A career in cartography

 10 June 2013

Caroline Robinson began her creative career as a designer, but she soon realised that cartography was the right path for her. She talks about getting into cartography from a creative background.

“Making a living isn’t too difficult in cartography if you have the right skills and training.
“Making a living isn’t too difficult in cartography if you have the right skills and training." Image: Caroline Robinson

Becoming interested in cartography

Although Caroline runs an award-winning cartography business, The Clear Mapping Company, her interest in maps started out more as a hobby than a professional pursuit.

“I have a deep-seated interest in history, which led me to become fascinated with maps. I used to live in Stoke Newington, in North London. I found it intriguing that maps from the 1800s gave a deeper understanding about place names, growth and cultural meaning.

“Maps are all historical documents – they are only relevant for a limited period. Even Google Maps are historical artefacts as they are current with the data available at the time."

Pursuing a career in cartography

Caroline studied Painting and Drawing with Graphic Design at the North East College of London, before going to university at Falmouth College of Art. There she studied Information Design, which involved creating design work to communicate to different sectors of society.

Falmouth eventually became her adoptive home, and she secured work at an international children’s toy and furniture company working in product and packaging.

But after a decade in “a very corporate environment”, with high-profile clients such as Argos and Mothercare, she was looking for a change.

This came when she found a role for a GIS Officer at the commercial arm of the Cornwall Wildlife Trust. After developing her skills in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and Computer Aided Design (CAD), Caroline moved on to set up her own business.

Developing cartography skills

Caroline needed to develop her technical skills in order to do be a map designer as well as a graphic designer.

"There's plenty of work in cartography if you have the right skills."

"Working at the Cornwall Wildlife Trust helped me build on my previous experience in spacial thinking.

“I became very comfortable with my creative skills in design, cartography and project-management.

But professional development meant more than creative skills training for Caroline – to set up on her own she also needed business support.

“I took part in a free course, which was funded by the European Social Fund (ESF) Convergence and facilitated by Outset Cornwall.

“This taught me really important lessons, such as how to start a business, dealing with cash flow, marketing and HMRC.”

Typical routes into cartography

“My route in was far from direct. A more typical route in would be, for example, doing a Geography degree with a module on GIS software, then doing a Masters and getting a job somewhere like a local authority.

“People also approach cartography from a technical base, so they’ll start off doing something like IT and programming.

“Or they can come from the ecology or engineering discipline – there’s a huge demand for mappers in the oil and gas industry.

“It’s a shame that cartography isn’t actually recognised as a discipline in the UK; it can be just a module within wider subjects.

“The demand for capable GIS Officers, however, is perceived to be relatively low in the UK.

"But if you go to the United States or a developing country like India, there are lots of opportunities for cartographers to map new infrastructure.”

Making a living in cartography

Getting enough work hasn’t been an issue so far for Caroline, despite being in the early years of running her own business.

"It takes technical ability to create a map, otherwise it’s an illustration."

“Making a living depends on which discipline you work in cartography. With the right skills and training, there can be plenty of work, not least because most maps need updating on a fairly regular basis.

“I would suggest that you specialise, so for us it’s pre-planning applications, rural businesses and community development.

“I do encourage signing up to membership organisations, such as The British Cartographic Society, as they help you to think more broadly than your own individual discipline."

Being a cartographer

“Cartography is a mix of science and art. Appreciating the difference between a map and an illustration gives you an advantage to distinguish from the sub-standard maps out there. The differing strengths of maps can be applied to different projects depending on what the client requires.

"My day-to-day job involves visiting clients by bicycle and discussing briefs. I work closely with bigger organisations to provide a tailored service.

"We go by bike as we're a green organisation, and even won 'Most Green New Business 2012' at the Cornwall Sustainability Awards.

"When creating maps do cross-reference as much as possible. Visit the site to ensure that on the ground things are the same.

“This is where cartography can be quite labour-intensive, but extremely satisfying. Clients should be critical about who designed a map when they are offered one.

"Always look for the date of issue and who created it. You do need to obtain permission for reproduction rights. There can be heavy legal penalties for getting it wrong.”

Tips for getting into cartography

1. Illustration and cartography: know the difference

"Especially if you’ve come from a design background, it’s important to know the difference between what a cartographer does compared to an illustrator.

"A map needs to have compass, measured distance and a reason for existence – and it takes many different skills to create it. Otherwise, it’s just an illustration."

2. Think visually and spatially

"Thinking both visually and spatially is a skill which not everyone has. If you do have it, then cartography might be the career for you.

"Get experience with a local cartographer or map producing company and find out for sure."

3. Hard work is a must

"As maps are labour-intensive and spatially considered pieces of work, you need to be someone dedicated to your craft. Just like in other creative industries, there are deadlines to be met and clients to please.

"Cartography can be quite complex – you need to think of several issues at the same time, such as audience and interpretation. Each map celebrates the joy of creativity with the science of place."

 

Have you ever considered a career in cartography? Share your thoughts.


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