Being a National Geographic Cartographer

The first entry in our 2012 blog-a-thon comes from Juan Valdésthe official geographer of the National Geographic Society. 

Juan Valdes.jpeg

Photograph by Irmina Skonka

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 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 Valdés guides and assists the Map Policy Committee in setting border representations, disputed territories and naming conventions. Valdés also serves as the director of editorial and research for National Geographic Maps, where his prime responsibility is to ensure accuracy and consistency for all maps and map products. 

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