The 5 Principles of Cartographic Design and Making Maps People Want to Look At

Cartographers take pride in their work, typically applying all the rules and principles of good cartographic design to their maps. This is all in an effort to make people want to look at and appreciate their work (See Esri, Make Maps People Want to Look at). However, in this new era of social sharing, it seems that the map has been replaced by the Infographic and the data visualization – a mashup of data, graphics, and maps presented in an effort to tell a story.

Washington state Elevation Map: Credit Esri
Washington state Elevation Map: Credit Esri

Gone are the days of cartographic principles, map design standards, scale, composition, and elements of good map design.

Now don’t get us wrong, there’s still TONS of mapping and GIS professionals out there churning out fabulous work, just walk around the Map Gallery at the annual International ESRIUC or browse the fabulous Story Map Gallery for awesome examples! But today it seems all the headlines, fame, and accolades for great maps are showered on bloggers, and authors of sexy Infographics and data visualizations who are striving to get a front page mention from Mashable and the Huffington Post!

From these map creators we rarely see any signs of the creators giving thought to the colors being used to present the data let alone considering visual contrast and the application of effective color ramping as an example. And what about the organization of data, selection of appropriate symbology, and even a small effort to balance the map elements? Today’s visualization (or can I call it a social media map?) often neglects most of the issues raised here let along give any consideration to the map clarity, projection, scale, orientation or map composition yet people love them!

For GIS and mapping professionals, there’s a simple solution that will help to produce a map that people will want to look at, and share! Discussed in this earlier edition of ArcUser, the article Make Maps People Want to Look At takes a closer look at the 5 primary design principles for cartography. Taking the following 5 principles and applying them to your next map will help you greatly to communicate geographically to your audience with a map they will want to look at:

  1. Visual contrast
  2. Legibility
  3. Figure-Ground Orientation
  4. Hierarchical Organization
  5. Balance

Tip: Once you’ve created a number of great maps and saved them in ArcGIS Online, consider creating a custom landing page using Mapfolio to share with users in your organization or with the public. A great way to categorize your favorite maps and share them. See and in the ArcGIS Marketplace –

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GEOspatial Evangelist & CMO

Geographer, GIS professional, writer, and fan of all things mobile.

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