Map layout

Jump to: navigation, search

Map Layout is the assembling of the various elements of a map into a single whole, including the map itself, its legend, title, scale bars, and other elements. [1] Map symbolism can rarely stand alone to sufficiently depict all the necessary information that a map is trying to tell; additional explanation and context is usually needed. Their primary purpose is to give a place identity, orientation, subject matter, symbolization, etc. [2] This term usually refers to the combination of the map image with auxiliary elements; the assembling of the geographic symbols within the map image is called Map composition.


A map legend, or map key, is an explanation of the symbols or pictorial language and convention of the map. Legend content, design and placement are important because a map can fail to communicate its message if readers cannot determine what the symbols in the map are intended to represent. [1]" Not all symbols used on the map necessarily need to be included in the legend; Symbols that are intuitive, conventional, well-labeled, or unimportant may be left out with careful consideration. Maps with highly standardized symbology, such as street maps or topographic maps, may remove the legend altogether.


Elements of legend design

  • A legend includes four parts: content, wording, placement, and style.
  • Symbols must look exactly like the symbol used on the map in order to ensure viewer comprehension. This is particularly important in regards to size.
  • The legend title should be explanatory and make a clear connection to the map’s legend.
  • Type used in the legend does not have to match type used on the map, although the typefaces should work well together and maintain clarity.
  • Placement of the legend should be based on balance and white space[3].


Though a title is short, give it lengthy thought.[4]

The title of the map gives the audience the contextual information that they need to use the map properly. The more the audience knows about the area the less information is required in the title, and the less the audience knows about the mapped area, the more information is required. Since the title is often the first part of a map that an audience notices, it is be important to have the title give the general idea that is being presented in an effective manner. Map titles are often made up of three parts: the geographic name, the layer name, and the indicator name. The geographic name is the base area that the map is showing and is essentially the main part of the title that shows us where in general the audience is looking. The layer name focuses on the overlying map layer and shows the audience what the information is they are looking at. The indicator name refers to the information or locations the map is indicating to the audience. For example in the title "Provo, UT, Theme Park Locations" is the geographic name showing the base location, "Theme Park" is the layer name, and "Locations" is the indicator name explaining that the map is showing the location of theme parks in Provo.

Representing Scale

Different types of scales: scale bar, representative fraction, and verbal scale.

Including a scale on a map is essential because it explains the size relationship between one and two dimensional features on the map and the part of the earth's surface it represents. Zero dimensional, or point features, have no size relationship with the map scale. There are three common ways to represent scale on a map:

  • A scale bar, a ruler-like visual depiction of map distances to scale.
  • A representative fraction, giving the mathematical ratio between distances on the map and distances on the ground (e.g., 1:25,000).
  • A verbal scale, which describes a scale by comparing common map and ground measurements, such as '1 inch equals 2 miles'.

Inset Maps

Map with a smaller scale inset map
Map with a larger scale inset map

Inset maps are small maps projected onto the main map, which are used to depict an area of the map at a larger or smaller scale for a particular purpose. In this way, inset maps provide more information or context to the main map. Some of the uses for them include:

  • Focusing on a particular area at a larger scale in greater detail.
  • Showing the location of the main map in a much broader geographic context.
  • Showing different information of the same area as the main map (or other inset maps) to facilitate direct comparisons.
  • Showing the same information for a related location that cannot easily fit into the same map (e.g. insets of Alaska and Hawaii on maps of the United States).


Balance is a principle of map layout, which seeks the harmonious organization of map elements and empty space that incorporates the concept of available space. Applying correct balancing techniques can greatly enhance the clarity of the map. The map elements in a well-designed map tend to complement one another, whereas those in a poorly designed map appear to compete for space, resulting in a lack of harmony.

Location, size, color and shape of an object in a map affect visual weight and direction. For example, an object in the upper part of a composition is heavier than those in the lower part, large objects appear visually heavier than small objects, and an object of regular shape appear heavier than irregularly shaped ones. [5]

Negative Space

Example of how negative space can draw attention to the main part of map.

Negative space is the space around and between the subject of an image. It may be most evident when the space around a subject, and not the subject itself, forms an interesting or artistically relevant shape. Negative space is effective in drawing your audience's attention to specific locations.

Using negative space properly will greatly affect the balance and aesthetic value of an image. By working with negative space in the image instead of positive space, one may find that they are better able to accurately portray the subject or positive space in a visually pleasing and complete manner. One way to understand the negative space in an image is to represent the subject in white and the rest of the image with black. This allows you to creatively work with space in order to find the right balance between negative and positive space.


  1. Judith Tyner, Principles of Map Design, Guilford, p. 235. ISBN 9781606235447
  2. Judith Tyner. Robinson, Arthur H., Joel L. Morrison, Phillip C. Muehrcke, A. Jon Kimerling, and Stephen C. Guptill. "Elements of Cartography." Elements of Cartography. John Wiley & Sons, INC, n.d
  3. Tyner, Judith. Principles of Map Design, Guilford Press, 2010, 33.
  4. Peterson, Gretchen N. GIS Cartography: a Guide to Effective Map Design. CRC Press, 2015.
  5. Arheim, R. 1965 "Art and Visual Perception." Berkeley: University of California press. CA.

See Also