From City Streets to Bear Trails, J.D. Nelson Takes Mapmaking to New Heights

Because he's so well known, David Nelson is sometimes jokingly called the "poster child of mapmaking." However, mapmaking is serious business to Nelson, whose company, J.D. Nelson Mapping Services, has a client roster that includes Microsoft, the National Park Service, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, United Artists, US West and many of the nation's urban transit systems. However, Nelson didn't start out as a mapmaker right away.


Nelson's original idea was to write a newspaper column showcasing a variety of road and off-road cycling routes, along with detailed maps of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, California and New Mexico. For eight years, he submitted the column weekly to the Denver Rocky Mountain News. As the size and intricacy of the maps grew, Nelson began to realize their potential value outside the newspaper. In the early 1990s, he turned the column into a professional mapmaking venture.

Tools of the Trade

To digitize his maps, Nelson relies on many Adobe Systems tools, including Adobe Illustrator 8, Adobe Photoshop 5.0 and Adobe Acrobat 4.0. In most cases, Nelson spends 10-12 hours per day creating maps using Adobe software, all of which is installed on a variety of Apple computers. "My niche as a mapmaker is creating large-format maps using just a desktop computer and Adobe's imaging software," he says.

Digitizing a Map

One of Nelson's long-term clients, the National Park Service (NPS), oversees almost 400 parks. Although NPS employs its own full-time staff of cartographers for creating and digitizing visitor maps for each park, it contracts many of its mapping projects to specialists such as Nelson.

Before he begins working on a map, Nelson searches for available digital map data. Much of this data is free and can be retrieved via the Internet from USGS or provided from a municipality's GIS. Access to this digital data saves him hours in comparison with having to create maps from scratch.

Shaded Relief

One of the most difficult parts of a mapmaking project is creating shaded relief to represent the surface features of a region. According to Tom Patterson of NPS, "Cartographers often have mixed opinions about shaded relief. Although shaded relief is valued as a design option for presenting understandable and aesthetic terrain on maps, it is frustratingly difficult to produce. Heretofore, the prerequisites for creating shaded relief have been artistic talent and/or the mastery of complex and expensive software. Today, however, relief shading is undergoing democratization thanks to the accessible tools of desktop publishing" (Cartographic Perspectives, journal of the North American Cartographic Information Society [NACIS]).

To create a shaded relief effect, Nelson uses DEMs from USGS. He tiles them together in Natural Scene Designer from Natural Software and exports a grayscale PICT, which is opened in Photoshop, a photo design and production tool. The grayscale file is rendered to shaded relief and colorized in Photoshop.

"There are many advantages to using Photoshop to enhance shaded relief," said Nelson. "It is relatively easy to use and generates a pleasing shaded relief effect." In addition, Photoshop makes many output options available, including print-ready PostScript files and JPEG files for the Web. Once he captures the topography of the map in Photoshop, he imports the file into Illustrator and composites it behind the other stylized vector map data to complete the full digitization process.

Creating a Map Brochure

Some of Nelson's projects require him to produce folded map brochures for urban transit systems in the suburbs of California, Colorado, Connecticut, Indiana, Kentucky, Texas, Florida and New York. Because there are so many elements to creating a brochure, he breaks the project into various pieces.

Using Illustrator

Nelson starts by importing a local municipality's GIS data into Illustrator and purchasing one or two hard copy maps of the region to use as a visual guide. Using Illustrator's editing tools, Nelson scales and stylizes roads, creeks, boundaries, railways and other objects to fit the map parameters. Because precision matters, Nelson uses Illustrator's Smart Guides to place and align objects, including legend items.

Illustrator also allows Nelson to create and store vector artwork in the Brushes palette, creating an object library of frequently used items such as highway symbols, landmark icons and pictographs. He can set options for how the objects are scaled, rotated or painted, eliminating tedious editing. Nelson also uses Adobe Dimensions to produce 3D artwork such as compass symbols or to simulate pushpins stuck into the map. "A mapmaker deals with endless small objects such as symbols to show where gas, food and campgrounds are located," he says.

Nelson uses Photoshop to create the cover art and to color correct and crop photos for the brochure. Separately, he uses QuarkXPress page layout software to assemble the map files and other art and to set text for timetables, rider information and the street index.

Because Nelson works on as many as 15 projects at a time, he tries to find ways to save time without sacrificing quality. "The ability to work faster with graphics tools like Illustrator saves hours on every project. Without their precision and speed, the task would be much more difficult," he adds.

During the evolution of a map project, Nelson uses Acrobat to convert the map into a Portable Document Format (PDF) file to preserve its original format and appearance and e-mails it to the client to proof. With Acrobat, clients can open the PDF file from any computer and view the map with its original appearance intact.

Mapping the Future

As Nelson continues to create maps for his clients, he constantly incorporates new technology and techniques that make his maps even more realistic. "With fairly inexpensive desktop tools, I can create a map that is both detailed and professional in just a matter of weeks," he says. Although technology is key to creating these maps, Nelson doesn't envision tourists accessing his maps from computers while walking through a national park. "If you're hiking on a trail with your laptop, you're missing the whole point of being outdoors!"


Rebekah Mitchell is a freelance writer based in Redwood City, California.

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