This was the way of it when I started mapping. And the classic example of "You can't do that in GIS" is the buffalo tint popularized and used to wicked effect by National Geographic Maps. Basically it's a targeted feature fade, meant to draw attention to a focal point or to one side of a divide. And pretty hot too.
And it's not really possible in ArcMap. Here, let's try doing the inverse of a fade, which is easier to envision. This is more of a halo, and it's theoretically possible to do this by adding line layer after line layer, each offset and transparent-ed a bit more than the last:
|Buffalo Halo a la ArcMap|
Let's try that again with Tilemill. I know I know, it's not a GIS engine, but it's a lot closer to one than Adobe Illustrator is, try as they might. Tilemill has full support for operations like selecting and styling by attributes as well as basic geoprocessing if the data is tied to a source like PostGIS, Google's data API or CartoDB's SQL API. Also it's free and open-source (I love that such news is ancillary to my point here. Woot!). As I've mentioned before, Tilemill brings the efficiency of CSS code to the map styling process, and it pushes everything through the sophisticated Mapnik graphic driver to look damn pretty for web or print.
Code will save us, right? Here, check it out:
|Buffalo Halo a la Tilemill|
So what kind of Carto CSS went into that? Oh, just more than three hundred lines of recursively offset style code. Oy. It's true that it's portable (feel free to plug the code into your own project), but it's not ideal. Definitely not for fast projects under a deadline.
This is where compositing comes in. Last month, the indefatigable Mapnik team added support for the graphical magic that underpins programs like illustrator. This is part of a long-running effort by cartographic designers at Stamen and Development Seed to get out from under the Iron Adobe boot. (or the supple GIMP moccasin, I suppose). With compositing, all sorts of things become a lot easier to do in Tilemill, for instance what we've been trying above is now about 30 lines of CartoCSS, and much richer:
|Buffalo Halo with Mapnik Compositing Mojo in Tilemill|
|Free-Range Buffalo Halo, Thriving in its Natural Environment.|