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Cartographers design and produce maps in paper or digital form to communicate spatial information.
Cartographers retrieve and evaluate geographical information and turn it into maps, geographical charts, diagrams, surveys and graphs. They are also responsible for adding names, symbols and colours to help people read the maps.
Map-making is an art that dates back almost 7,000 years. It was mostly done by hand until the 1950s. Since then, the profession has evolved dramatically thanks to the development of computer software and sophisticated surveying equipment. Cartographers now mostly use Geographical Information Systems (GIS) and digital mapping techniques to generate and manipulate their designs. They collect data from remote sensors and other electronic devices. They also use specialist tools such as photogrammetric equipment to scan and analyse aerial photographs.
The information produced by cartographers is used in many forms, for example:
- Road atlases, transport maps, SatNav maps
- Tourist maps
- Statistical maps
- Military maps
- Maritime charts
- Maps for environmental monitoring
- Maps for town planning
- Archaeological maps
Cartographers work mainly for the public sector (local authorities, government agencies, Ministry of Defence, conservation trusts and utility companies), surveyors and publishing companies.
At the start of their career, cartographers earn between £15,000 and £22,000 per year.
At senior level, salaries can vary between £35,000 and £45,000 per year.
- Use a range of specialist surveying techniques
- Use Geographical Information Systems (GIS) to capture and analyse landscape features
- Analyse aerial photographs, satellite images, statistics and other information
- Design and produce maps, illustrations and graphics with specialist computer software
- Choose appropriate layout, colours, symbols, abbreviations and typefaces to communicate information
- Produce proofs of maps and check them for accuracy and scale
- Revise and update existing maps, atlases and other geographical information
- Design and update geographical information (GI) databases
- Plan and carry out land and hydrographic surveys
- Liaise with surveyors and designers
- Supervise projects and staff
- Undertake continuing professional development
To become a cartographer, you will normally need at least an undergraduate degree in one of the following disciplines:
- Geographical Information Systems (GIS)
- Computer science
- Software engineering
- Physical or mathematical sciences
- Earth science
- Marine science
- Civil engineering
- Graphic design
Your chances of getting employment will increase if you hold a postgraduate qualification in GIS, cartography, photogrammetry, digital mapping, surveying or remote sensing. You can also take short courses on these subjects.
You will often get additional in-house training when you start a new job. Training schemes in the public sector can last up to two years.
You will need to undertake continuing professional development (CDP) to keep updated about the latest software development.
- Passion for geography
- Excellent design and IT skills
- Good spatial awareness
- Analytical skills
- Problem-solving skills
- Excellent communication skills
- High standards of accuracy and attention to detail
- Systematic approach
- Logical thinking
- Command of a second language is a useful added skill
You need to be a very patient and meticulous person as accuracy is key in mapmaking.
You will work regular office hours and often spend a lot of your time in front of the computer. You may have to work in the evenings when deadlines are approaching. You may spend some time away from home when you carry out land or hydrographic surveys.
Competition for posts is fierce so it is advisable to build a network by becoming a member of the British Cartographic Society and the Society of Cartographers. Both societies provide networking events, opportunities and short courses.
Cartographers may start their careers as mapping technicians and move on to become cartographers and cartographic editors. At entrance level, the job is mainly technical but as you progress, you will be involved in the choice of layouts, symbols and styles for the maps you produce or update.
The following government departments are the main employers of cartographers:
- Met Office
- United Kingdom Hydrographic Office (UKHO)
- Ministry of Defence
- The Macaulay Land Use Research Institute
- Ordnance Survey
Private sector employers include commercial publishers as well as the oil and gas industry.
With experience, you may become team or project manager.
You can also choose to become a freelance consultant or a lecturer at a university, but opportunities are scarce.
Also known as…
- Cartographic Editor
- Map Editor
- Mapping Technician
- Map Librarian
- Charting Officer
- Geographical Information Systems Officer
- Graphic Designer
- Hydrographic Surveyor
- Land Surveyor
- Software Engineer
What’s it really like?
Gavin Thomas, 45, runs his own cartography company, The Map Factory.
What is your job title?
I am a cartographer. A cartographer is involved with the scientific, technological and artistic aspects of developing and producing maps.
How long have you been in this particular job?
24 years. I applied for many jobs after leaving college. I got a job producing footpath maps for Oxfordshire County Council. I got my work published in a book called The Oxfordshire Way. There were various other freelance contracts around that time. For example, I produced maps for Glastonbury for 3 years for Q Magazine.
I started properly back in 1990, working as the only cartographer for EMP publishing, a map and magazine publishing company in North London. They had a wide client base and produced maps for councils, airports and local authorities for many years. At one point I had two assistant cartographers working with me because of the workload. I was with them for nearly 20 years before being made redundant. I decided then to set up my own freelance company called The Map Factory, in January 2010. Since then the work hasn’t stopped; I have been producing family tree maps for people researching their ancestors as well as producing business maps for an internet-based company. I have also been involved with various festival organisers for ‘behind the scenes’ maps for contractors, artists, etc. The work is always varied and interesting.
What did you do before this job?
I went to college to study cartography and surveying. I came third in class as a rally navigator in a rally in West Wales.
How did you end up doing this job?
I had always had an interest in geography and maps; therefore it seemed the most natural choice to find work in the cartographic sector.
What academic qualifications do you have?
I have an A-level in geography, surveying and mathematics and an HND in cartography and surveying.
What area(s) of cartography do you specialise in?
All areas of cartography are covered.
What do you do in a typical working day?
All depends on the type of work I have on that day. There is a lot of research work to be done first before drawing any map. This takes up quite a lot of time. Once the information required is obtained, the next task is to plan the map work, what is to be shown, what scale is to be used, etc. I usually do rough drafts first to check that I am meeting the client’s brief before committing to the actual map work. Once these are done and I am happy with the layout, I will produce the maps, send proofs to clients, make any amendments necessary and then supply final artwork.
What are the most important qualities an applicant must and should possess?
I believe that you need to have a good eye for detail, be methodical in your way of working and bring your own style and design to the finished product.
Do you get to travel a lot for your work, and if yes, which parts of the world have you been to?
If only. When I started my career as a cartographer I had images of me travelling the world, but in reality, most information required can be sourced via the internet these days. I occasionally travel to meet clients at their premises. And I have been to the site of a few festivals that needed the extra input of being there before producing the maps.
What do you like about the job?
I enjoy everything about being a cartographer. There is always something different that comes along. It is a passion for me as well as a career.
What do you dislike about the job?
Nothing really. It is all good fun.
What advice would you give to someone thinking of doing this job?
When I started out as a cartographer, all maps were produced by hand using a Rotring pen (a technical drawing instrument) and drawing film. These days, most of the work can be done using a computer. I would decide what you want to get out of the job and specialise in that particular field. I like doing family tree maps these days as a lot of people are tracing their ancestry. These bring a welcome addition to a list of names of relatives in a visual form that can be printed and put in a frame on the wall.
If you left this position, what else would you consider or enjoy doing?
I’m not sure; I think the skills that one learns and obtains as a cartographer can be used in a number of different ways.
Do you mind us publishing your salary / rate per hour – this is very helpful for job seekers?
Since I set up my own business, The Map Factory, over a year ago, the work has been quite constant. Each job is different and therefore has an individual pricing structure.
Hourly rates can vary between £15 and £35 per hour, or the job can have an overall price/quote. It all depends on what the client requires.