Posts tagged
with cartography

Design Science

Boldly Contrasted Maps by Spencer Schien Visualize Population Density Data

January 2, 2023

Kate Mothes

A 3D population density map of Illinois.

All images © Spencer Shien, shared with permission

It’s one thing to know that Chicago is the third largest city in the United States or that the fastest growing metropolitan areas are in the West and the South, but how can we see it? Data technologist Spencer Schien answers that question with an ongoing series of population density maps of states, rivers, and coastlines. In his work with nonprofits and NGOs, he uses R programming language to generate data visualizations that help organizations target where their services are most needed.

To compile the maps, Schien digs into the Kontur Population dataset, a publicly accessible project that layers global population numbers derived from sources like the Global Human Settlement Layer—a tool for assessing the presence of people on the planet—along with Microsoft’s Building Footprints and Facebook. He then translates statistical information about specific regions into highly contrasted maps utilizing Rayshader. The more densely populated an area is, the higher the bars rise. Atlanta, for example, is more than 137 square miles with around 4,200 people per square mile, and the map illustrates this as a mass of red amidst surroundings of more rural areas in green.

Currently based in Milwaukee where he works as the Senior Manager of Data & Analytics for City Forward Collective, Schien focuses on building the maps and other statistical visualizations using open-source tools that help to alleviate financial barriers to information. You can find more of his work on his website.


A 3D population density map of Ohio.

A 3D population density map of Kansas.

A 3D population density map of Wisconsin.

A 3D population density map of Virginia.

A detail of a 3D population density map of Virginia.

A 3D population density map of Pennsylvania.   A detail of a 3D population density map of Pennsylvania.

A 3D population density map of Georgia.

A 3D population density map of the Mississippi River.

A detail of a 3D population density map of the Mississippi River.




Design History

Contemporary Elevation Data and Historical Maps Merge in Scott Reinhard’s Digital Works

November 19, 2020

Grace Ebert

1966 Allen’s Creek, Indiana. All images © Scott Reinhard, shared with permission

By day, Scott Reinhard designs graphics for The New York Times. Recently, he created a United States map detailing where city-dwellers fled during the pandemic and another showing how the Pantanal wetland in Brazil has transformed into a massive inferno. Incorporating an ever-growing swath of data, his daily tasks are connected to the fluctuations of news cycles.

But in his off-hours, the Brooklyn-based designer takes a broader look at the state of the nation. He merges vintage maps and contemporary elevation data, creating stunning digital works that flatten the differences of time and space into hybrid objects. While his graphics for The Times are rooted in the ever-changing present, his personal work is nestled within historical contexts.


1962 Demotte Park

Reinhard’s interest in data and map-generation grew while he was pursuing a master’s degree in graphic design at North Carolina State University, particularly during an introductory course centered around geographic information systems. “I basically became aware of all these cartography tools that I had no idea about. Because I wasn’t coming from that background, I was free to play around… and approach visualizing geographic data in new and interesting ways,” he says.

That experimental period spurred Reinhard’s ideas of fusing historical maps and contemporary land elevations, and he began exploring filtering, a cartographic method that calculates a theoretical sun and provides data about corresponding landscapes. “It’s pretty crude, but it really fascinated me that from a flat, black-and-white image, which is basically what elevation data looks like, you could interpolate this scene,” he shares, noting that he began to work with 3-D renderings around the same time. “That data that’s stored in a paper map can still be activated.”


1928 Los Angeles

Since 2019, Reinhard has refined his focus and shifted to larger series. “I’m still interested in these USGS (United States Geological Survey) maps as graphic objects and as really beautiful works of graphic design. What I’ve really been enjoying is to build these out,” he says. The more comprehensive collections have included studies of Alaskan maps from the 1950s, one series focused on the Oregon coast, and another considering south-central Indiana where he was raised.

A macro-view captures the intricacies and histories etched into the landscape of a region, showcasing glacial formations, seismic activity, and how a mountain range emerged during a period of years. “I realized once I started visualizing the landscape that, on a day-to-day standpoint when you look around you, you see elevation changes, but you don’t really see patterns. We’re just a little too small,” he says. Because USGS maps utilize coordinates, they also circumvent more political orientations found in documents outlining territories or other cordoned-off areas, offering an opportunity to correct false narratives that have been perpetuated by cartographic objects in the past. The historical maps hold additional information on trends and periods in design, which manifest in aesthetic choices like style and color.

Reinhard currently is working his way through producing a collection of USGS-recommended maps from the 1950s, a novel project that’s rooted in exploration and curiosity. “All maps are exaggerations, to some extent,” he says. “You can push and pull what the map says and what the map tells you.” Explore Reinhard’s extensive collection of digital works on Instagram and his site, where he also sells an array of prints.


1948 Cordova, Alaska

1928 Topanga

1962 Vishnu Temple

1963 Anchorage, Alaska

1951 Menan Buttes

1950 Strasbourg



Design History

Contemporary Cartographic Explorations Fuse with Historic Maps in Digital Works by Scott Reinhard

January 14, 2019

Kate Sierzputowski

Yellowstone National Park, all images courtesy of Scott Reinhard

Yellowstone National Park, all images courtesy of Scott Reinhard

Scott Reinhard combines contemporary land elevations with historic maps to create three-dimensional environments of a specific region, city, or state. To produce the digital maps, he pulls elevation data from the United States Geological Survey, which he then embeds with location information and merges with the original design of the old maps.

Producing these hybrids allows the Brooklyn-based graphic designer to gain a better sense of the topography found in large areas without aerial photography, while also developing a story from the cartographic information. He often selects locations he has personally visited or is generally curious about for his digitally produced works. “I am from Indiana, which always felt so flat and boring,” he explains to Colossal. “When I began rendering the elevation data for the state, the story of the land emerged. The glaciers that receded across the northern half of the state after the last ice age scraped and gouged and shaped the land in a way that is spectacularly clear.”

By visualizing the history that shaped a location’s composition at a large scale, Reinhard is able to notice trends in the environment in a more localized way. These forces affect how we traverse our daily environments, but are hard to comprehend without taking the time to zoom out, or look at from above. “As a visual person, I was most intrigued by the ability to visually harness data and create images that helped me gain insight into locations,” he continues. “I felt empowered by the ability to collect and process the vast amounts of information freely available, and create beautiful images.”

Reinhard was introduced to the methods he uses in his digital maps through Daniel Huffman’s website Something About Maps. You can see more of Reinhard’s digital works on Instagram and buy select high-quality prints, on his website. (via This Isn’t Happiness)

Teton Range

Teton Range



State of California

State of California

Southern California

Asheville, North Carolina

Asheville, North Carolina



Mount St. Helens

Mount St. Helens





Design History Science

Art Meets Cartography: The 15,000-Year History of a River in Oregon Rendered in Data

November 25, 2015

Christopher Jobson


When considering the historical path of a river, it’s easy to imagine a torrential flood that causes a stream to overflow its banks, or a drought that brings a body of water to a trickle. The reality of a river’s history is vastly more complex, as the artery of water gradually changes directions over thousands of years, shifting its boundaries imperceptibly inch by inch.

Geologists and cartographers have grappled with helpful ways to visually depict a river’s flow over time. In 1941, the Mississippi River Commission appointed Harold Fisk to undertake a groundbreaking effort to map the entire Lower Mississippi Valley. Three years later he produced a stunning series of 15 maps that combine over 20 different river paths obtained through historical charts and aerial photography.

The beautiful map seen here of the Willamette River Historical Stream Channels in Oregon by cartographer Dan Coe also shows the history of a river, however Coe relied on more recent aerial radar technology called lidar. From The Oregonian:

Lidar data is collected by low-, slow-flying aircraft with equipment that shoots millions of laser points to the ground. When the data is studied, an amazingly accurate model of the ground can be mapped.

It is possible to strip buildings and vegetation from the images, so that only the ground is shown. In the Willamette River poster, the shades of white and blue show elevations. The purest white color is the baseline, (the zero point, at the lowest point near Independence on the upper part of the image). The darkest blue is 50 feet (or higher) than the baseline.

The shades of white show changes in elevation, between 0 to 50 feet. This brings out the changes made by the river channel in the last 12,000 to 15,000 years, in the time since the landscape was basically swept clean by the Missoula floods.

The map is usually available as a print through the Nature of the Northwest Information Center, however the site appears to be down at the moment. (via Feltron, The Oregonian)