Borden Dent

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Borden D. Dent (1938–2000) was an American geographer and cartographer who served as professor emeritus and chairman of the Department of Geography and Anthropology at Georgia State University. His textbook, Cartography: Thematic Map Design, is one of the seminal texts in the field, and its sixth edition was reissued in 2009.


Dent was a native of Arkansas but attended both elementary and high school in Maryland. He completed a B.A. in Geography at Towson State University before pursuing a M.A. in Geography from the University of California at Berkeley. He then went on to earn his PhD in Geography from Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts.

After completing his education, Dent taught geography and cartography classes at Georgia State University for thirty years.[1] During his career, Dent published articles on cartography and geography in leading professional journals, including the Annals of the Association of American Geographers, the American Cartographer, the Cartographic Journal and the Journal of Geography. [2]

In recognition of his cartographic skill, the American Congress on Surveying and Mapping asked in 1981 that Dent contribute the first map commentary ever featured in The American Cartographer.[3] Dent’s academic publications have been cited 121 times as of April 2009.[4]


Borden D. Dent’s specialization as a geographer and cartographer was thematic mapping. He defined thematic maps as those that show “the spatial distribution of some geographical phenomenon,”[5] in contrast with general purpose or reference maps that “display objects (both natural and man-made) from the geographical environment.”[5] He further explained that because thematic maps deal with a single theme, a “reference map is to a thematic map what a dictionary is to an essay.”[5]

In his book entitled Early Thematic Mapping in the History of Cartography, one of the fathers of modern geography, Arthur H. Robinson, stated that “no map which is primarily thematic appears to have been made before the last half of the seventeenth century.”[6] He went on to detail a variety of factors that led to the development of thematic maps, including the development of accurate base maps, improvements in printing technology, and the rise of statistics as a field of study. These and many other cultural and intellectual factors contributed to the creation of an environment in late 17th century Western Europe that spawned the thematic map, now recognized as a revolutionary development in the history of cartography.[6]

Although thematic mapping first arose in the late 17th century, Borden Dent felt that “the significant, formative years in the development of portrayal techniques in thematic cartography were the first six decades of the nineteenth century.”[7] During this golden age of thematic mapping, the great majority of techniques used to depict thematic data were developed. These included “proportional point symbols, the line of equal value (isoline), the choropleth and shading, the dot method, class intervals, and flow lines.”[7] As the main cartographic tools for depicting thematic data had already been developed, much of Dent’s career was spent researching and examining ways in which the cartographer could better communicate with the map reader.

Borden Dent’s doctoral thesis entitled Perceptual Organization and Thematic Map Communication: Some Principles for Effective Map Design with Special Emphasis on the Figure-Ground Relationship was published in 1970. It was a product of the quantitative revolution in cartography that took place in the mid-20th century in that its approach to design was a scientific rather than artistic one. Early on in the document, Dent quoted Arthur Robinson, writing “…the only beauty absolutely essential in a map is that which comes from its functional effectiveness for its intended purpose and not that which comes from a pleasing or artistic appearance.”[8] Dent was also a student of the map communication model. He argued that the map was a vehicle for graphically relaying ideas from a sender (the cartographer) to a recipient (the map reader).[8] This model places a great deal of responsibility on the cartographer, as a map that does not convey the ideas he or she intended it to express is considered a failure. Dent was convinced that “the key to effective map communication [lay] in cartographic design,”[8] and spent the majority of his thesis examining ways in which cartographers could harness the natural perceptual tendencies of humans in order to more effectively communicate their ideas.

In March 1972, Dent published an article in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers entitled Visual Organization and Thematic Map Communication. He was again concerned with making maps that would be more effective visual communication devices. This concern was spawned by studies he referenced in the article that documented the misinterpretation of the information on thematic maps by map readers. He was convinced that much of this confusion could be alleviated if cartographers employed the principles of the figure-ground relationship to better organize the visual field. He explained that “the visual field has two areas; the area that stands out is the figure, and the remainder is the ground” and “to improve communication, the important intellectual elements in the map should appear as figures.”[9] The remainder of the article was dedicated to discussing the visual enhancement of the figure in relation to the ground by increasing heterogeneity between the two elements. Design practices that Dent argued would accomplish this task included using strong, well-defined edges for the figure, articulating the figure, and depicting the figure as a closed shape. He concluded the article by observing that the figures on the map carry the important intellectual content, but that an effective map cannot be created without visually integrating the geographic data of the ground into the whole.[9]

Borden Dent’s most significant contribution to the fields of cartography and geography was the textbook he first published in 1985. The first edition was entitled Principles of Thematic Map Design, but the title was changed for all subsequent editions to Cartography: Thematic Map Design. Principles of Thematic Map Design was written for a college audience, and it is clear that a deliberate effort was made to make the text as pedagogically valuable as possible. Dent wrote in the introduction to the text that “ideas are conveyed in a straightforward manner that stresses the integration of modern cartographic theory and practice.”[5] This is obvious from the beginning of the text, where the prevailing cartographic theory of the time, the map communication model, is discussed in the same chapter with more practical design considerations. As a student of the map communication model, Dent was always concerned with quality of design, and so included information on good design principles as well as more technical information about map projections and geodesy. Part of the value of the text is that Dent approached thematic cartography from a number of different directions. He offered the reader both theoretical and technical insight into the practice, but also encouraged them to apply their creativity to the process. In an interesting portion of the text, Dent explains that there appear to be certain activities shared by people considered to be great thinkers, scientists, or artists:

  1. Challenging assumptions- daring to question what most people take as truth.
  2. Recognizing patterns- perceiving significant similarities or differences in ideas, events, or physical phenomena.
  3. Seeing in new ways- looking at the commonplace with new perceptions, transforming the familiar into the strange, and the strange into the familiar.
  4. Making connections- bringing together seemingly unrelated ideas, objects, or events in ways that lead to new concepts.
  5. Taking risks- daring to try new ways, with no control over the outcome.
  6. Using chance- taking advantage of the unexpected.
  7. Constructing networks- forming associations for the exchange of ideas, perceptions, questions, and encouragement.[9]

It is this highly varied and holistic approach to mapping that contributed to the popularity of Dent’s first offering, Principles of Thematic Map Design.

Dent published the second edition of his text, this time entitled Cartography: Thematic Map Design, in 1990. In this version, he called attention to the addition of a section on geographic cartography, which he explained is “distinct from other branches of cartography in that it alone is the tool and product of the geographer.”[10] The distinction here appears to be the type of map that is generally created, with the cartographer more often producing general reference maps and the geographic cartographer more often producing thematic maps. Much of the content in this version is the same as the first addition, although Dent remarked that he did endeavor to incorporate new information about trends in the discipline of cartography that he had identified, such as a focus on choropleth mapping in quantitative cartography and “a growing interest among professional cartographers in the history of thematic mapping.”[10]

The fifth edition of Cartography: Thematic Map Design was published in 1999. The additions that Dent made to this edition were a response to two significant developments in the field of cartography that occurred over the previous nine years. The first was in response to a new philosophy that arose in the discipline in the mid-1990s. Dent’s favored map communication model was largely abandoned as the prevailing school of cartographic thought and was replaced by the theories of critical cartography. Dent acknowledges the value of this new paradigm, but also maintains that “as long as we communicate at all, we need some form of map design to guide us. The central themes of this text are therefore retained, and still find a place in the education of the thematic cartographer.”[11] Dent also responded to the information revolution of the 1990s by including a new section on geographic information systems in the fifth edition. Some insight into Dent’s thinking about this development in the field of cartography is provided by a statement he made in a review of a cartographic text in 1996 in which he said that “regardless of the sophistication of technologies employed in making and designing maps, the process will continue to demand more and more of the creative energies of the designer.”[11] In the face of massive change in his field, Dent once again identified design as the common thread.

The sixth edition of Cartography: Thematic Map Design was published in 2009, nine years after the death of Borden Dent. It is a testimony to the enduring quality and popularity of the text that it has retained its relevance for 24 years. The co-authors of the sixth edition, Jeffrey Torguson and Thomas Hodler, completely revised the text so that it would provide “a more integrated, practical link between cartographic theory and practice for users of GIS, computer mapping, and graphic design software.”[12]

The comprehensive nature of Borden Dent’s approach to cartography makes the identification of an overarching theme in his work complicated. His career spanned a time of great philosophical and technical change in the fields of geography and cartography. Perhaps his commitment to design excellence and communicating with the map reader can be distilled down into the statement that “Borden Dent made maps that told a story.”[1]


  1. ^ a b Eric Behan, “Borden Dent, 62, GSU Geographer,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, August 20, 2000, Obituaries section
  2. ^ Georgia State University, “Guideline for Graduate Studies in Geography: Introducing the Geography Faculty,” 1998-1999 Edition,
  3. ^ D. Dent, “Map Commentary: City of Revere, Massachusetts,” The American Cartographer 8, no. 2, 187.
  4. ^ ISI Web of Knowledge, “Search Results for Cited Author Borden D. Dent,”
  5. ^ a b c d Borden D. Dent, Principles of Thematic Map Design, (Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc., 1985),
  6. ^ a b Arthur H. Robinson, Early Thematic Mapping in the History of Cartography, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982)
  7. ^ a b Borden D. Dent, “Brief History of Crime Mapping,” in Atlas of Crime: Mapping the Criminal Landscape, ed. Linda S. Turnbull, Elaine Hallisey Hendrix, and Borden D. Dent ( Phoenix: The Oryx Press, 2000)
  8. ^ a b c Borden D. Dent, “Perceptual Organization and Thematic Map Communication: Some Principles for Effective Map Design with Special Emphasis on the Figure-Ground Relationship” (PhD diss., Clark University, 1970)
  9. ^ a b c Borden D. Dent, “Visual Organization and Thematic Map Communication,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 62, no. 1 (1972)
  10. ^ a b Borden D. Dent, Cartography: Thematic Map Design 2nd Ed. (Dubuque, Iowa: Wm. C. Brown Publishers, 1990)
  11. ^ a b Borden D. Dent, Cartography: Thematic Map Design 5th Ed. (Boston, WCB McGraw-Hill, 1999)
  12. ^ Borden D. Dent, Jeffrey S. Torguson, and Thomas W. Hodler, Cartography: Thematic Map Design 6th Ed. (Boston, McGraw Hill, 2009)