GIS software is too complex for designers, or is it?

A map of a country in a paper atlas. That’s approximately how the 45+ of us imagine cartography, but in recent years maps have become more like visually rich compasses in a smartphone or a car GPS device. Maps were once designed by graphic designers. Today, they still are, but designers better make themselves familiar with GIS, polygon division, database linking, and other disciplines that have nothing to do with design.

Map Maker Pro is for people who want to make maps rather than simply view them.” So Map Maker is Windows software for creating maps, and despite its claim doesn’t really pamper the designer. It’s not explicitly targeting designers, but rather people who know a lot about GIS (Geographical Information System).

Having said that, you do not have to be a GIS expert to use Map Maker Pro but if you’re used to working with a vector based graphic design tool, you’ll need more than a couple of hours to learn how to draw, edit and print basic maps, and link them to databases. Even the one app that I consider to be really aimed at designers requires some intensive training to become familiar with today’s map making. Additionally, with Map Maker Pro you’ll have to master dividing and joining polygons.

Still, Map Maker software is in use in 100 countries, mainly by farmers, ecologists, foresters, archaeologists and other professionals who have taught themselves how to use the software.

Map Maker Pro may be one of the less difficult apps for cartography. ArcGIS must be the Walhalla of GIS experts. Alas, it’s a nightmare for designers. Yes, there are indeed hundreds of tools for performing spatial analysis in ArcGIS for Desktop. And yes, these tools allow you to turn data into actionable information and automate many of your GIS tasks (a list: calculate density and distance, perform advanced statistical analysis, conduct overlay and proximity analysis, create sophisticated geoprocessing models, etc., etc. — the word “analysis” says it all).

This Windows only software needs Microsoft .Net to be installed and really is more like a tool for geologists and surveyors. I for one wouldn’t like to be the all-round designer who has to create a map using ArcGIS as the learning curve can be quite steep.

So, what’s out there that does keep designers firmly in mind? To find the app that pampers designers the most, we must turn to the Mac. On the Mac, there is only one serious map making software available. Not surprisingly, it started out more as an illustration plug-in for Adobe Illustrator than as a GIS tool.

In its early days, Avenza’s MAPublisher plug-in allowed you to create maps — the kind that you find in paper atlases. I reviewed several of their versions and they were all relatively easy and simple to use, but with each new version the software became more complex. Avenza today is perhaps not a direct competitor of ArcGIS, but it certainly surpasses many of its competitors on the feature and integration front.

The only real pain when MAPublisher could still be a simple map design plug-in was to get to grips with how database elements translate to the graphic in your Illustrator document. Today, MAPublisher has evolved to a full-scale GIS product. Avenza recently announced MAPublisher FME Auto, which provides FME Desktop with an Adobe Illustrator — MAPublisher writer. In FME Desktop, a designer uses the writer to translate GIS data formats for use with MAPublisher.

This allows designers to create workflows in FME and then use pre-designed Adobe Illustrator templates, auto-assigned layers, and prepared MAP Themes to generate maps. All of this happens relatively transparent to the designer. Admittedly, not something the average designer will find himself doing on a daily basis. At least the most difficult steps in the process are smoothed out, and designing still happens in Illustrator, which is familiar to most graphic designers.

There’s not much even Avenza can do to make it easier, though. Maps these days must be created for paper output, web applications, mobile applications, GPS, and perhaps some output channels that I don’t know about.

The problem with this is that map creation has become more complex and specialized than many a designer could have imagined ten years ago. Map customers who want nicely designed maps with user-friendliness built in, have no choice but to employ designers. And designers need software that makes the creation of maps as simple as possible in order to concentrate fully on the design task.

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