Not Lying With Maps: Map Design Choices for Quantitative Data

Catherine Riihimaki, Drew University


The students read and discuss in class an article called "Lying with Maps." They then reflect on the article's recommendations by making maps of New Jersey's population.


Type and level of course
This is an entry level GIS course designed for environmental studies students and other students across the campus.

Geoscience background assumed in this assignment
No assumed geoscience background.

GIS/remote sensing skills/background assumed in this assignment
I assume the students know how to add a shapefile to a map document and can change the symbology of the layer.

Software required for this assignment/activity:
ArcView 9.3

Time required for students to complete the assignment:
3 hours


GIS/remote sensing techniques students learn in this assignment
The students learn the various options for displaying quantitative information in ArcMap.

Other content/concepts goals for this activity
The students learn that they must make explicit choices about symbology, instead of relying on default choices that ArcMap makes. They then become familiar with some basic demographic characteristics of New Jersey.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity
The students synthesize ideas presented in a journal article, and apply those ideas in their GIS analyses. The students also learn to document their methodology to explain their mapping decisions.

Description of the activity/assignment

To prepare for this assignment, the students read and discuss the article "Lying with Maps," which describes different ways to display quantitative attributes on maps, and argues (in part) that map authors need to be aware of whether they are appropriately representing their data through choices of symbols and colors. The students apply these ideas through making maps of three quantitative characteristics of New Jersey's population: total population, racial distribution, and age distribution. They summarize their efforts through a written description of their mapping choices to justify why they opted for certain symbology choices, and why they didn't choose other options.

Determining whether students have met the goals

The students turn in a series of maps that account for ~2/3 of their grade, and a written summary that accounts for ~1/3.
More information about assessment tools and techniques.

URLs and References

The data that we use are from the ESRI book "GIS Tutorial, 3rd Edition", but similar data may be downloaded from the US Census or state GIS clearinghouses, such as New Jersey DEP (

Monmonier, M. (2005), Lying with maps, Statistical Science, 20, 215-222, doi:10.1214/088342305000000241.

Download teaching materials and tips

Other Materials

Not Lying With Maps: Map Design Choices for Quantitative Data -- Discussion  

Join the Discussion

Log in to reply