The Evolution of Map Making at National Geographic
Rachel Zack
The Evolution of Map Making at National Geographic
Rachel Zack
The Evolution of Map Making at National Geographic
Rachel Zack
The Evolution of Map Making at National Geographic
Rachel Zack
The Evolution of Map Making at National Geographic
Rachel Zack
The Evolution of Map Making at National Geographic
Rachel Zack
The Evolution of Map Making at National Geographic
Rachel Zack
The Evolution of Map Making at National Geographic
Rachel Zack
The Evolution of Map Making at National Geographic
Rachel Zack
The Evolution of Map Making at National Geographic
Rachel Zack
Maps
Editorial
The Evolution of Map Making at National Geographic
For the last decade, Rosemary Wardley has been making maps for National Geographic and accidentally becoming a map-making historian.
For the last decade, Rosemary Wardley has been making maps for National Geographic and accidentally becoming a map-making historian.

Why did you become a cartographer?

Maps were all over my house growing up and, in reflection, this probably made an impression on me from a very early age. We had a United States Geological Survey topographic map of Southern Rhode Island pinned to the wall outside my bedroom. I  would track all the hikes and places we visited on it. I passed it at least twice a day, every day. When I was looking to apply to college, I was thinking about different majors, and my dad suggested geography. It seemed like the combination of my love of history and cultures and science, languages, travel, and the more I read about it, the more I liked it. I was applying to school in the early two thousands, right when GIS was becoming more widely used by civilians and the private sector. Geography programs were becoming more common and getting more funding at Universities. It felt like promising timing to get into the field. 

So that’s what started me down the path to where I am now, but what kept my interest over all these years is how broad the field is. When I started at school studying geography, I resisted choosing a specialization (e.g. human geography, physical geography, or at the time just like GIS with focusing on the toolset). I was sure that I liked it all, and that remains my mindset today. 

The broadness of the field means I'm constantly growing and trying to expand my skills, and following my passions where they take me. One of those passions turned out to be artistic cartography, which I was introduced to by Cindy Brewer. Cindy Brewer is an expert in color and map design, and I was fortunate to take a class with her my senior year. It really sparked my interest. From there, I took an internship at National Geographic for a summer, spent some time at an engineering firm, came back to National Geographic and worked my way from the data side, to editing and now more production.

The National Geographic Society was founded in 1888 by 33 prominent scholars and scientists to “increase and diffuse geographic knowledge.” How does this mission show up in your work today?

The mission is reflected in my daily work every time I take a complex geographic or spatial topic and try to present it in a way that is educational, easily understood and exciting to the general public. The mission may sound antiquated, but it is absolutely still very relevant. It's in our DNA.

You've spent over a decade creating maps for the organization. What have you learned?

One more abstract takeaway has been the history of cartographic features. Most people look at historical maps one at a time, and broadly, they will look generally the same. My team is constantly examining historical maps for the minutia, and as a result of all this work, it’s hard not to begin to notice the things that changed over the hundred-or-so-years these maps have been produced. Whether or not you mean to learn cartographic element development, with repetition, you start to identify the time the map was created by different stylistic features and elements.

How has the mapping industry evolved over your time at NatGeo?

This industry has evolved very quickly. I have participated in many large scale and mission-critical projects that were transformative at the time, but are no longer here. Going back in time to 2008, for example, no one had readily available geospatial data. You had to build your own authoritative geospatial database. At National Geographic, that database was built by people like me! It’s hard to imagine in this day and age. We have so many data sources we don't even have to rely on our own database as much anymore, but at the time it was very important, and our data had to meet our standards, and follow our own map-making policy. Thinking back on that, and recognizing we were a part of a moment in map-making’s history–it’s a thing that I'm proud to have worked on and to put a lot of time and effort into.

Our Atlas app is another thing I’m really proud of that sadly no longer exists. It was the first time we came together as colleagues and tried to take our amazing cartography skills into a virtual space. We made four versions of it and it lasted about five years. We started the first version by taking scans from an Atlas and georeferencing them and putting them on a digital globe. You’d spin the digital globe and be looking at a page, reprojected onto it. Then we had to make a full digital tile set in the style of our map. The map editor at the time asked us to print them for review–he had been working at Nationally Geographic for more than 40 years by then and he did everything on pen and paper. I told him I actually wasn’t sure it was possible to print them all out, but we did!

Printed digital map tiles.

The first one was about 32 inches by 32 and the next one was double that and the next one was double that. We had a plotter, but the fourth level was about 40 feet or something. I’m not even sure he ended up using the printouts for editing, but the whole experience just really captures the two mapping spheres–printed cartography and web cartography–colliding in the workplace.

What are some of your fondest memories?

I think the most fun project was one I worked on with my colleagues for an exhibition celebrating 100 years of National Geographic's cartography group. We had found a huge (20 foot diameter) globe in the depths of the garage that had been hand painted in the ‘70s. It was incredible, and it needed to be updated with current boundaries. I remember going over there with my team and trying to figure out how we were going to do it. We were like, okay, what's the diameter of this globe? And how do you reconstruct a map of it? I remember trying to add the boundary of South Sudan on and plotting that out and making sure that it would match, and that somebody could then tape it up there on the globe and draw it on–really deep cartography stuff. And when that application of cartographic skills actually worked on a physical object, it was a great feeling. 

Rosemary's team updating boundaries on a 50 year old globe.

Your maps depict complex processes like, how rich fossil deposits ended up in the Can Mata Landfill, or, how the Channeled Scablands in Washington State were formed. How do you decide what to include?

I took a very influential class–Dr. Jerry Shue’s ‘Landforms of the World’ class at Penn State. He taught me that geomorphology and humans influence one another to make geography. I haven’t been able to stop seeing the world like this since. 

The class gave me the foundation for describing geography. Dr. Shoe would show a slide deck of aerial imagery of large landforms and you learned about how they were made. We started with Pennsylvania and learned about how that state formed, then expanded to the United States and then the world. This exercise gave me a good eye for understanding how something formed geologically–whether it was wind, rain, erosion, plate tectonics, or something else, and how to convey that process in a simple, clear format.

Example of Rosemary's work. Pictured is Catalonia's Vallès-Penedès Basin.

Geography is how humans and the physical world interact–one cannot escape the other. For example, I recently designed a map explaining the terrible conflict that is happening in the Tigray region. While the story is about an ongoing ethnic civil war, the geology of the area plays its own role in the story as well. Sometimes it takes over and I have to make difficult decisions about what to include. For example, there is a huge plateau here and people can’t cross it, or there is a river over here that is blocking them from escape. That is why you’ll always see us try to give a little physical relief to our maps, to emphasize landforms. The landforms of our world have always made an impact on where we settle and how we interact and showing that is definitely a major part of my work.

Do we ever see something distinctly Rosemary Wardley on the map?

The short answer is that it should be difficult to find “me” in the work because we work with a lot of design guidance at NatGeo. For my early career, I was working on the data behind our products. Then I was working on our atlases and our reference maps series, which have a very specific style. There wasn't really a lot of creativity to that, which I didn't mind–it's a great way to learn the process and to learn how to make things efficiently. Those maps teach you how to cram as much into the map as you can elegantly. 

Only recently have I been able to put my own spin on the maps I work on. It comes out in the way I use my creative thinking to select the techniques that will make the map as clear and concise as possible, and how to emphasize the human aspect of the story. It’s subtle, because it is all within our design standards, but that is my goal–the map should be impactful despite the topic, and bring the reader in.

Which piece has had the most impact on you?

For the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, I worked with Jeff Ferzoco to take his interactive database of a century of queer nightlife (OutgoingNYC) and present it in National Geographic.

How the Stonewall uprising ignited the modern LGBTQ rights movement
The history of queer nightlife in New York City.

This project was important for the LGBTQ community, but it was also personally important for me, as a lesbian. I learned so much about my own history and I am proud every time I get to present that map to a large audience, eager to learn about theirs.

This industry has evolved very quickly. I have participated in many large scale and mission critical projects that were transformative at the time, but are no longer here.
Bio
Rosemary Wardley is a Graphics Editor and cartographer at National Geographic where she works on a variety of custom print and digital products. She is also a former board member for the North American Cartographic Information Society (NACIS) and former organizer of Maptime D.C.
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