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So You Want to Make a Map? Part II​

By Alex Richards


In my first article on this topic here, I covered the most fundamental question of map making- why you're actually making it, and who it's going to be for. This time I'll be looking into perhaps the most frequently asked question of anyone involved in graphic design or illustration- what software is the best to use. As with everything, the answer to this flows from the purpose for your map, but at its heart is a simple question, each response to which offers a range of alternatives.

Raster or Vector?

Raster and vector images represent the two opposing sides of a fundamental chasm in graphics design- should the end product be fuzzy or sharp? While there are numerous technical differences, in essence a raster image is a (potentially infinite) grid of pixels each of which is coded for a single colour, while a vector image is a set of points linked by mathematically defined lines. Most people will be familiar with raster images- which includes all the common file types such as .bmp, .jpeg and .png- while vector file types, such as .svg have been traditionally less-well supported online, although this is changing.

In practical terms, raster images will produce smooth gradients between colours and are better for photorealistic or more artistic styles, but lose quality when the image size is altered, while vector images require a new shape to be created for each colour, making them better for simpler designs or more limited palettes, and can be resized without any loss of quality. In addition, the file size of vector images increases as a slower rate than for raster images, making it potentially more useful for larger sized maps. Often, however, you'll find yourself making maps in a vector programme and then exporting them in a raster file format (usually either .png or a high quality .jpeg) when the time comes to show your map to the world. As a final note, raster formats are better for producing maps which are intended to be edited by the end user (for example outline maps which are to be filled in as desired) while vector formats produce complex maps which are easier to edit (as each element is saved separately.)

The Power of Layers

Ask anyone in graphics design what the simplest way to improve the quality of your work is and their first response will be hard work and practice. Their second response however will be the use of layers. This applies not just to maps, but to all graphics design from webcomics to company logos. I'll be covering how to use layers at greater length in a later article, but to briefly summarise, a programme which has layers allows you to take each element of a map (for example coastlines, rivers, towns, labels, colour fills and so forth) and place them on a separate 'page' which stack to form the image. Layers can be turned on and off for ease of editing, decreased in opacity to produce a translucent effect, reordered a s required and allow for a certain element to be selected and edited without having to avoid changing everything around it (for example redrawing a river while leaving the coastline or country name in place). As such, once you go beyond very basic image programmes, almost any option you'll come across will include the capability for using layers.

Raster Programmes

Being the simpler form of programme to code and somewhat more intuitive to use, raster programmes span the full range and breadth of complexity and versatility available. It's worth remembering, however, that many of the more complex programmes are primarily created as tools for editing and touching up photographs, and as such creating a piece from scratch can come with a much steeper learning curve.

In my own experience, four raster programmes tend to be mentioned the most by mapmakers. The simplest, and most familiar, is Microsoft Paint, which until 2017 formed part of the standard suite of pre-installed programmes with the Microsoft OS. MSPaint is very easy to grasp the basics of, but while some very impressive creations have been made using it, the lack of any layer functionality in particular makes it unsuitable for larger and more complex pieces for most people. However, it remains the easiest programme for basic editing (such as filling in an outline map) and is ideal for creating sketch maps and rough drafts for personal use.

Taking a step up in complexity, Paint.NET is a free to download programme that in terms of design ethos can basically be described as 'MSPaint with layers.' The added features means the learning curve is slightly higher than for MSPaint, but most things operate in a similar enough way that its straightforward to switch between the two as required. Paint.NET can be thus be used for everything from basic sketches to full commissions, though as with all raster programmes its better for stand-alone works than those which are intended to be included in published and works and so may require resizing after completion.

Gimp and Adobe Photoshop represent the two most common photo editing programmes. Both have full layer capability and have more functionality than Paint.NET, but are less intuitive to learn to use. Of the two, Photoshop is the more well known, mostly for the high pricetag attached to a license (currently retailing at about £20.00 per month with Adobe Creative Cloud) but has arguably the widest functionality of any programme on the market, and occasionally can be acquired at much more reasonable rates. Gimp is less versatile, but being a free to download programme is considered by many to be a good substitute for those on a budget. Be prepared for a long learning process with either programme however.

From a personal perspective, Paint.NET is my raster programme of choice, but with support from MSPaint as required.

Vector Programmes

When it comes to vector programmes, two things should be borne in mind- firstly that vectors represent a step up in complexity from raster programmes, so it can be beneficial to get some experience in the latter before trying out vectors. The second is that the range of available programmes is much smaller with some, such as Adobe Flash, being primarily used for website design or animations and others, such as SketchUp, being intended as 3D modelling tools.

While Gimp has some vector capabilities (and can be used to open .svg files) there are essentially 2 programmes of note on the market which you may see being used. First is Adobe Illustrator, which can be described as the vector version of Photoshop, and as such has both the capabilities and the price-tag associated with that product.

However, the most frequent vector programme you'll see referenced in creative circles, and the one I myself use, is inkscape, a free to download programme and has both good functionality and a manageable learning curve. Perhaps more from the paucity of options on the market than anything else, inkscape must be considered the vector programme of choice for the majority of people.

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