how to make an atlas: templates

I’m starting my thesis project! Where I intend to create an atlas about how the design and planning of our urban and regional areas have made us attuned to not cooking. During this atlas project, I’ll be making a series of maps of San Francisco and the world.

An atlas a trickier than a single map. I have to keep a consistent scale, art board size and attention to each map. The scales have to be consistent, otherwise it the map may accidentally make some places look larger than others. The consistency stays within the SF maps and global maps. If I choose to do singular districts, then I will adjust the scale for that. If some maps had larger art boards, they may appear to be more important, when hat isn’t the case. Additionally, given that this is an atlas of static maps, the maps will need to fit together in a the same booklet. Attention. Making a map is a lot of work. Making a lot of maps can be overwhelming and taxing. Each map has to given the same amount of attention to detail, or you could end up with some pretty maps and some ugly maps. Not only will sloppiness make a map look unaesthetic, but it will also derail your argument. The prettier maps will look more important, while in reality, the point of an atlas is to show multi-spaced connections.

I’m going to approach this with a seemingly simple solution: making a template. The template will be on Adobe Illustrator and layered specifically. A neatline will be necessary to carry over to new maps. And so my work begins…

a growing draft

  • City Planning
    • Introduction
      • Brief overview of city planning
        • Why do we have this?
        • What forms does this come in?
      • How has food been considered in city planning? Has it?
      • How has urban living transformed our interaction with food?
        • From cradle to car
      • Thesis:
    • Topic One: The City
      • MAP: What does a city look like?
        • SF
      • Where are the people? Where is the food? Is food accessible?
      • Solutions to redesigning a city
        • Dealing with Space: parks, walls & roofs
          • Sustainable landscape architecture
        • How do People Eat?
          • Where is this food coming from? Is there a way we can design the city so they get it from the city & not from wherever the city got it?
        • Stop designing for the car
    • Topic Two: The Suburb
      • MAP: What does a suburb look like?
        • The Grid
        • San Ramon?
        • What are the plots of land? Is land/commons freely available?
      • Solutions to redesigning
        • Know Your Neighbours: raising a village
        • The Plants of Playgrounds: starting with children
        • Group Gardens
    • Conclusion
      • Restate thesis
      • Call to Action, immediate benefit & other ways to contribute
        • Grow your own garden
        • Teach your kids how to cook

physical geography: connecting maps & ideas

Geography is a very interdisciplinary field by nature (haha!). The reason why I like maps so much is because it visualises and connects the other phenomena that I’m passionate about. Maps give life and meaning to the concepts I know are interrelated. They make a great communicative device as well.

My upcoming examination is in geomorphology. That’s a really fancy way of saying of saying how our landscapes form through endogenic and exogenic processes. Endogenic processes involve geo-related events, eg plate tectonics, volcanoes, etc. Exogenic processes encompass external factors, like precipitation, glaciers, rivers, etc.

This is a really interesting bitcon-looking runoff rate map map, divided by what appears to be states/territories within a state. So let me pitch something kinda crazy with this map. Runoff rate is the Look at the northern hemisphere, look at the southern hemisphere. The planning term “Global South” often categorises third world and developing countries, as they tend to be in the Southern Hemisphere. The Global North being developed countries that tend to reside in the Northern Hemisphere. From this map alone, one could argue that the runoff rate and county development is related. How? Precipitation for agriculture? Accompanying flora? Although I can’t say for certain, I think this is a good example of at least being able to depict spatial and social-spatial patterns.

types of mapping programs

Before I get into how to make maps, let me talk a bit about what programs I’ll be using– and some ones that we’ll be learning together.

  • ArgGIS – This is an ESRI product that can be difficult to acquire, but there’s a ton of features and reliability in this site. At the same time, with such a monopoly, be careful of limitations that ESRI will put before you. This program uses geostpatial information like geodatabase files and shape files in conjunction with spreadsheet data that relates to the geospatial data. Some useful features include linking your own files and datum, data cleaning, georeferencing, styling (colouring, point type, naming, etc), exporting maps, programming and a lot more. Note that this program can only be run on Windows systems.
  • ArcGIS Online – Just as difficult to acquire, if not more. It is substantially more limited in its designing tools and the amount of information you can pack onto it. But it’s a lot more versatile and shareable. If you’re a big map-heavy company, there’s a series of ways to share maps amongst people and your group. There’s also access to others’ maps and datum. This program isn’t meant for static maps the way that ArcGIS is, it’s tailored more towards creating interactive webmaps for supplementing websites.
  • QGIS – If you’re a casual mapper, I suggest looking into this program. The Q is short for Quantum, implying that this like a beta version of ArcGIS. But it’s free and can be used on iOS and Windows, so who’s complaining? I would, however, recommend saving often. QGIS has a similar toolbox to ArcGIS, but it isn’t as polished or reliable.
  • Mapbox – Almost a strictly web mapping platform, Mapbox is a great tool. However, the learning curve might be a bit steeper in comparison with the previous tools. However, the amount of freedom you have in comparison to ArcGIS is huge. You can also store your own datasets onto their site. But I forewarn that they run strictly on vector files, so if you’re trying to convert it into ArcMap or meld it with some other raster data, you might run into some problems. Also, if you’re not a huge company trying to take over the world, it’s free to use! They also supply a lot of their own tutorials for Mapbox Studio and Mapbox GL JS (and it’s an open source company, so you can get pretty much everything on GitHub). Mapbox Studio is more for making base maps for your GL JS or uploading them onto other webmapping programs. Mapbox GL JS stands for something like Graphics Library JavaScript (but don’t quote me on that). So the really cool part of this one is that you can add essentially whatever you can come up with onto these maps using JavaScript functions. If you don’t know JavaScript though, I might suggest learning some basic things and going through their tutorials before diving into headfirst into Gl JS.
  • Adobe Illustrator & Sketch (Mac only) – These design based tools are useful for creating your own maps. You have compete control, which is both liberating and tormenting. Because these programs don’t run things like shapefiles or geodatabases, you have to make these things on your own. This is not only physically laborious, but it also means that you have to make huge cartographic decisions when simplifying, eliminating and doing anything that isn’t exactly the base map you’re tracing or imitating.
  • Mapzen – For now, I just know that it’s comparative to Mapbox. When I know more myself, I’ll update this.
    • EDIT: Check this out along with its corresponding GitHub & fall in love.
  • CARTO – This is also used heavily for interactive web mapping. Personally, I’ve only used it to merge data sets and overlay their points, lines and polygons tools over base maps I made on Mapbox. To add interactivity on CARTO, you’d have to use SQL instead. I’ll update this as I dive more into it myself.
  • OpenStreetMap – This is a good place to grab open source data. We’ll explore this later on.
  • Google Earth Engine – So this one is a bit unlike all of the others because it’s remote sensing more than cartography. In short, remote sensing are pictures taken from droids or satellites. The really cool thing is that these can take pictures in our visible light spectrum, but also in other forms that give you about how much vegetation there is in an area or what the topography is like. So what’s the downfall? Because it kinds sounds like this has become a fool proof cartographic method, as far as considering the questions of power and simplification. Well, this data isn’t nearly as accessible and you don’t have control over what you can do nearly as much as in any other program. Google Earth Engine also has fantastic tutorials that teach you how to use their program and even some JavaScript, as that’s what their program runs off of. So in the context of JavaScript, you have some control. Google Earth Engine is not explicitly publicly open. You’ll have to submit a reason why you want to use their data, however.
  • Apple Maps – Apple is the epitome of capitalism when it comes to allowing you to do anything with even your own data. But I’ll still show you some cool things with Apple Maps, if I can.
  • Google Maps – Sort of similar to Apple, Google isn’t that great from a cartographic standpoint, but we can still talk about their cartography and mass implementation. If you have an Android phone or even just Google Maps, then you are permitted access to your own data, which we can mess around with.

I know there’s a handful of programs that I’m not too familiar with at the moment. But I’m here to learn just as much as you are!

outer space mapping


I never put much thought into outer space in general because it seemed impractical and even irrelevant to me. But everything that I see and know about outer space comes from some sort of picture or drawing that is put into some sort of map for scale. They’re put into maps to show their relative sizes and distances because these scientifically noted numbers are literally too astronomical to be understood. So let’s get to it.

  • What is an Outer Space Map
  • History of Outer Space Maps
  • Modern Space Mapping Technology

What is an Outer Space Map

What distinguishes outer space maps from earth bound maps is that outer space maps are made from void to data collected, but not necessarily experienced information. Stylistically, both maps are fundamental in what you’re trying to convey is the concept of a place to someone who may have never been there before. So I guess that’s a pretty lucky start! Outer space maps are extra powerful because basically 99.99% of people who are viewing the map have never been– perhaps even the cartographer hasn’t been there! But the cartographer in this case has a special responsibility because no one has experienced this before that their map is what people will internalise as their perception of space. An outer space map is a powerful tool that mathematically translates data gathered by satellites into visual pieces.

There are a couple different types of outer space mapping that will be reviewed. Star Charts are astronomical maps that focus on what aspects of space can be seen from earth, and then cultural perspectives influence the meaning of the stars relationship to another. Specifically, star groupings and constellations tell the readers how nature diff

 History of Outer Space Maps

Source (left): “Divine Sky” from University of Michigan.

Source (right): “Star Maps” from University of Maine, Farmington.

The two above maps are how outer space has been mapped historically.  The left map is drawn by French Astronomer Philippe de La Hire and the right map is from c. 700 AD. These maps are more colloquially star charts, showing the spatial relationship of constellations in the sky.

Greek philosophers are arguably the most infamous astronomical mappers. Their contributions to math, technology and astronomy have been critical to the development of our mapping, and then in turn, our understanding of outer space. You can find a huge series of maps and mathematical analysis (especially look into the invention of trigonometry if you’re interested!). Most people are probably more comfortable with Astrology more than Astronomy, so maybe this does interest you more. But keep a keen eye when looking at the maps: what colours are being used? what’s on the borders? what figures are being portrayed as good? as evil? is there a hierarchy? why were these created? who used them?

Modern Space Mapping Technology

Disclaimer: I’m not going to explain how space mapping technology functions mechanically because that is beyond my scope, but I’ll give you a basic framework of the steps to mapping space.

There’s this a wizard of a man by the name of John Bandler. His space mapping is an optimisation strategy. This happens by running a coarse model over a fine model. Depending on your results, you are to adjust your coarse model to be closer to where you want to be. This is a strategy of optimisation. But this also tells non-astrophysicists very little about how these maps are actually conceived.

With today’s rapid growth in technology, we have forgone (although not completely) the star chart model for something a bit more intense and realistic. Visual outer space mapping is a combination of satellite’s collection of pictures and data, astronomical classifications and design principles. There are various programs available for anyone with internet access to see outer space, such as MarsTrek, Google Sky, NASA Gallery, The Digital Universe, planetarium shows, just to name a few. I’m going to focus on some work from The Digital Universe and UC Berkeley.

The Digital Universe Atlas

Source: Screenshots from C. Emmart’s TED talk: a 3D atlas of the universe

The Digital Universe Atlas is a project from the American Museum of Natural History over the past 18 or so years. The left image is a map of exoplanets, which are planets outside of our solar system that orbits a star other than the Sun. The centre image is a map of the colour-coded paths that satellites take to gain a comprehensive understanding and data collection of the astronomical region. The right-most image is a map of the satellites that orbit earth, some gathering information on the world around our world and others aiding our experience with telecommunication and GPS services.

UC Berkeley

Source: G. Smoot’s (UC Berkeley) TED talk: The design of the universe

These images all show you the universe, broadly. When looking at the centre of the right-most image, you have Earth. Fanning out from Earth, there are colour coded galaxies based on their cluster density. What I’m most interested in are these void spaces– not just the ones that are completely black, but the space in between galaxies. Why is nothing there? The obvious answer is gravity and that over a huge amount of time, particles pulled towards each other to create these clusters. But why is there still void space? My assumption is that  we’re still undergoing that process of gravitational attraction, but it’s so slow moving relative to our understanding of time, that we have no idea (outside of how small particles formed this current structure) what restricting is occurring.

This series of images brings about an extremely interesting concept: we are in a containment bound by our understanding of space and time. At the centre of these images lies us Earthlings. But you’ll see that radially these images have an end. That end is marking the line between quasars (think baby stars) and whatever is before our conception of space and time. Makes total sense right? Well, light can only travel so far so fast. This means that the further away something is, the further back in time we see it because of the time that it takes light to travel and reflect back to our eyes. For example, we see the Moon 2 seconds back in time and the Sun 8 minutes back in time. If this is boggling your head, that’s okay because this post is supposed to be about the map not about astrophysics! That said, let’s get back to the map.

All 9 of these images shown of a visual and digitised outer space amount to our conception of what space really is. The cartographers here have a huge task of not only displaying their data in a sensible way, but they also carry the responsibility of creating an entire new reality for people who may never experience themselves. What colours should be used? What’s the appropriate scale to make this conceivable? Orbits are continuous, but their path is void space, and there are not concentric circles planets roll around on, so is making orbits okay? Is what we’re doing okay? Is it realistic? Can we do better? I hope this grounds you a bit as an aspiring cartographer as you create realities of your own.

If you have learned nothing about how to map outer space, that’s alright. If you understand the logical process of optimisation, then that’s fantastic! I hope you can at least implement that sort of formulaic method when you’re stuck on other cartographic problems.

what is a map?

To most, it’s Google Maps or navigation systems like Waze or Uber. To me, it’s a visual representation of spatial phenomena that are used as tools of argumentation. Let me explain.

  • Types of Maps
  • Argumentative Maps
  • Cartographer’s Purpose

Types of Maps

There’s a lot of maps out there: reference, mental, political, election, cartograms, traffic, anything that is spatially related can be mapped.

Sources: City of San Francisco; UC Berkeley; Judgemental Maps.

The maps above are all of San Francisco/Bay Area, California. But what’s incredible is that each tells you something completely different about the area. The first one will help you with transit directions, the next with the topography and the last tells you about the people and culture. No one map is better than the other, for they all tell you something different about the same place. A place, especially one as diverse as San Francisco, cannot be defined so simply with a singular concept. All of these phenomena happen simultaneously in the same space, which construct how we experience the place as a whole.

Argumentative Maps


Source: Mark Newman, University of Michigan.

Fresh in our minds lives the results of the 2016 US presidential results. These two maps are probably quite unlike the ones you saw going around that year. These maps are a bit more honest. Both maps share a colour scheme that identifies red as Republican and blue as Democrat, but that purple blend shows that counties themselves can be divided. The left map is coloured by county. The right map may only vaguely even look like the US to you. This is a cartogram, a map distorting its area to represent the density of a phenomena; in this case, being population density. The left map argues that the country is more evenly divided than the map on the left. These maps show the same reality in two very different ways: this is the power of a map. It shows us the reality we experience, but the question becomes dramatic when maps are produced by authoritative sources. That is when we have to be suspicious if it is our honest experience or an implanted projection that is our pure reality.

Cartographer’s Purpose

So who makes these maps? Maps are made by someone after all. A cartographer is the person who designs the map, they make a great deal of decisions ranging from data cleaning, colour combinations, map extent, feature elimination and exaggeration, iconography, format and so forth. The grandfathered debate is who is more powerful: the king or the cartographer? The king is the one to make decisions, yes; but it is the cartographer’s map and decision making process that leads the king to his decision. So who truly is the more powerful one?

Maps are, in short, art, communication, simplification and deception. Maps can help us better understand the world around us, especially from views that much unfamiliar. But they can also distort our perception of reality and cause us to believe something other than our definition of truth. So I now urge you to continue this blog and learn about the cartographer’s ails so that you too may be both suspicious and admirable towards maps.