Changing Planet

GEOGRAPHY AWARENESS WEEK – NOVEMBER 11-17, 2012: Being a National Geographic Cartographer

Geography Awareness Week is celebrated in the United States every third week of November. This year’s theme—Declare Your Interdependence—is intended to explore the idea that we are all connected through the decisions we make on a daily basis, including what foods we eat and which products we buy.


As part of this year’s celebration, many of National Geographic’s cartographers will be participating in workshops or giving presentations about our careers. In the process of preparing for one of these events I was contemplating how today’s cartographers, at a macro scale, must be fairly knowledgeable in a wide variety of disciplines. This is a rather recent phenomena for not so long ago our mapmaking process was somewhat structured much like a production line—mapmakers were assigned to work on specific parts of the map. It was not uncommon to have one individual whose lifelong career was to be an expert in just one discipline. Long gone are those days. Today’s cartographers must be familiar, if not downright fluent, in as many disciplines as possible. For those of you contemplating becoming a cartographer, below are a few of the fields of study you should start familiarizing yourself with:

Applied linguistics
Geography: Cultural, Geotourism, Military, Physical, Political        
GIS/Geospatial analysis
Graphic design, production, and applications
History: Cultural, Military, Political
Image acquisition and editing
Text writing/Text editing
Mathematics: Algebra, Trigonometry
Research and data acquisition
Satellite imagery analysis
Web development

In other words, the creation of a map is in many ways a manifestation of the theme of this year’s Geography Awareness Week. Without a map, it would be so much harder to make some of our daily decisions—from what to wear based on weather forecast maps to how to get where we have never been, or would like to be, by using GPS or a map app.

Juan José Valdés
The Geographer
Director of Editorial and Research
National Geographic Maps

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.
  • Bill Strong

    Juan José,
    It is interesting how the cartographic profession has evolved since the earlier days of pen and ink. Your comments on how a cartography must be familiar with so many other disciplines seems to resonate with the profession geography in general. In order to solve spatially oriented problems, one must be familiar with many other fields of study that influence place.

  • Bob Pratt

    Having the privilege of working with all those “Experts in their Field”, it has truly been wonderful sharing talents to increase your own on the job. I say this because quite often we come into a work place with substantial skills only to find out you end up needing twice as much. I would add to assets to your list: Curiosity and Patience.

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