Writing a Mapping Brief

CARTOGRAPHERS (map designers) work like many others engaged in design fields—they need clear briefs. Not only does a clear brief help the cartographer, but more importantly, it helps you structure your thoughts and clarify objectives. It’s an essential first step in a project. Below I outline a few helpful pointers:

  1. Objective. What do you want the map(s) to achieve? Is there a business or other strategic objective(s) to be met? The objective could be quite simple. Also consider whether you are trying to convey a unique aspect of your business that is unlike your competitors.
  2. Background. Why do you need the map(s)? It’s always helpful to understand the wider context of a brief. What resources do you have that will be useful to the cartographer?
  3. Brand guidelines. It’s important to know whether the mapping should adhere to the use of certain colours and typography so that it can be reflective of the brand. Other guidance on ‘tone of voice’ and character can be helpful to form a appropriate graphical and typographic language for the mapping.
  4. Copyright. All maps are derived from data sources owned by someone. For example, you cannot trace Google Maps without infringing their copyright. All ‘works’ are subject to copyright. There are open-sources for map data, such as the OpenStreetMap project and even the Ordnance Survey (UK national mapping organisation), but they still need an appropriate acknowledgement. Perhaps you have your own material that you own. It’s often a good idea to discuss this with the cartographer as part of creating a brief.
  5. Budget. How much do you have to spend? If in doubt, ask the cartographer for some guidance on this.  Cartographers will normally allow for a certain number (often 2–3 sets) of revisions within a price. Make sure you clarify this as they will not endlessly keep revising the map(s) for you. If such situations arise, it’s often indicative of a poor brief.
  6. Application. What will the map be used for, particularly the medium for presentation. Printed, online, on-street, for example. What will be the reproduction used as that can dictate the approach. Perhaps it is to be used across several mediums; this has to be made clear so the design can allow for this flexibility.
  7. Audience. This is a fundamental point, and often linked to (4) above. Who is the map(s) aimed at? What type of audience? Think about the typical and/or common characteristics of your audience. This will make a fundamental difference to the outcome.
  8. Other constraints. Is there anything else the cartographer should be made aware of? Perhaps there are other stakeholders who will have a view on the final map(s). Perhaps there are other longer term (business) scenarios that will impact upon the developed mapping.
  9. Timescales. When do you need it by? Be realistic here; rush jobs will always be a fact of life but rarely result in the best outcome. Allow time for proper review and feedback. Realistic deadlines will generate better results.
  10. Communicate. After you’ve written your brief, or even during the process, it can helpful to talk through it with the cartographer. This may help clarify uncertainties, or reveal missing information. You can do this in person, or over the phone. Whether the cartographer has the prospective work, or will be invited to bid for it, they are usually happy to discuss issues in advance.

What’s next?

The cartographer will come back to you with a proposal that will outline the process; specific tasks, timescales, costs and payment regime. It is likely they will also provide you with general Terms & Conditions (T&Cs). The discussion can continue until you are both happy to proceed.

During the project it is important to bear a couple of things in mind:

  1. Try not to get hung up on subjective (personal) likes and dislikes. Those are not really design considerations; arguably more to do with stylistic biases. Constructive feedback is vital, but it needs to be qualified; simply saying you do not like something is unhelpful feedback and risks bringing the project to a premature end as your cartographer/designer wastes time trying to second guess your personal (stylistic) tastes. Keep in mind your target audience and consider the potential implications of the design approach as there is often more than one correct design solution to a problem. There can be technical/scientific reasons for certain design choices, for example, to fulfil accessibility requirements or reinforcing cognitive ‘norms’ in perception.
  2. Make sure you understand the issues of colour management. This is a rather complicated but important area of the work. Do not make judgements on colour if you are looking at drafts on a rather dated laptop; your screen is unlikely to be showing you the real colour(s). Beware if you are not working in a colour-calibrated environment. Also ensure hardcopy proofs (paper prints) are reflective of the final outputs. This is often over-looked, by cartographers as well as clients, so it really helps to discuss this with the cartographer in the early stages.

Lastly, do not panic! The process is very enjoyable and informative. Just make sure you keep talking and the end result will work out just fine!

Good luck!

If you want to find out a little more about mapping (cartography), there are further articles here, covering Cartography, Elements of a Map and Map Communication.

April, 2019

Map Communication

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Writing a Mapping Brief

CARTOGRAPHERS (map designers) work like many others engaged in design fields—they need clear briefs. Not only does a clear brief help the cartographer, but more importantly, it helps you structure your thoughts and clarify objectives. [ … ]


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