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Balance, as a principle of map layout, is when the various parts of a map layout are distributed in a way that their weight is centered around the visual center of the map. If the map is not balanced around the visual center (which is generally slightly above the true center)[1], it will appear less aesthetically pleasing. Balance in cartographic design creates an overall stability, whereas elements in a poorly designed map appear crowded, resulting in confusion.[2] When the desired balance is achieved, the purpose of the map is clear and easily understood.[3][4]

Visual Weight

An essential part of correctly balancing a map is knowing how different map features are weighted. A weight is applied based on how quickly an element draws the reader's attention. Heavier elements tend to be dark, brightly colored, and larger. Lighter map features are generally dull colors, are smaller in size, and are lighter. Visual weight also depends on location: Elements at the center of a composition pull less weight than those lying on the outskirts; on the other hand, an object in the upper part of a composition is heavier than one in the lower part. Visual balance also includes two centers: a geometric center and an optical center. The design of the map should be created around the optical center.[5]

Visual Direction

Maintaining consistent labeling can help the visual direction of a map, which will help the viewer to read the map.
Visual direction is dependent on the location, shape and subject matter of objects on a map. Objects are given a direction by other objects adjacent to it. The shape of an object creates axes that determine the visual direction of the object. Finally, objects going in different directions can impact the visual direction of other objects on the map. [6] Objects on the right of a composition appear heavier than those on the left, and the weight of an object increases in proportion to its distance from the center of the composition.[7]

An example of visual direction with labeling is when there are a lot of labels, but the labeling placement has a consistent direction to maintain a common visual direction and balance throughout the map. The image to the right is a good example of consistent label placement. A visual example that depicts what factors are considered with balance in cartography is in Design Balance, In this image Africa is placed in several spots to help the viewer identify visual balance in terms of weight and direction.

Types of Balance in Design

This design shows radial balance. The weight of all elements are equal around the center point.
Example of types of balance.
Within design principles, there are four types of balance: [8]
  • Symmetrical Balance occurs when the elements in the composition are on equal sides around a center point or area. This type of balance is also known as "formal balance" because it can create feelings of formality and elegance. However, symmetrical balance can also be perceived as static or boring because there is a simple relationship between the elements. Mirror balance is a sub-type of symmetrical balance, where the object is essentially mirrored on either side of the center point.[9]
  • Asymmetrical Balance occurs when a dominant element exists on one side of the center while smaller or lesser focal points are on the other sides. Asymmetrical balance is often seen as more dynamic and variable than symmetrical balance. It is viewed as modern and can create more visual variety because the relationships between the elements are complicated.[9]
  • Radial Balance is when the center focal element is surrounded by smaller focal elements that appear to "radiate" from the center. The visual hierarchy is focused on the center point because the surrounding elements will either lead in or lead away from this point.
An example of Mosaic Balance. Notice how there is no visual hierarchy to the points.
  • Mosaic Balance, also know as crystallographic balance, is essentially "balanced chaos"[10]. This kind of balance lacks a visual hierarchy because all of the elements are of an equal prominence.

Creating Balance

  • 1. Identify the initial available space (how much area will the map occupy?)
  • 2. Placement of larger map elements such as the mapped area and inset can be considered
  • 3. The title should be placed (normally at top center)
  • 4. Reevaluate for available space
  • 5. Create and visually center the legend within a larger area of available space
  • 6. Reevaluate and place the smaller elements such as the scale bar and data source
  • 7. Rearrange anything that disrupts the balance


  1. Statistics New Zealand (2014). "Design principles for maps using New Zealand’s statistical data". Available from ISBN 978-0-478-42913-8 (online)
  2. Kraak, J., & Brown, A. (2014). "Web Cartography". Hoboken: CRC Press. P.116
  3. Judith A. Tyner, Principles of Map Design (New York: Guilford Press, 2010), 20-21
  4. Buckley, A. (winter 2012). Make Maps People Want to Look At: Five primary design principles for cartography. ArcUser: ESRI, 46-51. Retrieved October 23, 2017, from
  5. GITTA: Geographic Information Technology and Training Alliance[1] Balance of Map Elements. Accessed October 20, 2017.
  6. Dent, Borden D.; [2] Cartography: Thematic Map Design, 5th ed. Chapter 13. Accessed October 13, 2014.
  7. GITTA: Geographic Information Technology and Training Alliance[3] Balance of Map Elements. Accessed October 20, 2017.
  8. Bradley, Steven [4] Design Principles: Compositional Balance, Symmetry And Asymmetry. Accessed October 10, 2016.
  9. 9.0 9.1 Almasude, A., & Almasude, J. (2002). "Principles of Visual Communication in Web design". ASCUE Proceedings. Retrieved October 23, 2017, from
  10. Fogarty, J., Forlizzi, J., & Hudson, S. E. (2001). Aesthetic information collages. "Proceedings of the 14th annual ACM symposium on User interface software and technology" - UIST 01. doi:10.1145/502348.502369