of Design’s “Elements of Cartographic Style” directs us to consider whether our maps are topographic or thematic: “Topographic maps are designed to support a discussion of the essential physical and cultural components of a place and their relationships with each other. Thematic Maps maps are designed to communicate more abstract quantitative or qualitative observations of entities or areas within and surrounding the subject.”
  • What is its “message” or “argument” or purpose?
  • What’s its geographic / spatial area? How do you think its “area of interest” was defined?
  • When is this map? What is its temporality? is the map dynamic across time?
  • Answering this “content” question involves looking at the map as a “text.” Most existing map critique resources are in this vein. For example, the GSD’s Guide indicates that every map should contain a…
    • title
    • name
    • institutional affiliation and date
    • caption that explains the map’s “critical concepts and relationships”
    • labeled key elements
    • citations and dates for primary sources of data; citation of the projection method and case
    • graphical scalebar
    • graphical hierarchy (e.g., the “key concepts as discussed in the caption should be given emphasis with a bright color and bold lineweights and labels; …[k]ey relationships may be portrayed with diagrammatic graphics”)
    • concise legend, if necessary
      • The elements highlighted above are those that are frequently absent from the maps we explore — and they’re frequently among the key issues that students address in their map critiques.
  • If we’re dealing with a thematic map, we have some more complex questions to ask, according to the GSD guide:
    • Is it clear what the map’s contextual framework is?
    • Is there an intelligible and manageable legend? Are you using plain terms for your concepts? Do you have a sufficiently robust and specific but not overwhelming set of classes or concepts? (The GSD folks recommend no more than 5.)

Who made this map?

  • What individual or entity, or collaborative partnership, created the map? What might their agenda have been?

Who is/are the map’s audience(s)?

  • Who is the map intended to reach? If it’s meant to appeal to multiple audiences, does the map operate at different levels, to appeal distinctively to each of its audiences?
  • How might these audiences be most likely to encounter and engage with the map? Would they find the map intelligible and easily navigable?

How was the map made?

  • What’s the “base map”?
  • How were the data derived? Through what methodology? What is the level of “granularity” of that data, and does it fit the scale of the map?
  • Was there some sort of editorial or peer-review process, or was the map crowd-sourced or automatically generated — or produced through some other means?

What are the map’s materiality and form?

  • What material or technological form does the map take? How does this form enable or constrain the map in fulfilling its purpose, reaching its desired audiences, etc?

What editorial choices informed how that content was presented?

  • In her excellent “Visual Thinking and Visual Communication” guide, Adrienne Gruver encourages us to ask…
    • Were appropriate visual cues used to symbolize different variables (e.g, fitting icons, colors, sizes)?
    • Is there a logical match between the kinds of data variables shown and the visual variables used to represent them?
  • But not all maps are visual — so how are other modalities of representation (sound, allusions to texture, etc.) incorporated into the map?
  • Denis Wood (in The Power of Maps) encourages us to consider various “presentational codes,” including the map’s overall graphic organization — and discursive tone: “soft/loud, even/dynamic, complacent/agitated, polite/aggressive, soothing/ abrasive” (131)
  • James Corner’s “The Agency of Mapping” (in Denis Cosgrove’s Mappings) offers additional questions we need to ask:
    • Consider “what is selected and prioritized…, what is subsequently left aside or ignored, how the chosen material is schematized, indexed and framed, and how the synthesis of the graphic field invoked semantic, symbolic, and instrumental content” (216)
    • Repeating some of the advice we encountered above, Corner encourages us to consider “the graphic system within which the [map’s] extracts will…be organized. The system includes the frame, orientation, coordinates, scale, units of measure and the graphic projection (oblique, zenithal, isometric, anamorphic, folded, etc.). The design and set-up of the field is perhaps one of the most creative acts in mapping.” (229)
    • Consider the essential operations in mapping: “first, the creation of a field, the setting of rules and the establishment of a system; second, the extraction, isolation or ‘de-territorialization’ of parts and data; and third, the plotting, the drawing-out, the setting-up of relationships, or the ‘re-territorialization’ of the parts. At each stage, choices and judgments are made, with the construing and constructing of the map alternating between processes of accumulation, disassembly and reassembly” (231)

What else would you add to this list?


Other Resources:

**Judy M. Olson, “Multimedia in Geography: Good, Bad, Ugly, or Cool?” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 87:4 (December 1997): 571-578.

Cynthia Brewer, Designing Better Maps: A Guide for GIS Users (ESRI Press, 2005).

Vidya Setlur, Cynthia Kuo, Peter Mikelsons, “Towards Designing Better Map Interfaces for the Mobile: Experiences from Example” COM.geo 2010.

Denis Wood, “Ten Cartographic Codes” The Power of Maps (New York: Guilford Press, 1992): 111-132.

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