Cartographic Criticism

Unless you’re working on a hobby project, as a cartographer, you will eventually be expected to show your work. And sharing means making yourself vulnerable to criticism. That word itself, ‘criticism’, sometimes conjures images of personal attacks and low self esteem, but that’s not always the case. Often, a criticism can be extremely helpful, both to you and to your organization. There are many different types of criticism, but only three of them will likely apply to your cartographic design: negative, practical, and constructive.

Example: “The legend looks terrible.”
Negative criticisms are the ones we’re really afraid of. Although they’re usually not meant to be personal, they can easily feel that way. Usually, you will only hear truly negative criticisms from people who actively dislike you, and people who are socially blunt. Most people have enough tact to offer practical or constructive criticisms. But don’t think the opinions of the tactless should be brushed away lightly. Even spiteful criticism can be helpful, if you can isolate the criticism from the spite. Poor feedback is better than nothing at all, because you can’t learn anything from nothing. For example, if someone snubs your legend, it might be a good idea to polish the legend a little, just to be safe. There’s always room for improvement, and a negative criticism can tell you where to focus for the maximum return on effort.

Example: “The legend is hard to read.”
Practical criticisms aren’t criticisms of quality, but of practicality. In a map, practicality is a function of readability and usability, so most practical criticisms will be very useful. As a cartographer, the map and the data seem quite clear to you. But an outsider, or someone seeing the map for the first time, won’t be as familiar with the material, and will be excellently positioned to see issues you hadn’t considered. Practical criticisms, even when they are blunt, are important to your work – which is why you should always find outsiders to critique your work.

Example: “The legend looks a little crowded. Perhaps lowering the font size will help.”
A constructive criticism is a negative or practical criticism coupled with a suggestion for improvement. This format is how people are taught to discuss their work in school, because a learning environment is not the place to develop a thick skin – it’s a place to learn from mistakes. Therefore, criticism is cooled with helpful advice. The key for the professional cartographer is to separate the advice out, and focus on the criticism. In the example above, it’s possible that lowering the font size of the legend will help. But there may be other ways to uncrowd the legend, like streamlining the information presented, or repositioning text. Don’t think you are somehow bound to decrease the font size just because it was suggested constructively.

The opposite of criticism is praise. Obviously, you can never have too much of that, right? Actually, praise can be dangerous if it isn’t considered critically. If five people look at the map, and four people have a problem with the background color, are you going to trust the fifth just because her praise makes you feel better? Sometimes praise is just praise, but too much praise can mean you’re not asking the right people for feedback.

Ultimately, the goal is to make great maps, and even the best can get better. Any kind of feedback, whether, positive, negative, or neutral, can be useful to that end. So don’t be scared of criticism – seek it out! Find some friends or colleagues that you can trust to be honest, and ask for their help. And when other cartographers ask for your help, be honest but kind: give them the kind of feedback you’d like to receive.

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