Changing Planet

CUBA ON MY MIND: Creating a New Classic Map

Base map of Cuba as first exported from GIS prior to styling in Adobe Illustrator.

Ever since first becoming a cartographer at the National Geographic Society it has been the creation of new maps that has so appealed to me. To take a mountain of lines, place-names, and other geographic data and meld it all into a stunning (and accurate) map brings the greatest gratification to my job. So how do we do it?

A map, these days, starts with data accumulated by our GIS team and exported to Production as either Illustrator vector data or raster tiffs. It is here that the magic begins—for after all, this map must look like a National Geographic Classic map with all the attention to detail that such a product requires. It is in those details that I believe we stand out. Our colors and fonts are distinctive and follow a long specification sheet guiding us in every aspect. Whether it be the special blue blend for our ocean fills, our proprietary NGS fonts (created by former NGS cartographers) used throughout the map, or the warm brown Pantone color selected for the relief. Even our type placement and curving follow specific guidelines. I remember many years ago, when names where initially written by hand, that placing labels was a skill that jobs could be dependent on. The shoreline of a map should be visible by the placement of its names alone. And so it has been with the new Cuba map.

As often is the case, the initial file for Cuba contained too many place-names and lines from multiple sources that didn’t coincide. So, before the “beauty” part starts, the prioritizing and matching of data must happen. A map of this scale usually takes about three weeks to complete the compilation (and deselecting) process. We finesse as we go—so that all elements flow together and the most important features stand out easily. The first moment of truth is when we provide the initial at-size print for our editorial team to review. Although not for color, it does however provide our first insight to all elements destined to be on the final map. But for me, the true wonder of the map in all its glory is revealed when we make a color proof using our internal pre-press Epson proofing system.

Does this map stand up to the scrutiny of cartophiles? No doubt about it.

Debbie Gibbons
Director of Cartographic Production
NG Maps


Read All Posts in This Series


CUBA ON MY MIND: Hitting the Cartographic Jackpot

CUBA ON MY MIND: Armchair Traveling

CUBA ON MY MIND: Creating a New Classic Map

CUBA ON MY MIND: An Editorial Tour of the Island

CUBA ON MY MIND: “At the corner of Yield and One Way”

Juan José Valdés is The Geographer and National Geographic Maps' Director of Editorial and Research. He guides and assists the Map Policy Committee in setting border representations, disputed territories, and naming conventions for National Geographic. As NG Map's Director of Editorial and Research, he is responsible for ensuring the accuracy and consistency of its maps and map products.
  • Stanislav Polimac

    I have a huge crush on maps and cartography, but as a GIS specialist i must protest 🙂 and say that magic begins the moment the first set of data hits the hard drive! 😉 From there magic builds up trough the GIS processing and, I admit it, hits it’s peak at the production stage. I just love that feeling when I know that what is in front of me as a pile of data will soon become a beautiful map…

    All the best from Belgrade, Serbia!

    • Juan Valdes


      Be it a GIS analyst, a Map Designer, Researcher, Editor, or cartographic Production specialist, we all share the same wonder when it comes to our work—the magic of seeing all of those lines, colors, and names come to life as a map.

      Juan José Valdés

About the Blog

Researchers, conservationists, and others share stories, insights and ideas about Our Changing Planet, Wildlife & Wild Spaces, and The Human Journey. More than 50,000 comments have been added to 10,000 posts. Explore the list alongside to dive deeper into some of the most popular categories of the National Geographic Society’s conversation platform Voices.

Opinions are those of the blogger and/or the blogger’s organization, and not necessarily those of the National Geographic Society. Posters of blogs and comments are required to observe National Geographic’s community rules and other terms of service.

Voices director: David Braun (

Social Media