How I Make Maps

At conferences I often ask other cartographers about their workflows and the software they use, and can learn new tips and tricks to modify my own workflow. I follow Daniel Huffman and his Practical Cartography tips (#PractiCarto), and Tom Patterson recently posted his workflow for creating 3D terrain maps. I picked his brain at the last NACIS conference about his process for making beautiful US National Park maps. A combination of Natural Scene Designer, Geographic Imager, and Photoshop with Illustrator and MAPublisher can make really beautiful maps.

Cartographic Tools

I use Illustrator CS6, and Daniel’s tips for using the Appearance Panel have helped me a lot in a cycling map I’m working on now for a municipal client. For importing GIS data into Illustrator I use MAPublisher, software that integrates with Illustrator to allow users to use multiple GIS formats and rescale or reproject with just a few clicks. This software is made by Avenza, a small company in Toronto. They answer email questions the same day and if I phone, a real person answers!

The only limitation I’ve found with Illustrator is that it sometimes chews up CPU and memory and can crash, often when I’m working with large or complex datasets, such as road networks. That’s when I use qGIS, open source GIS software. I open the dataset in qGIS and can clip it to a smaller area, or select features based on specific attributes and save the selection as a new shape file which is smaller and easier to import into MAPublisher/Illustrator.

Working with Raster Images

Because I don’t yet have Natural Scene Designer or Geographic Imager (another Avenza product that integrates with Photoshop) to work with raster images as Tom does, I also use qGIS to pre-process raster images. When clients want to show terrain on medium or small-scale maps I download raster data from Natural Earth and reproject the raster to the same projection as my MAPublisher project, and clip to the extents of my map project in MAPublisher (I export a shape file from MAPublisher with those extents that I open in qGIS to use as a clip layer).

Working with Elevation Data

For large-scale projects if I can find contour line shapefiles then the qGIS GRASS plug-in lets me create DTM files, which I can then use to create hillshades. Sometimes I’m able to find open source DEM files online, which I open in Pyramid Shader (another wonderful open source tool) to create shaded relief images. If the resolution of the DEM files is too low I can use qGIS and its plug-ins to extract contour lines from it at specified intervals, then I create a new DEM from the more detailed (although interpolated) contour lines. (The next time I do that I’ll create a blog post explaining those steps).

Aside from Illustrator and MAPublisher, the tools I use (qGIS, Pyramid Shader) are open source.  I used Pyramid Shader and open source DEM files to create relief for island insets for a map of Micronesia, so the tools are quite powerful and useful.

Island Insets from Map of Micronesia

Island Insets from Map of Micronesia

More to come…

Down the road I may invest in other tools to streamline my workflow: software such as the aforementioned Natural Scene Designer and/or Geographic Imager. At a recent NACIS conference, Hans van der Maarel of Red Geographics talked about using LabelPro (a MAPublisher add-on) to automate the labelling process, and he’s also talked about using FME to automate his workflow. I’m constantly reading blogs and Twitter feeds of other cartographers who share their map-making tips, to learn how they solve problems. A current client has expressed an interest in getting MAPublisher and I’m happy to offer any advice and assistance I can. His request for some training time with me motivated me to write this post to give a general overview of my process to whoever may be interested.

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