Expert Feature – Creativity Not Just For Cartographers: Geo Analysts Need It Too

What do GIS analysis and creativity have in common? Quite a lot, actually. While it may seem that geo analytical work is solely a left-brained affair and thus the opposite of creativity, there are, in fact, many ways in which creativity is fundamental to geo analysis.

  Though logical thought processes are the foundation to a good analysis, it is the creative skills of the analysis team that make a mediocre project into a great one, in all aspects from the initial goal-setting stage, to the implementation, to the results presentation.

If you are an analyst and want to dramatically alter your workflow for the better, learning some fundamentals of creativity is necessary. The key is to deliberately incorporate creativity techniques into daily work.


A bunch of data means nothing without a way to interpret it and apply it to solving a problem. Deciding what to do with existing (or planned) data involves creative thinking. The more creative the thinking, the more innovative the solution. For example, a habitat biologist with some LiDAR data may not immediately know what to do with it. While a search of the literature will give some ideas, such as calculating vegetation height, there may be many more analytical routes to take that would help the biologist out that aren’t mentioned in existing literature. Creative thinking is what is needed to come up with novel ways of applying LiDAR to habitat biology (perhaps correlating heights with local forest-practice management, pinpointing areas of old-growth forest, or even calculating variable-width stream buffers based on vegetation height, for example). It becomes even more important to exercise creative thinking when dealing with very new types of data that have not been written about or used often.

The creativity techniques that can help spur on novel ways of viewing new data, combining it, modeling it, and analyzing it, are numerous and all have one thing in common: they awaken the right-brain from its latent state.  The first, and probably the most simple, creativity technique to consider at this stage is drawing. Drawing anything, even a doodle that takes only 30 seconds to create, activates the creative part of the brain. This technique works best when nobody else sees what is drawn and the finished drawing is thrown in the trash at the end of the exercise. Without the worry that the drawing needs to amount to anything, then, the mind is free to switch to creative mode without constraint.
If you want a slightly more involved drawing exercise, read one paragraph from a fictional work (just use Google Books to find a classic, this doesn’t have to take a lot of time). Draw whatever comes to mind regarding that paragraph. When finished with the drawing exercise, turn your attention back to the proverbial pile of data on your desk and start to jot down (or sketch) ideas on what to do with it. The more ideas you put down on paper, the better. Ideas tend to self-propagate during this process. Keep the mind free from worrying about implementation so that it can continue on its idea-making path. Once a good bunch of ideas are written down you can then turn your attention to choosing which ones to pursue and how to implement them.


Once a plan is in place for what outcome you want from the GIS data (e.g., a better bike route, a place to site a solar power plant, correlations between demographic variables), creativity comes in again in the design phase of the analysis to get you to those outcomes. Remember, what we’re trying to get at here is a novel way of designing an analysis to produce the results and thereby improve on traditional methods. While experience counts for a lot at this stage, true breakthroughs in analytical processes and procedures can only be the result of truly creative exercises.

One interesting technique is to involve aleatory processes in the design of the analysis, or in other words, to introduce the element of chance. While there are many ways in which this could be done, one might be to have office members draw straws. Whomever draws the shortest creates the initial draft analysis before it is vetted with the entire group. Even if the least experienced analyst is chosen, there may be a novel idea that comes through that would not have surfaced under less random design conditions.

The common creativity technique of brainstorming is ideal at this stage as well. Gathering a group of stakeholders together to create a list of potential data inputs, combinations, and analyses can result in a much more comprehensive model than would otherwise be produced. During this kind of exercise it is important to have a leader who can keep the ideas flowing while also allowing break-out talks concerning how something would be done. For example, someone in the group decides that determining habitat connectivity is important but they don’t know how it would be quantified. A break-out brainstorming session can be scheduled for later or undertaken at that moment to gather ideas such as calculating stream and road crossings, and so on.


Once you know what you are going to do with the data and have a reasonable idea of how the analysis will be accomplished, it’s time to turn your attention to organization of the project. Some people run away at a fast pace when they hear the word "organize" but indeed, some level of organization is always needed to effect a meaningful result. If you can’t see all the pieces, and especially if you don’t know where they are, your project stands a good chance of failing. Therefore, what you need is a way to organize so that the building blocks of the project are at-hand for working with.

This might mean making sure that all pre-processing is done in a systematic manner (e.g., projecting into a common projection, clipping to a study area, bundling masses of data into useable categories, mosaicking adjacent data). It might mean putting together an analysis progress board with note cards pertaining to each step that can be moved as the project progresses.

Consider storyboarding and mind mapping also. These are great tools to use for project organization. At this stage you already have a good idea of what’s going to happen and what’s going into the analysis. But diagramming it can be a very effective way of making sure everyone understands the details. As an added bonus, these diagrams can be used in the final stage of the project (reporting) to help others understand the analysis better. For example, an archeological site prediction mind map that my firm created for the Suquamish Tribe was a handy tool for going back and forth with tribal archaeologists to make sure the model was indeed representing everything that it needed to (created with XMind).


Optimizing the workflow decided upon in the design stage can have a great effect on the efficiency with which the design is carried out. Often, efficiency is only considered during the actual implementation of the analysis, perhaps made apparent when you see personnel tearing their hair out to get a procedure to work faster or better. Solving these problems as they occur is good, but anticipating them is even better. To anticipate problems, one technique is to act out the design. For example, team members take on roles representing data and processes and move themselves around to simulate the design in-action. Any potential barriers identified during this exercise are noted and the design is modified as a result.

Brainstorming can also play a key role here. By gathering a group of implementers together and allowing them to contribute whatever methods come to mind for accomplishing the analytical tasks, many possible methods are presented and can be chosen from. If efficiency is the goal, then this is probably the best method for preventing individual team members from wasting time at their desks trying to determine optimal methods when it is often the case that another team member already knows the best method to use.


How you choose to present the results of the analysis is probably the largest factor in the kind of impact the results make on your audience. Deciding how to present the results involves creative processes once again. One technique is to pay attention to what others are doing to gain inspiration for your own results display efforts. Any time you see an interesting way of disseminating information or results, make a note of it so that you have a slew of ideas the next time you need them. Some of the ideas I’ve recently taken note of and used are presented here.

Lightening talks are available at most conferences and are a great way to get a message across to a wide audience with a shorter amount of prep-work than a full talk (just keep in mind that lightning talks, as opposed to full-length presentations work best when the speech is memorized). Make sure to film the presentation to further disseminate the information.

Using novelty to get a message out to an audience who doesn’t necessarily want to take the time to listen is challenging but not impossible. Innovations that grab the audience’s attention simply because of their novelty are a good option. For example, a colleague once had fortune cookies custom-made so that the messages inside them advertised a project’s outcomes. The cookies were a big hit in the lunchroom and made for for a gentle introduction to the project.

Always peruse GIS media, such as journals, books, and so on to gather new ideas. For example, I saw the book Visualizing Data Patterns with Micromaps profiled in an industry magazine and subsequently read it with only a vague idea of how it might be useful. But soon after reading it I was able to put it to good use. An impervious surface analysis that my firm had just completed had some interesting statistical results that needed to be conveyed to the client. While our usual route would have been to create a normal horizontal graph, this book gave me the idea to present the data in a vertical format, which happened to illustrate the pattern in the data much better and take up much less space (shown here). While this is just a small "innovation" for the firm, it is an example of using creativity science to continually improve product quality and client communication.

No discussion of geo analysis results would be complete without discussing maps. Creativity techniques can come into play in many aspects of mapping activities. Some ideas include giving thought to how and where maps are displayed. Catchy titles and high-traffic display areas are important. Sometimes placing just a few details on a map is most effective while other times a very detailed map draws people in to study and examine in a more involved manner. If you can manage to get your audience to read and interpret the processes behind the analytical results you increase both their comprehension and their retention of the knowledge. Your audience is then more likely to share it with others.

In summary, this article argues that deliberate practice in creativity is an essential skill to have in any geo analyst’s repertoire, allowing the analyst to turn a good project into an amazing project. However the activity of charging up the right-brain is accomplished, whether it’s a 30 second doodle or a 1 hour design simulation, make it a regular part of your work day to secure a place in the highest echelons of the GIS profession.

About The Author

Gretchen N. Peterson writes on the subjects of GIS analysis, cartography and ethics. Ms. Peterson is the owner of the geospatial analysis firm PetersonGIS. You can follow her on Twitter @PetersonGIS

SIDE BAR – exercises to consider

Creative activities help us achieve innovative solutions to analytical problems both large and small. Here are some exercises to consider incorporating into the workday. They work by stimulating the right-brain so that creative ideas can be brought out from the sub-conscience and into the forefront of the mind.

Putting pencil to paper has an extraordinary way of bringing out the creative mind. Try a quick 30 second doodle of nothing in particular. Copy a drawing originally done by someone else. Practice architectural lettering. Sketch the floor plan of your dream house. Read a passage from a favorite novel and attempt to illustrate it.

INCUBATION Allowing yourself physical and mental distance from a problem can sometimes lead to a solution. This sometimes leads to a "eureka" moment because the sub-conscience has been working out a solution that is then suddenly brought forth into the conscience mind when it is in a relaxed state.

SIMULATION By acting out the parts of an analysis, problems are anticipated and fixed, and novel connections are made. For example, a team can have various people assigned to be certain data layers (wearing name tags or signs) and other team members assigned to processes. The team moves around, exploring different ways of putting together the data and processes.

WORD ASSOCIATION Choose two words randomly and write them down. Connect the two words conceptually using no more than 5 other words that are also connected to one another. For example, using duck and fort: Duck, Bill, Money, Safe, Fort.

PLAY Do something you would normally think of as stupid or a waste of time, like sitting in a box and pretending it’s a car. It doesn’t have to be a time-consuming activity. Put together some legos, build a pyramid with playing cards, make a Santa Claus out of an old Reader’s Digest. Children are more creative than adults because they take the time to play. 

Editor (18230 Posts)

Glenn is a geographer and a GIS professional with over 20 years experience in the industry. He's the co-founder of GISuser and several other technology web publications.

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