How to Win a Map Contest


I’ve just sat down to organize my thoughts on what it takes to win a map contest. Some of these points are rather dour in that they don’t really serve the cartography world all that well. Designing a map to win a contest and designing a great map are not always the same thing. Some of these points are fairly congruent with cartographic best-practices, however. See if you can spot which is which. :) And feel free to let me know what I’ve missed.


  • The color scheme needs to be something that everyone is familiar with and comfortable with, ergo: white or gray background with a few modest colors, dark gray or black background with a few bright colors, or a multitude of colors, but all muted. The option not to choose: cacophonies of bright colors.
  • The content needs to be immediately understandable yet not so watered-down that the judge will feel like an intellectual light-weight for choosing your map. This is all about psychology. The judge has his or her reputation to uphold and doesn’t want to look silly putting a blue ribbon on a map that on the surface looks too simple. While I feel that posters with massive amounts of text are off-putting and undermine the purpose of a poster, these text-heavy posters may actually win contests more than map-heavy posters because they stroke the judge’s ego. See this analogous situation with regard to soccer penalty kicking in this excerpt from “Think Like a Freak.” (For the record, I’m not a fan of that book as several of the examples are very poorly argued, however, they nail it with the soccer goal example.)
  • Plaster drop-shadows on all the margin elements.
  • Drop a big picture into the background if it’s a world map. Something with a visual consistency throughout and meaningful to the subject like sand behind a World Deserts map.
  • Make the map about a subject that the judges are likely to feel is underserved. You know how we get a jolt of happiness when we give to others? Maybe that’s what your judge is looking for when he/she judges your Stop on Red map. This map may not win an award for style–typically blue isn’t used for land–but like I say, it may win because it is a non-controversial but hitherto unmapped cause. Voting for this will make a judge feel like nobody can argue with their choice.
  • Use an easily recognizable location like a U.S. state or a country. These seem to win more often than large-scale maps.
  • Incorporate graphic design elements like fade-outs or color-blending.
  • Neatly align all margin elements either strictly to columns or evenly spaced around the map element.
  • Place all text immediately on top of the page. Don’t use a text-block background color. Especially don’t use a garishly-clashing text-block background color.
  • Only subtly differentiate between adjacent features. Maps with thick black lines for county borders, for example, don’t win. They also tend to not look good. It might be nice to indicate where county borders are in a state-level map of course, but usually they aren’t the purpose of the map and only serve to undermine the visual weight of the other elements. Therefore, they should be indicated with, for example, a slightly more saturated color than the main background.

And sometimes you still won’t win. But that’s because judges are idiots.

One of the GISCI contest winners from 2014, credit Jonah Adkins:


  1. #1 by Ken Field on September 25, 2015 - 2:00 pm

    Hmm. Mind if I respectfully disagree? I’ve won a few awards for various maps and not much of the above applies. I’ve also been a judge at numerous map galleries and conferences (British Cartographic Society, Society of Cartographers, FOSS4G, Esri UC, International Cartographic Association etc) and I can’t ever recall seeing these criteria. Actually, come to think of it, I can’t recall seeing that many idiots either but that’s another matter. You may be surprised how much discussion and debate takes place during the judging process. Sometimes there’s a clear stand-out in whatever category. Often there’s not.

    Best advice if you’re entering your map into a competition…just go for it and don’t care one bit whether you end up winning or not. Put your map in front of your peers. You gain so much by sharing your work, receiving comments (critique is good in the long run), and promoting discussion and if you happen to pique the interest of the judges you may walk off with a shiny award. In the end quality wins awards. But quality may be in the design, the innovation or the execution. ‘Trying’ to win an award rarely works but if you want to know how to, get in touch…I did it once just to see if I could and it worked.

  2. #2 by G.P. on September 25, 2015 - 5:00 pm

    The tone of this blog attempts to be light and convivial while at the same time spurring current and future cartographers to create innovative designs that carry us to that next level of mapping awesomeness, hopefully changing the world along the way. While just in the past 5 years we’ve seen an explosion in mapping creativity (e.g.,, NYTimes Graphics Dept., MIT Media Lab, and so many others) driven by a concomitant explosion in technological capabilities, there is still a lot more room at the top. My goal is to clearly, and with humor, make that a reality.

    I’ve judged several map contests so in some ways I’m also calling myself an idiot, as we all are at times. I recognize that a majority of people act in their own selfish best interest. As Dawkins points out in his seminal The Selfish Gene, this is normal and expected behavior, even down to the level of the gene. Which goes tidily along with the story, mentioned in the post, about the soccer player who shoots for the corner instead of the middle even though he or she has a better chance with the middle shot–it simply doesn’t make the player look good to shoot for the middle. To apply these ideas to map judging may be an innovative concept to some but it’s a worthwhile one to think about exploiting.

    Just as we see articles on how to win a MacArthur Fellowship (e.g., “be a professor,” “be a popular artist, but not too popular,” “never work in the private sector”) we can’t be blamed for wanting to tease out the ways in which cartographers might win map awards–judges and entrants alike. Some of those ways may not seem sporting, but contests rarely are. 😉

  3. #3 by Nathan on September 26, 2015 - 6:13 am

    You know what we need? We need a show like America’s got Cartographers (or Map Wars if you prefer)! Four judges (you one of them) give your opinions, approvals, and rejections to a string of cartographers and their maps. Each episode they present a new map based on a different theme as they all fight their way to the top. Winner gets a publishing deal and a sweet gig somewhere.

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