Bad Maps: Apple's Map App and Poor Cartographic Design

Bad Maps: Apple's Map App and Poor Cartographic Design

Maps have been a hot topic this week with the release of Apple’s iOS6.   Apple pulled the plug on its partnership with Google maps and opted for their proprietary map app. Being a map geek, I had heard about the new Apple Maps for months. How the 3D mapping and turn by turn navigation would not only blow Google out of the water, but establish a strong competitor against Google’s industry standard. The problem is Apple’s maps have been plagued with bugs since release.  3D mapping only works in a few major markets and has been known to warp the landscape when it fails to engage properly. Search results and directions have also been causing trouble. People have reported their simple search results have sent them to the wrong location, and in some cases, into bodies of water.

Bad Maps: Apple's Map App and Poor Cartographic Design

Apple’s 3D Mapping working incorrectly (you can see some other great examples of this here)

The exciting part about this is a large number of people have been talking about maps! With the transition from Google Maps to Apple Maps many failed to realize a good thing until it was gone. This whole thing made me think about just how bad maps can be.

Through my work at Stratasan and having the responsibility of improving our map products I am exposed to maps from many places. And as you can imagine, much of what is out there is pretty bad. We will assume these maps were not intended to be bad; but similar to any creative output some people do not know better. This is especially true in many work places where a business “needs” a map and someone without the appropriate skills is tasked and performs to the level they are capable.

Apple will likely improve their map app over time, but there will never be shortage of good examples in bad mapping.

Bad symbology and poor legend design

Bad symbology and poor legend design

Let me start with the map directly above. First of all, the number units in the legend are not identified. I assume it’s in millions, but I really have no idea. The second and (excuse the pun) bigger issue is the size of graduated circles. There is no reason to have symbols get that large. They cover the map and are opaque so no one can see what is underneath. The city name labels are too small and the label weight (think bold vs regular) are set low enough where the city names fill in on top of the circles. There is also no neatline to show the borders of the map page and no source for the data used in the map.  This map would accomplish its goal more effectively by leaving the capitol cities on and shading the states in a thematic map using the data for their capitol city’s population. This is a great example of someone finding a great base map and a good projection for the US and not adjusting the data enough to present it properly.

bad soda map

Good concept trumped by poor execution

This map showing the generic names for soft drinks is a great concept; the problem is the execution. The text in the legend and over the Gulf of Mexico is too small. I have 20/20 vision in my mid-20′s and can barely read it.

The second issue revolves around color and Legend choices. “No Data” is tacked onto the green “Other” category. These values are unrelated. To add, this purple bleeds into the blue “Pop” areas in the northern half of the county. I use either white or black for “No Data” so the person reading the map knows instantly that there is no information available there. Finally, the size and font of the map title are both poor choices.  Never use a small fancy font. Make sure you make big and legible. There are tons of fonts that let you do this, and this is obviously not one of them.

population density by state

There are better projections and non-autumn themed color palettes that can show how small the population is in the West

This map showing population density by state gets a quick mention for using Mercator projection on the coterminous United States elongates on the horizontal axis and squeezing Alaska in the corner. Map projections are very important! Always investigate other options than the default way data is presented in your mapping software. We will ignore the lack of a neatline; the legend is too small, and the mistakes made in all aspects of the title.


Great data displayed with an outdated and unsightly symbology 

The map above is from Nashville’s Metro’s “Interactive Mapping Site.” The base layer shows gray-scale relief and is a great start. However, the roads as plain lines; the small generic labels for rivers, lakes, and cities; and the tiny road labels make the map look outdated and amateur. The data and layers associated with this site are great! But the presentation of the data is poorly executed. This reduces the map’s creditably and trustworthiness as well as calls the content into question.

Maps are a great tool usually taken for granted! It has been nice to see the latest testament to their importance.  One flaw in a map and the people who use it will discredit it and find a better option. If you’re interested in mapping make sure you learn the ropes before you publish anything. Maps allow us to display data, make strategic, decisions, and help us find our way. Without them you could find yourself in a cathedral instead of your local Burger King.

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