We are often contacted by people asking how to start a career in cartography. Caroline thought it would be useful to share her journey and experience as a guide to getting into cartography.
How I started my career in cartography?
My background is in information design which I studied at Falmouth University, when it was Falmouth College of Arts. I moved down to Cornwall from London to study as I wanted to do something useful with my drawing skills, but I didn’t want to go into a corporate environment and do advertsing. The course I was doing involved communicating difficult topics in a visual way; this would now be called infographics.
After getting my degree, I went to work for a children’s toy manufacturer using all my skills to design products from start to finish. I worked on creating or following the brand identity guidelines, applying these to new or exisiting products, creating huge drawings and sending them out to the Far East. The product samples would come back and I would be part of the team to critically assess the product, design the product manuals and send the final drawings back to the Far East for manufacturing. During my ten years, I worked on all sorts of children’s toys including Rose Petal Cottage, my children had lots of toys to try out and play with!
However, my drawings were always being handed to someone else to turn into 3D drawings, so I decided to retrain. I did two courses; one in web-design and the other in CAD. I received well-over 90% in my CAD course and thought this is what I should spend more of my time doing. My next role was working for the commercial arm of the Cornwall Wildlife Trust, CEC Ltd, as a Mapping and Graphic Designer. This is where I learnt about GIS. Oh my goodness. It was a map and a spreadsheet. Change something on the map and the spreadsheet changed. Change something on the spreadsheet and the map changed. Absolutely amazing!
My job was to supply mapping services to the ecology and the landscape team, essentially pre-planning support for new builds. I also did some data-cleaning to make the processes of making maps much easier to do by simplifying the Phase 1 Ecology symbology, making it suitable for on-screen and in print. I managed the photo-library, created a new brand identity, designed a new website and even managed to make reports more sustainable. By changing the font and decreasing the leading, we used less paper and saved more trees from being pulped. Reports averaged on 80 pages each rather than the previous 120. When your printing times 12, it can make a huge impact.
I thought “Well, this is a bit like starting your own business”
Except I didn’t know anything about starting my own business. I started on a programme with Outset Cornwall and it changed my whole life. Since going on the course, I have put everything they taught me into the business. Clear Mapping Co now does everything that I enjoy: the techy bit, the design and illustration. It means that I can apply my skills to solving the cartographic design problem and provide the client with a functional, beautiful piece of design. Saving them time and money in the long run.
Since starting Clear Mapping Co with a bicycle and a laptop it has now turned into a successful business, with a studio right by the Penryn river a mile from Falmouth. We have two members of staff and are growing our reputation for our fantastic work and professionalism. We have won an award at the British Cartographic Society, created national mapping protocol for Qatar and worked for the Cabinet Office.
What other paths are there to cartography?
My route in was far from direct. A more typical route would be doing a Geography degree with a module on GIS software, then going on to a Masters and getting a job somewhere like a local authority. Some 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 courses.
The demand for capable GIS Officers, however, is perceived to be relatively low in the UK. But if you go to the United States, there are lots of opportunities for cartographers to map population, infrastructure, habitats and natural resources.
My top 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 a 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.
We offer work experience at our studio in Penryn twice a year or look out for the next opportunity at Exeter University on the Pathways to Digital Innovation programme.
If you are looking for work experience, then please send your CV and three project examples addressed to Caroline: email firstname.lastname@example.org or call us on +44 (0) 1326 337072.