Cartographer's Toolkit

Map Making Tips, Tricks, and Inspiration

Learning the Art of Map Making: Where to Begin

November 15th, 2012

Are you starting a new cartography career from scratch? Or are you trying to figure out how to add “map making” to your already long list of skills? Here are the basic areas to educate yourself in, as detailed in GIS Cartography: A Guide to Effective Map Design:

  1. Tap your inner creative genius. Artists learn through both observation and practice. You are probably already “practicing” by trying to make maps yourself. But don’t forget to take the time to also note the best practices in other’s maps and in other artwork as well.
  2. Layout design. Start with a list of all elements you’ve ever seen on a map. Each map you make will have a few or many of these elements. When it is time to arrange the elements on the printed page or the web page, experiment a lot instead of just sticking with the first arrangement.
  3. Fonts. While most purists will insist on using the word “typeface”, it is fine to use the word “font” colloquially. Know that selecting a good looking font is important for the overall look of the map. Nuances in font character, weight, and style all lend themselves to the look and feel as well as the legibility.
  4. Color theory. Learning the basics of color theory does not take long but applying it can be a challenge for the novice. Learn color theory, by all means, but also try using palettes that are pre-constructed by borrowing palettes from existing sources.
  5. Pay attention to feature type. Mapped features, whether they are roads, currents, utilities, basins, or others, often have traditional map colors and styles. Research these before applying your own. For example, the U.S.G.S. geologic age color scheme is something you want to be aware of when displaying geology data.
  6. Designing slide maps is different from designing for poster gallery maps, which are both different from designing webmaps. Mind the particular quirks of the media to maintain legibility and optimal information transfer for the device and the audience.

Once the basics are in place, it may interest you to have a cheat sheet to help you decide the type of map you want to make and some of the elements that will make it look its best. You can make your own shop book or start with the items in Cartographer’s Toolkit:

  1. Colors: palettes pre-tested on maps, with color-blind simulations, for various types of feature representations from coordinated to ramped to differentiated.
  2. Typefaces: also pre-tested on maps, in sans serif, serif pairs, to provide a quick visualization of how the same map will look with different typefaces along with descriptions about the typefaces.
  3. Patterns: A selection of new and noteworthy map patterns (similar to “map types”) illustrated and described so that you always have the right kind of map in your idea bank. Add to this as you see other new types. Map styles are proliferating with the influx of new, non-traditional map-makers (think web developers and graphic designers) and the influx of new open source software. Keep up to date on these as someone else’s map pattern might be particularly suited to your future mapping needs. These patterns can also be built upon and provide the creative basis for your own enhancements and innovations.

Cartographer's Toolkit

Map Making Tips, Tricks, and Inspiration