Forays into Typographic Mapping

I’m writing a new book on cartography. Without divulging what it’s all about just yet, here’s a post on what will become one sub-section of the book.

Typographic maps are maps that are built out of typographic elements as opposed to graphic elements; they are still spatially accurate. Instead of drawing a couple of lines to indicate a road, for instance, the road is shown via the road’s name, repeated along the length of the feature. For another example, instead of a blue blob for a lake, the lake name is the “fill” for the feature. As the typography is put together and layered, it becomes very impressionistic: you see a pattern from afar, you see the individual words close-up. Most of these maps that I’ve seen are of high-population cities, focusing on the infrastructure of the place such as roads and buildings.

It’s a pretty new genre of map design. The best-known typographic maps in the cartography world are probably those by Axis Maps. For a more free-form take on them, check out Paula Scher’s artistic maps. I’ve never created a typographic map before, so it didn’t seem right to explain the techniques and processes that go into making them until attempting one myself. Herein are the things I’ve learned so far.

Typographic map design requires:

  • FONT CHOICE: obviously your fonts will make a big difference in how the map looks, so choose carefully.
  • COLOR: while at first it seems like color isn’t going to be a big deal on these maps, it still has a high importance. Using color, and especially contrast between your main “blanket” word and your other words is important.
  • PATTERN: to create a proper patterning effect, large features (such as landmasses) need to have a single, steady, fill with which to layer the other, smaller features, on top of. Perhaps an 80/20 rule is applicable here. 80% background words, 20% foreground words.
  • CAPS: As was pointed out to me on CartoTalk, using all-caps for most of the words will be important, because ascenders and descenders in lower case words get in the way of the feature shape that you are trying to fill.

Process: The best process that I’ve uncovered is to blanket the background with a word(s) using a text fill, then layer on top of that with the smaller features. When you write another word on top of the text fill, depending on the program you’re using, you can either create a background for the text or create another polygon around the text that matches the main background color (often white, but you see I’ve used an off-white in mine). This creates a cut-out look.

This is just the beginning of my tests with typographic mapping techniques. For those who’ve already created these successfully, I’d be happy to hear more about your techniques and processes.

  1. #1 by @jens_schreiber on February 14, 2012 - 10:27 am

    Sehr interessant: “Nur-Text-Karten” RT @PetersonGIS: Forays into Typographic Mapping

  2. #2 by Amanda Taub on February 14, 2012 - 11:28 am

    I have a colleague that does typographic maps for a local fruit company. They have orchards all over the state and his bosses really like the effect on his maps. It is very easy for them to see if the orchard is red delicious or gala or another variety. I passed this blog onto him.

  3. #3 by Gretchen on February 14, 2012 - 11:48 am

    Neat! It’d be nice to see an example or get some tips from him.

  4. #4 by Sara on February 14, 2012 - 1:39 pm

    Did you do this in ArcGIS? It might be fun to try but wondering if I would need Illustrator too.

  5. #5 by Gretchen on February 14, 2012 - 1:47 pm

    Sara – yes, I did this one entirely in ArcGIS, which is probably the hard way to do it, but there you go. For the background that says OLYMPIC PENINSULA I created a single-line text box and then copy/pasted it onto each subsequent line in the map, being sure to stagger it a bit with each line. Then I used spline text to write in the 101 and river names, then used the polygon drawing tool to outline the text, filling the polygon with the same color as the background and making sure it had no outline. This makes it appear as if the river and 101 text is cutting in to the OLYMPIC PENINSULA text, but it really is just hiding beneath the polygon. You have to use the right-click layer order (bring backwards) a bunch of times on occasion, to get the right drawing order. This would be easier in Illustrator, which would really be the proper tool for the job if you were doing anything sizable. The bay water is also a polygon that was drawn on top of the OLYMPIC PENINSULA text.

  6. #6 by Andy Woodruff on February 14, 2012 - 2:49 pm

    Interesting to see where you can get within ArcGIS!

    From our experience at Axis Maps, perhaps the biggest requirement is patience and a high tolerance for tedium. Typing and copy/pasting names over and over again takes forever and isn’t exciting. But as for the lessons we’ve learned about design and techniques, there are certainly many, but a couple of highlights:

    Good contrast is hard to achieve because there’s so much white space in text; when you step back things can easily look more dull and unsaturated than expected. Bold weights and narrow type styles have been helpful for creating a proper hierarchy among linear features. For areas (water, mainly) we sometimes cheat by adding a solid fill behind the text.

    Rivers (the typography kind, not the water kind) in area text are a persistent problem, so we usually delete some characters from the masked out beginning or end of each line to make a more random, staggered appearance.

    When lines (e.g. streets) of the same level intersect, one’s got to go on top of the other. We’ve done it by adding spaces in the bottom street, using masks like yours here, or by adding a stroke to the text, which masks the bottom street enough to keep things legible. As for which street goes on top, we go for whatever makes the overall pattern look best and be most legible. (Ideally it’s some kind of woven look, but that’s not always possible.)

    I could go on and on, probably. We keep meaning to write up our processes in a blog post. One of these days!

  7. #7 by Robin Wall on February 15, 2012 - 8:02 am

    Check out “Tropical” by Rudi de Wet. It is the names of cities and towns in Queensland, Australia.

  8. #8 by Gretchen on February 15, 2012 - 9:51 am

    Andy – thanks for letting us in on a bit of your process! You bring up an excellent point that I left out of the post entirely by accident – patience is an absolute must!

    I’ve noticed that solid fill behind some of your canals and such and I think it works really well.

  9. #9 by Drew on February 15, 2012 - 9:59 am

    Here is an example of a really cool typographic map of Tacoma. I was impressed with how the cartographer varied the font sizes of Commencement Bay to get a historical shoreline effect.

  10. #10 by Gretchen on February 15, 2012 - 10:32 am

    Robin and Drew – great examples, thanks! (Click on Drew’s name to reach the Commencement Bay map he’s referring to.)

  11. #11 by @geoxmas on February 18, 2012 - 12:35 pm

    Forays into Typographic Mapping

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