cartographersstorylogo-tinyCartographer’s Story #13, by Rick Lederer-Barnes

At NACIS 2017, Daniel Huffman said something in his presentation about submitting your story to this site, no matter how insignificant you may feel that it is. Ironically this resonated with me, for when I’m attending a NACIS conference (this was my second one) that’s pretty much how I feel – insignificant.  You see, I’m a “GIS guy” by trade, and while I make maps, I don’t feel that I spend much time in really making maps. I feel like most of my time is spent telling ArcGIS what I want it to do, and sometimes it listens, often times not. I’ll tweak colors and linewidths to make a map more legible, and adjust the label density to try and not make the map cluttered, and if I’m really trying I’ll set the labeling to “best” instead of “fast” (I know, right?) but in the end efficiency trumps aesthetic design 99% of the time. This is because most of the maps I make are for a multi-disciplinary planning and engineering firm. They usually need a standard set of maps for their environmental compliance review, or maybe a viewshed analysis for a proposed structure. Sometimes the maps are for a longer-timeframe project like a comprehensive plan and then I might have more time to spend on the map and do something like create annotation features, rather than autogenerating labels, or create custom colors or icons, but all the work is still done in ArcGIS. As a result, the creativity that I desire is rarely an option.

GIS example
An infographic-style map created in a GIS with custom legend and label placement.

In the past I’ve created “vision maps” for projects, usually open space conservation plans, where I made use of Photoshop and/or InDesign. For these projects I would create my base map in ArcGIS and then export that, along with layers like roads or points, as separate images, that I would then stack in InDesign. Within InDesign I could then apply drop shadows, create more visually appealing text, use icons that generally don’t render well in ArcGIS, etc. I would also often feather the map edges to soften the look, and many times would add images or hand drawn vignettes (drawn by a landscape architects, not me) around the perimeter of the map. The end product would usually be a D-size poster that had the map as the central element, with a series of supporting images and text. For a “GIS guy” I thought these maps were pretty nice. Then I attended my first NACIS in Pittsburgh and my reality came crashing down.

Seeing what other people were doing made me wonder if I was somehow a fraud calling myself a cartographer. Here I was surrounded by people who could hand draw a map of their journey to the conference in a matter of minutes and it was a higher quality then something I could spend weeks working on and never achieve. I left that first conference feeling a mixture of inspiration and dejection. Nevertheless, I decided I would work on the more creative side of mapping, learn Photoshop techniques, learn Illustrator, practice with hand drawn graphic and just generally work to feel like I belonged among true cartographers.

GIS InDesign example.jpg
An informational poster created in 2014, merging GIS and design packages.

Well fast-forward three years to NACIS 2017 in Montreal. Still don’t know how to use Illustrator, have not improved my Photoshop skills, and after seeing Anton Thomas’s hand drawn map of North America (which is absolutely amazing) wonder if there’s any chance of me being able to draw a map by hand that would be worthy of ever showing anyone. Part of the lack of forward progress is due to being very busy with work and family. That’s a really big part actually.  But part of it is just self-doubt.  Every year there’s a big (well big for rural life) art festival celebrating agriculture in our county. There’s photography, sculpture, decoupage, etching and lots and lots of paintings, all with a focus on agriculture and agricultural landscapes. Every year I go, and every year I say that next year I’m going to have a beautiful agricultural focused map to contribute. And every year I don’t. It’s not because I forget about it. It’s not because I don’t have time, since even though that’s a convenient excuse there are plenty of times I could work on such a map and instead to choose something else. The reality is that I think at some level (probably not that deep a level) I doubt my ability to actually make something I’ll be happy with.

I keep trying to try. I love cartography too much to not keep trying.

Perhaps some of this self-doubt is due to having no formal cartographic training other than in GIS. Some of it is from seeing the superior talents of others at NACIS, and some of it may be my perception of “not belonging” with this talented group of artists. This feeling of not fitting in is compounded by how I experience a NACIS conference. For me, just being at the conference is a big deal as I suffer from panic attacks. So forcing myself to attend the opening reception, or hanging out in the break area instead of retreating to my hotel room is a big deal. The problem is that when I do overcome my issues and put myself in these uncomfortable (to use my therapist’s term) situations I have the outsider feeling reinforced. It seems like everyone else knows at least a handful of other people, and many seem to know everyone. There’s tons of conversations happening, and those that aren’t conversing are buried in their smartphone. For example, during one of the breaks in Montreal I stood at one of those high-top tables, right near the coffee, and just watched. Not looking at my phone, trying to make eye-contact with others, and aside from one or two smiles as people walked by, there was not a hint of anyone wanting to engage with me. Now I don’t fault them, I realize some would say that I could have tried to interact with others, but when 95% are already engaged in conversation, and you have anxiety, starting up conversations is bleeping hard. But I was willing to stand there and leave myself open for human interaction for a full 10+ minutes, all the while feeling like they know, he’s one of those poser GIS guys that isn’t a real cartographer. Again, I don’t fault my fellow nacites, they all seem to know others that they want to talk to, some of which they probably only see at these conferences. So why waste time with the random guy who didn’t give a presentation and doesn’t have a fancy ribbon attached to their name tag?

I do have to give a shout out to Nat Case who did actually take the time to stop and speak with me just prior to the banquet Thursday evening. I had met Nat in Pittsburgh in 2014, not that I expected him to remember me (he didn’t) but I knew him because he was one of the few people I had interacted with in Pittsburgh and I of course see his name associated with NACIS from time to time. In any event, it was a pleasant interaction and made me feel a bit better about the day. Prior to that, I believe I probably engaged in a sum total of 5 minutes of conversation at the rest of the conference – small talk at the business lunch with the person sitting next to me at the table (none of the other six or seven people of course) and a brief, but pleasant conversation with Anton at the opening reception where I complimented him on his work.

So where do I go from here? Well I keep trying to try. I love cartography too much to not keep trying. I grew up with a USGS topo map of my town on the wall of our house. I looked at it everyday, sometimes just a glance as I walked by, sometimes spending several minutes “exploring” my town. But ever since I’ve been fascinated with the power and beauty of maps. And part of that power is what keeps me going even when I’m doubting myself.

Digital Watercolor Example
An experimental combination of hand-drawn and digital elements.

During the conference I made myself a bunch of notes on maps I want to try to make. I had some new ideas for my mythical agricultural map. I’ll keep trying to do what I can to make my GIS maps cleaner, nicer and something I can feel good about (while meeting client budgets and deadlines of course). And I’ll set my goal of getting that ag map done before the next time NACIS comes back to the northeast. Because as uncomfortable as being at a conference sometimes is, I still like seeing the maps and mapmakers in person. So, there you have it – there’s my insignificant story. It was a little cathartic to write, and perhaps I’m not the only “GIS guy (or gal)” that’s part of NACIS feeling a bit insignificant, and if that’s the case (and if they actually read this), they can take comfort in knowing they’re not alone.