There are, unfortunately, good and bad maps in the world. Good maps follow the principles of map design – something that can be learned with time. A good cartographer knows that the purpose of map design is to focus the attention of the user.

While the rules can be taught, a cartographer needs to implement the principles and concepts. Join the team at Cartographics International as we discuss what we believe the top 5 principles of cartographic design and their importance in mapmaking.

1: Have a Concept

Before starting any project, it is always important to have a concept in mind. This is especially important in cartography. It is imperative that you design the whole before you design each individual part.

As a result, the objective of the map is key to your map concept. For example, the objective of a topographical map might be to show the most accurate display of land for surveying, while the objective of a thematic map may be to show the division between political support throughout a city.

Based on this objective, the map maker can formulate a concept for the map. This then allows the compilation of the correct data sets and information for the map. In turn, this helps the cartographer find and focus on the most important items in the map design.

Further, once the concept is settled the cartographer needs to consider the user. What for they want from the map? Can the user get everything they need from this map? Is this exactly what they want? Answering these questions not only helps solidify your concept but also helps you combine the right data for your map.

2: Visual Hierarchy

We have all heard of the value of hierarchy in one way or the other. This is also important in cartography. Cartographers must understand the importance of visual hierarchy on a map. Important elements must look important. In turn, the most important things should look the most important. The most important information should easily discernible by way of being the largest or the brightest coloured. The lower on the visual hierarchy information is, the less prominent it should be.

Lesser elements have their place on a map and they should work to complement the more important items.

You can assign value to elements by scale and by the use of colour on a map. A cartographer works carefully to bring these elements into harmony so that:

  • There is a clear value of hierarchy
  • Design is easy to read
  • The map is functional
  • That colour and symbols are designed harmoniously

Harmony is incredibly important when it comes to cartographic design. All elements must come together to make a harmonious whole. This involves ensuring that all associated items have an associated treatment. As a result, this will help ensure a map is easily read, aesthetically pleasing and successful.

3: Map Design Simplicity

The best designs value simplicity over complexity. It isn’t what you put into a map that makes it great, it’s what you choose to keep out. You know your cartographic design is complete when you cannot simplify it anymore. This is part of a map designer’s skill. Generalisation is part of the simplification process – deciding exactly what is being represented in your map is important. For example, a road map may be focused in showing only the roads, while political maps might focus on population density so they know where to campaign next.

Selection and simplification are best done during the compilation of the data, rather than during the drafting and drawing processes. Simplification is, however, a complex process that is unique to each project.

Finally, the simplicity and simplification process also involves scale. While content may determine the scale of the map, or the scale of the map may determine the content, each determines the level of simplicity.

4: Functional Design

It is important that maps can be read quickly at a glance. As a result, maps need to value functionality over utility. Expert cartographers understand that all designs require compromise. However, good cartographic design can bridge the gap between utility and functionality. It is this skill, that only comes from practice, that creates maps that are both incredibly functional and aesthetically pleasing to the user.

Using scale, font and colour to help differentiate the importance of different content elements helps improve functional design.

5: Engage User Emotion

While graphic designers are aware of the need to engage user emotions – especially when designing for marketing purposes – many people don’t realise map design requires emotional connection as well. Only by understanding why a user might need a map, and how they feel using a map, can a cartographer design a well-crafted map.

Further, map design uses elements of aesthetics to make the map interesting to the user, drawing on emotion to make them use it. However, do not get lost in the principles of aesthetics. Cartography is not just about “prettying” up a map.

Using aesthetics the right way focuses the attention. And focuses the attention is the purpose of map design. It draws together visual hierarchy and functionality, to ensure the user is making the most of the map.

Are you looking for a custom map? Contact the team at Cartographics International today to begin your unique design process!