Your career spans over a decade, and you've been creating digital and physical maps as well as working for government organizations and tech companies. How did you first get into cartography?
I didn't know about cartography until I was required to take a cartography course in my Geography major. And I only knew geography was an option and a field to study because I took an environmental conservation class that I loved! Honestly, the beginning of my career felt like falling into something out of random discovery.
I triple majored in undergrad and took all the possible classes to create my own "personal major" that, in my mind, was environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison (at the time, it didn't have that as a major). I'm half Chilean, and a lot of my undergrad, I connected many of my geographic and mapping projects with my Spanish linguistics major and Chile.
Initially, I intended to get a Master's in Geography. I wanted to do research the field and study the effects of dams that were going to be built in Patagonia (Chile). I ended up being offered a spot in the Cartography & GIS program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I really loved a class on geovisualization and interactive maps, so I said yes right away.
At the time, I didn't know that the University of Wisconsin-Madison is one of the top schools for cartography. However, when I began attending the North American Cartographic Information Society (NACIS) conference, I realized how many people didn't have similar opportunities because many schools across the country do not offer as many spatial courses. That's why I care a lot about teaching and accessible education, and of course, community advocacy — that is a big part of my work.
Your thesis is focused on historical map styles. Why did you choose this subject? Is it helpful when you're creating maps at work?
I had always wondered why we were never taught how to recreate any kind of maps. In grad school, I realized that these classes don't exist. My mom is an artist, and she has been experimenting with different mediums and styles since I was a kid. I wanted to attempt to do something similar with my thesis and define styles in the history of cartography. On a selfish level, I wanted to understand how to recreate any map! I settled on pre-1900s and then only on woodblock, copper plate, and lithograph styles.
That thesis directly affected every single job I've had since then. For my first job, I worked at The Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (now the Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance) at USAID. I made maps about international disasters — which I enjoyed because making these maps directly helped people in other countries. In addition to spatial analysis work, I redesigned some of their maps. All the work I did for my thesis allowed me to break down every style, analyze them, and then understand how to recreate them.
For my next job at The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF), I established a brand as their first cartographer and graphic designer. When I joined Mapbox as a Senior Map Designer, my cartography background also helped me navigate zoom-level styling: as cartographers, we often only learn how to work at one zoom level. So I think my thesis and understanding of how to break things down and helped me a lot when creating web maps and making them look good at various zoom levels.
In addition to more practical aspects of my degree, it's been super important for me to understand people's different histories and cultures through mapping. The way cartography is taught in the U.S., and I imagine Europe, is a very Eurocentric view of history. In other countries, people mapped the world differently. My favorite example of that difference is Asian scroll maps. I've seen one at The Freer Gallery, and it takes up an entire wall. Looking at this map is a bodily experience as you're moving rather than putting it flat on a table. It feels like walking alongside the road or the river. Art history matters a lot for culture, and it matters just as much to look at global styles of maps to understand history. Different places and people have different perspectives, and it is important to know them and also understand how to incorporate knowledge we don't immediately think about.
What are your favorite map styles that you created?
My Burtonesque style (also book cover art!) is a favorite for several reasons. First, Halloween is my favorite holiday, and this style was created as a Halloween map. I didn't want to do a stereotypical Halloween style and just use orange, purple, black, green colors. That is great, but I wanted to do something more creative. I immediately thought about Tim Burton's aesthetic and how it would be a perfect Halloween style for a map. People immediately recognize his aesthetic due to the unique visuals he incorporates into all his work, so I also knew it would be easy to figure out what could be pulled into a map.