Spatial Career Guide – Cartography and Visualization Specialist

April 2, 2012 at 11:40 am  •  Posted in Education, Geography by  •  9 Comments

This is my third post in the Spatial Career series.  I’ve covered GIS Software Developer and Geospatial Analyst and in this post I will provide guidance to the aspiring cartographer and/or visualization specialist.  Of the six paths that I set out to cover in this series this might be the one that I know the least about.  So, you can take these suggestions with a grain of salt but hopefully I will provide a few useful nuggets.

Traditional cartographers, those who produce maps for printed material, still exist but not in large numbers and my suggestions probably won’t help if you want to go down the traditional route.  Some of the legends in this arena, including Bill LoyStuart Allen, David Imus and probably several others that deserve to be mentioned are connected to the Department of Geography at the University of Oregon where I studied.  You can probably earn a decent living this way if you’re really dedicated and find a mentor who can teach you the craft.  But, I can’t help.  Instead, I will focus on the more modern computer-enabled cartographic visualization, interactive map design and data graphics production side of things.  I see a lot of opportunity here but it requires a new combination of skills that don’t always go together: programming and visual creativity.

The cutting edge in cartographic visualization involves developing web and mobile interfaces.  So, in a sense, this path involves training similar to the GIS Software Developer career.  The major difference is that you will need to become an expert in user interface design.  You still need to be able to write code but you don’t have to be an algorithm guru.  So, while in college, I would recommend the following.

Hopefully this is pretty obvious but take every course on Cartography that is available.  Yes, take some GIS courses as well.  They probably get taught together.  Don’t worry about becoming an ArcGIS master.  Not that it would hurt.  But it’s probably just as important or more so to master Adobe Illustrator and/or other graphics software.  Also, study a bit of cartography’s rich history.

Perhaps most importantly, find an opportunity to work on cartography-related projects.  At the University of Oregon all the best cartography students worked in the InfoGraphics Lab and learned a ton from Director Jim Meacham and his staff of cartography and visualization experts.  Ideally, you would find a similar lab at your college/university and get involved in any way possible – volunteer, get a work-study job, whatever it takes to get exposure to the people who work there.

Take a combination of Human and Physical Geography.  See my post on becoming a Geospatial Analyst for more details on this.

Read everything you can on data visualization.  You’ll want to read everything written by Edward Tufte.  You should also check out some of the older work by authors like William Clevelandalong with some of the newer, more cutting edge ideas by new practitioners like Yau (note: I haven’t read Flowing Data by Nathan Yao but it’s on my list and even if it’s not a timeless classic you need to expose yourself to contemporary perspectives).

Learn something about remote sensing and other major sources of geographic data.  Again, see my post on becoming a Geospatial Analyst for more details on this.

Also, read what I wrote about problem solving, writing/communication and teamwork (bullets 2, 3 and 4) in the GIS Software Developer post.  In particular, I would highly recommend that you study as much statistics as you can.  Visualization is within the domain of statistics, perhaps even more so than it is within geography.  You need to be able to speak with statisticians in their language; even if you can’t do so fluently, at least pick up the basics.  If you like statistics and would like to do some self-study, I would recommend learning R.  It’s freely available open source software available for download from  Aside from being free, it’s really powerful especially with all the add-on packages.  Only problem may be that it’s a bit more challenging to learn than other more point-and-click oriented stats packages.  There are a number of books on R programmingwith how-to guides.  Find one that works for you and give it a try.

Study graphic design in the art school.  You need to learn the basics of good design.  This can be via university coursework, self-study or you might find good courses at the local community college with better hands-on learning opportunities.  You should also pick up skills in the Adobe Creative Suite or something comparable.

Study User Interface Design.  I don’t know how readily available classes on this topic would be – I think it probably varies quite a bit from campus to campus.  You probably have lots of good ideas on this already because, unless you’re my age or older, you’ve been interacting with software your entire life.  But, it’s not a bad idea to read about standard protocols and other people’s ideas on what makes for good interface design.  Don’t be afraid to ignore the gospel according to some self-proclaimed authority.  You want to cultivate your own unique style.  The most successful designs seem to take simplicity to a new level.  Beware the temptation to offer more options and powerful features.  History has shown time and again that users prefer ease-of-use over just about anything else.  I haven’t read this book by Steve Krug
but it looks like a winner and you can explore similar resources from there.

The best bet on this path, in my opinion, is to blend this with the GIS Software Developer route.  The successful cartographer types that I see have taken up web development tools like Adobe Flash (although this technology may be headed for the dustbin).  Maybe you’ll want to become an HTML5 expert – combining programming skills with user interface design artistry to create the next generation of cartography for mobile devices and whatever comes next.

I think the future here is very bright indeed.  I believe that cartographic visualization will play a central role in addressing Big Data challenges.


  1. Pingback: Spatial Career Guide for Undergrads Currently Studying GIS – Curriculum Suggestions for 6 Geospatial Career Paths | Geographical Perspectives

  2. Ravi Dhungel / April 3, 2012 at 7:10 am / Reply

    I agree,
    Here are few more to hook up with;
    The course in Geo-visualization and Analytics
    GUI design course in CS department
    Spatial Analysis
    a course in Cognitive Science (Psychology) and
    a web-mapping!

    • Justin / April 3, 2012 at 7:16 am / Reply

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Ravi!

  3. Lachezar Filchev / April 5, 2012 at 3:24 pm / Reply

    I have taken a short course in Geo-visualization in 2009 with a host lector from one of the Austrian Universities during my Ph.D. studies. What I can add up to the list or prerequisites is the Usability Engineering, which I think is very important for the development of the user interface. However, one can master aesthetics of the website, but In my view this is more like an art than science. This holds also for the cartography itself.

  4. Pingback: Spatial Career Guide – Geographic Information Scientist | Geographical Perspectives

  5. Oz / May 31, 2012 at 8:09 am / Reply

    Hi Justin,

    Has been great to read through your blog, really refreshing in comparison with a lot of other opinions of GIS future. Currently a spatial sciences postgraduate student who has luckily stacked on as much HCI and Computer science subjects I can to my degree (love all those disciplines!). Have been a bit anxious about this choice, especially in terms of my spatial base and the future of GIS software itself. I was searching to see if jobs meshing GIS, HCI and Comp Sci really exist for me and you have given me faith. Definitely like the idea of GIS software developer and visualization expert 🙂 look forward to more insights.

    Thankyou & Take care.

    • Justin / May 31, 2012 at 9:30 am / Reply

      Sounds like you’re putting together a great foundation! I think the future is indeed bright for the software developer and visualization expert combination. In fact, the company I run, TerraSeer, will be looking to hire someone with your profile this summer. Send me a resume if you’re close to graduation. Thanks for the comment and best wishes, Justin

  6. Bryan Schaefer / August 28, 2012 at 12:02 pm / Reply

    I just started reading your posts, following you on Twitter, G+, etc. and feel really lucky to find your website and insight. Yesterday I started USC’s GIS Master’s program and after reading a chapter of a fundamentals book required for my first class I started thinking that I’ve made a gigantic mistake in getting this degree. I have absolutely no background in geography, but I do have a degree in Fine Art and Illustration, I’m better at using all of Adobe Suite then most, I’ve been drafting using AutoCAD for years, and can hold my own writing code.

    I still realize after last night and starting to read through your blog posts that I’ll be a huge underdog if I get and interview down the line, but maybe focusing on a Cartography and Visualization Specialist career won’t make me feel like the next couple of years will be a complete waste of time for a career that I really hope to break into.

    Thanks again for the posts.

    • Justin / August 28, 2012 at 12:41 pm / Reply

      Bryan – I’m glad my posts have been helpful! I think the visualization path may be a key solution to the “Big Data” problem that all organizations are facing so don’t lose hope. If you can combine your visual art skills with some web interface programming and/or database programming you will be in high demand. In fact, I might be interested in hiring you myself! Keep me posted as you make your way through the Masters and let me know if I can be of any assistance. Best wishes, Justin

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