The most beautiful maps are not behind us: they will be made today, by people who cared enough to make them. That sounds like you.
Great maps require no formal training or credentials. I learned by trial and so will you.
The best contemporary mapmakers taught themselves: Eleanor Lutz is a bio PhD and learned cartography on her own. Illustrator Mike Hall sketched maps in his notebook during shifts as a security guard, and now has an agent to handle his map deals. Alex McPhee studied geophysics, decided he needed to map his native Alberta, got some open source geo-software and made one of the best modern reference maps.
Mapmaking is like cooking: you pick what you like to eat, and improve by trial. You’ll over-salt a few dishes, ruin a few pans and come out a master. You just have to pick some Territory to commemorate.
Just draw one!
Cartography is making the infinite Territory legible to humans, which gives you many ways to get to the same point.
Find some Territory you care about: your yard, your street, your neighborhood, your town, your favorite patch of woods. Get a pencil and paper. Mark what you care about. You’re now a cartographer. If you stopped reading and drew a map on a paper towel, I’d be satisfied.
You can make a map with charcoals and an easel, a stick and some sand, a pencil and graph paper, a grid computing cluster, some hideously expensive software, some there’s-no-way-this-is-free software, a drone with a camera, a satellite with a radiometer, all ways to the same end. There’s no “correct” way to make a high-effort map.
If you still want to use the computer to make a nice-looking map, read on.
I learned cartography at close range from Daniel Huffman. if possible close this tab, get a desk next to a cartographer, pester with questions for 1+ year.
Every cartographer has their own idiosyncratic way of making maps; this is only what I can get my head around. If this doesn’t work for you please check out other ’tographer tutorials at the bottom, they might click better.
My entire toolkit:
⓿ Getting started
Here’s my map workflow, you’ll find yours soon enough:
▼ There’s a big directory of links at the bottom of this page; if you need data, a tutorial, some inspo, check down there first. ▼
❶ Install some free software
Install click-around map software
QGIS lets you manipulate geodata with relative ease and export an SVG/PDF to cute up in Illustrator.
QGIS – Download for Windows > QGIS in OSGeo4W > the 64 bit one will likely work for you.
Using a Mac?
QGIS tutorial 2 – more QGIS tutorials.
Install type-around map software
You’re gonna install GDAL (Geospatial Data Abstraction Library), a command-line tool that lets you edit geodata without clicking around in QGIS. Learning to type your way through changing projections, cropping images, filtering data etc. will greatly speed up your mapping. It might feel awkward at first but it’s very useful; I hate coding and I still love command-line tools.
Using a Mac?
❷ Find some geographic data
You’ll encounter dozens of arcane file types but here are the main ones to look out for. All of these get worked over in QGIS and GDAL.
Where to get geographic data
Need something else? Time to start sifting the resources page down there ▼.
❸ Design your map
So now you have QGIS and GDAL installed, plus a folder full of geographic data. How do you turn that into a map? Someday you’ll get an end-to-end account (it’d take like 30,000 words and good screencasts) but for now you join the grand tradition of “follow a tutorial (check the resources pile at the bottom of this page ▼), ask your computer pals at The Spatial Community for help when you get stuck.”
For now, some general guidelines:
Reproject your data
Whatever coordinate system you project your data into, you gotta apply that same projection to all the other data in your map. It’s all gotta match!
Vector data is easy to reproject in QGIS. Raster stuff like imagery and elevation data is a bit more involved:
Make the terrain
Once your data’s cleaned up and you’re left with what you want to show on your map, you export an SVG/PDF out of QGIS and make your vectors look nice in Illustrator or Inkscape. For the rasters (e.g. terrain and satellite imagery) export a TIFF from QGIS/GDAL and edit them in Photoshop or GIMP. There are tools that make this more convenient, like the wildly expensive MAPublisher plugin for Illustrator, but they’re not necessary.
Find some maps you like and see how close you can get; I think of ’tography as more craft than art, so you can get real far by copying the masters. Raid the inspo column at the bottom of the page; to see exactly how a good map is put together, download the National Park Service map Illustrator files.
Now you’re in the art zone: compositing in Illustrator, labeling, futzing with colors, upsetting back-tracks to your original geodata, adding cute ephemera like north arrows and legends, illustrations. Make it look nice. Real nice. I can’t wait to see your map ♡.
💬 Join The Spatial Community Slack and get answers to your geo-questions.
QGIS: open source GIS software for Windows, OSX, Linux
GDAL/OGR: open source command-line GIS tools
Natural Earth: public domain data source for borders, countries, cities, natural features, and more
You a CLI + python, C++, R person? Here’s every geodata processing tool you could possibly need.
GDAL/OGR cheat sheet
Intro to GDAL
Intro to satellite data + GDAL
Common satellite data + GDAL operations
Google Earth Engine end-to-end tutorial
What the hell is a coordinate system anyway?
Square cartogram maker one, and two
Hex cartogram maker
Sankey diagram maker
Custom embedded Google Map and markers
Export Mapbox basemaps to JPEG
Color palette generator
In-browser land cover classifier
NACIS youtube channel: presentations and walkthroughs
Carl Churchill’s shaded relief tutorials
Daniel Huffman’s map tutorials
Command line cartography with mapshaper
Sarah Bell’s hand-drawn shaded relief tutorial No. 1 and No. 2
Paste-in- addresses geocoder
Change DMS coordinates to decimal degrees
Generate a DEM from LIDAR
How to generalize your DEM to make smooth contour lines
Historical NOAA nautical charts
U.S. National Archives
American Geographical Society Collection
National Library of Scotland
David Rumsey Map Collection
USGS historical topographic maps
Public domain shaded reliefs
New York Public Library map collection
Osher Map Library
Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection
Some fantastic cartographers:
30m U.S. land cover (NLCD)
30m U.S. croplands
30m North American land cover
30m global land cover
100m global land cover
300m global land cover
100m CONUS shaded relief + land cover
30-90m elevation data
Elevation data finder: openterrain
Elevation data finder: opendem
Elevation data finder: opentopography
Elevation data finder: imagico
U.S. wildfire perimeters
Remote sensing basics
250m Blue Marble
Sentinel-2 + Landsat 8 browser: Sentinel Playground
Sentinel-2 + Landsat 8 browser: EO Browser
Download by lat/long from all of NOAA’s sensors
High-resolution imagery browser (expensive)
Tim Wallace’s satellite imagery resources
How to find the most recent imagery
Charlie Loyd’s imagery compendium