Ten Things to Consider When Making a Map

Caitlin Dempsey


What makes a good map?  When done well, a map is a vehicle for effective communication.  There are many cartographic principles to help guide effective map making.  

Below are ten common considerations that all cartographers should incorporate as part of their map making process.  This list isn’t meant to be a comprehensive list but rather a starting point of things to contemplate.  Different cartographic presentations will require additional points of consideration and techniques.

1.  Geographic Bounds

The extent of the geographic area mapped will affect a whole slew of cartographic choices from the map projection used to data and symbology choices.  

The geographic area of the map should be restricted to the extent of the map’s subject data.

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2. Background Data Elements

There are two main reasons to include data on a map: to support the subject matter of the map and to provide orientation (e.g. streets, cities, points of interest).  It’s important to choose data that is relevant and current to the map.  

For example, choosing an out of date street layer for an area that has recently undergone change can be confusing.  Cluttering the map with too much background data can lead to excess noise and dilute the actual message of the map.

3. Symbolization

The choices of symbology can make or break a map.  The color choices, line widths, icons, and labeling (more on labels next) all affect the readability, and hence message, of the map.

Consider the intended audience of the map when selecting design choices.  A map aimed at children might involve brighter colors and less complexity in the symbology.

A general audience map might involve the use of laicizing terminology and therefore will avoid acronyms or words that might not be understood by readers outside of that field.

A map with a potentially color blind audience should not contrast certain colors.

4. Labels

While it may be tempting to label all features shown on a map, doing so can block underlying features, create a cluttered looking map, and create confusion.

In the example below, the use of labels creates a lot of noise on the map.  The use labeling every feature in a dense area clutters the map, making the map hard to read.  

The labels overlap and cover lakes even though the labels are for places.  Labels should be used sparingly to identify important aspects of the matter.  

To make this map easier to read, labels should be used sparingly and show only major points of interest in order to make the map more legible.

A map of the midwest United States that is cluttered with labels.
A map with cluttered labels. Map: Caitlin Dempsey.

5. Legend

While the proliferation of customized Google Maps has contributed to the democratization of GIS data creation, it has also resulted in a slew of maps either no legends or poor legends.  Legends are the key used to decipher the symbology on the map.  They need to be legible, not overly cluttered, and easy to understand.

When color ramping is used, care must be taken to using colors that are easily discernible from each other with the naked eye. In the legend below, the color ramp for uses color shading that makes it difficult to differentiate one Australasia ecozone from another.

Legend for the map of Australasia ecozone with biocountries.
Legend for the map of Australasia ecozone with biocountries. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

6. Incorporating Map Elements

Making sure that all map elements are properly applied is important for providing readers with the context of the map.  Most maps should have a clear and concise title, a notation on the scale (or if the map is not to scale), and, when needed for orientation, a north arrow.  

Some cartographers may disagree with the need to always include the north arrow and scale bars. While I can lend validity to the argument that some maps are obviously oriented north (that of course, assumes that the viewer north orientating abilities are on par) or are at the global level in a projection that makes a north arrow impractical , I agree with Jon Zeitler, Science and Operations Officer at the National Weather Service Forecast Office’s position that “[t]he addition of a north arrow can never harm a figure, only help with clarity.”  

For more about the debate on using a north arrow, read “To North Arrow or Not to North Arrow“.

7. Metadata

All  maps should document all sources of data, currency of those datasets, and any other information helpful to the viewer.  This information is known as metadata. Also include the map projection and datum used.  Lastly, be sure to add the author of the map so that the map can be properly referenced in other documents.

Related: How to Cite GIS Materials

8. Map Layout

Choice in map orientation (portrait versus landscape) and placement of map elements affects the visual appeal of the map.

9. Locator Map

Unless the map is aimed at a very specific knowledgeable audience or is of a geographic breadth (such as a countrywide map or a global map), it can be very helpful to include a smaller inset map showing the location of the mapped area.  This helps to further orient the viewer in placing the geographic context of the map.

10. Peer Review

Another set of eyeballs on a map, especially a critical one, should automatically be a part of your cartographic process. Peer review on documents is a common practice, yet a lot of GIS professionals and cartographers toil in isolation.

Created a trusted and respected circle of peers that can collectively review maps and provide constructive feedback.

Article first written: September 10, 2011. Last Updated: September 13, 2011.

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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.