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Typography (from the Greek words τύπος (typos) = form and γραφή (graphe) = writing) is defined as "the art or process of specifying, arranging, and designing type."[1] Typography describes elements of the type itself, including font, color, size, typeface, line length, and leading (line spacing).

In cartographic design, a variety of text material is found in maps to meet different purposes: titles, labels, legends, annotations, etc. In this sense, typography becomes a symbol in its own right and important in producing a quality map. The proper use of the typographic elements can make a map clear, easy to read, and pleasant to look at. On the other hand, poor use of typography can result in a map that is difficult to interpret, jarring to the eye, or simply unintelligible. A knowledge of typography allows cartographers to utilize the connotations associated with different typographic elements to enhance a reader's experience.

Functions of Typography In Cartography

Typography contributes to the beauty of a map. Text is information added to a map that assists the user in the orientation of a map, aids in recognition of features, and explains any particular information. Without text, a map is referred to as a "blind map" [2].

  • Type is used to label and name.
  • Type is used on maps to organize.
  • Type explains information on a map.
  • Type manipulates and imparts different impressions on a map.

Typeface & Fonts

Main Articles: Typeface & Font

A typeface is a particular design of type while a font is a complete character set of a single style of a particular typeface. For example, Century Gothic is a typeface but the styles of Century Gothic in the green box are fonts.

A typeface is a distinct style of characters (in print-letter form) that are created by a typographer or type designer. Typically, the shapes of these lettered-symbols characterize the typeface [3]. Many people think of typeface and font as being the same thing, however, this is incorrect. A simple definition is to think of font as the delivery mechanism and typeface as the artistic creation. In other words, a font is “all the variations of a typeface of a given size possible”—including variations in weight, italics, and kerning [4]. For example, the sentences "The swift fox jumped over the box." and "The swift fox jumped over the box." are the same typeface but different fonts. A font is a collection of all the characters of a typeface in one size and in one style [5]. In word processing programs such as Microsoft Word, the "fonts" that are available are actually typefaces (ex. Times New Roman, Arial, Verdana). This mislabeling has led to confusion regarding fonts and typeface. When a size, weight, or emphasis is added to a typeface, it becomes a separate font within that same typeface (ex. Times New Roman, 14 pt, underlined). A Type Family is a collection of fonts (many sizes and styles) made from a single typeface. A type family is usually given the same name as the typeface, but that is not always the case. For example, the Times family consists of Times New Roman, Times New Roman World, Titling, and Times Hever Titling typefaces. The Times New Roman typeface is then categorized by several fonts, i.e. Times New Roman, 12pt size, underlined. A type family may contain many variations but all of them are based on the common design characteristics [6].

Typographic Elements

Serif vs. Sans Serif

Figure 1: Serif and Sans-serif typeface [7].

A major difference between typefaces is whether the text is serif or sans-serif. Serif fonts have decorative flourishes at the ends of the strokes in the character. Sans comes from the Latin term sine (without), and serif (short lines), which originates most likely from the Dutch word schreef (stroke), or from Middle Dutch schriven (write), or from Latin scribere (write). [8] Hence sans-serif is without the decorative flourishes.

Times New Roman is a commonly used serif typeface and Arial is a commonly used sans-serif typeface. Serif typefaces are typically used in the body section of printed works because the individual letters are distinctive and easy to read. Sans-serif typefaces are typically used for online work because they have a less complex shape and are easier to read when there is a lower resolution [9].

Italic vs. Oblique

Italic and Oblique fonts use the sloping of letters to set text apart from non italicized or oblique fonts (or vice versa). Using these font styles on a map also slightly decreases the size of the font as it shapely squeezes it around features. When introduced, the idea was to condense the text, thus creating more text on the pages.
Side by side comparison of italic and oblique

Italic is a cursive font style that stems from calligraphic handwriting style. The slope in the font was created to mimic the flow of cursive handwriting and thus, the angles of italic letters range anywhere from 11 to 30 degrees. This style of calligraphy leans to the right and uses very cursive like forms of letters. An italic font has been specially created so that the font family letters are not just slanted, rather they have been redesigned in a slanted style. An italic font may not look exactly like the rest of the font family. Italics could be considered to be the handwritten version of type in the same font family[10].

Oblique is typeface that is skewed or slanted. Unlike italic, oblique type has not been redesigned to mimic a handwriting style. Rather the type has simply been slanted to the right. [11].

Few font families will have both an oblique and an italic font option, though sometimes oblique fonts are marked as italic by the designer of the font.

As a general rule on maps, the smaller the point size of a font, the more condensed and difficult it becomes to read. In the example of labeling a globe, ocean features are generally italicized to give an obvious discernment. In cartographic conventions, natural features are labeled in italics such as the aforementioned ocean features on globes.


Main Article: Font

Here are three examples of weight: light, normal, and bold

The weight of a font refers to the thickness of the character's outlines relative to their height. These weights are assigned by the user or by the software itself. Typeface can come in many different weights such as ultra-light, extra-bold, bold, or black. Four to six weight is normal to have in a typeface, but it is not uncommon that more exists in others. The amount of weight increased must be proportional to the size of the letter. If not, the shape can become unclear and the letter becomes an indistinct blob. Weight is important because it involves the difference between bold and regular contrast. The type weight provides additional emphasis to text of the cartographer's choosing. Bold text draws the eyes of the audience to pronounce certain information.

When referring to weight, there are many names that are used to describe weight in each typeface. The list usually follows an order such as thin, ultra-light, extra-light, light, book, normal, medium, demi, bold, extra-bold, heavy, black, extra black, and ultra. However, when working with different typefaces you must recognize that this classification is not standard and differences may appear in the actual number of typefaces, or value/weight they give each of their typefaces.

In order to determine the weight of text to use on a map, it is necessary to consider the importance of the feature being labeled within the context of the map's purpose. Since heavier weighted texts tend to draw more attention, it is generally not advisable to label features from the map's reference layer (background information) in heavy weights. Rather, the weight of text should follow a somewhat hierarchical organization. Consider a map of a national park, for example. The heaviest type would best be used for features such as the title. Somewhat lighter fonts would be used for features such as major attractions within the park, entrance points, ranger stations, and other locations that the majority of readers would need to find easily on the map. Lighter weight text would be used for labeling features such as rivers, less popular trails, mountain tops, and other elements that the map user would likely be interested in, but not as the first message they get out of the map. Finally, the lightest weight text in the map should be used in areas that are meant strictly for reference, for example, the labeling of a state adjacent to the park or labeling a lake, river, or other feature located outside of the park boundaries. Combined with the mindful usage of other typographic elements, the proper use of weight in typography can ensure that a map conveys its intended message, and can assist the map reader to effortlessly gain the information they need.


The type size of fonts stresses the importance and emphasis of the intended map. Fonts are often measured in points. A larger size implies more importance or a greater relative quantity; smaller denotes less importance or less quantity. For example, maps of Oregon generally label the city of Portland in a larger size than Tillamook, since Portland is many times larger in population and is a cultural and economic hub of the state. For design purposes, text using a size of less than 6 point is difficult to read. Similarly, text that is larger than 26 point is too cumbersome for a standard-size paper format. For titles, a font larger than 10 point generally allows for a good working title. Also, a difference of at least 2 points between type sizes is recommended to allow the audience to see subtle changes. This helps give the map a clear visual hierarchy, clearly distinguishing the most important features from less important or reference features.

Type Measurement

Type measurements from 1 to 12 and their relationships to a pica in Times New Roman font.

Typeface is typically measured in points. A point is the smallest unit of measure in typography (Point). In the most commonly used point system[12], 72 points make up one inch, thus one point is 1/72 of an inch [13]. A standard 12pt. font means that the font size is approximately 12/72 or 1/6 of an inch. A "pica" is a larger unit in typography([2]). A pica is made up of 12 points, making it 1/6 of an inch or, 1/72 of a foot. This means that one pica is equivalent to 12 point units of measurement. Pica can be abbreviated as pc or P/. Picas are most commonly used for horizontal measurements like margin or column width[14]. It would also be appropriate to work with pica units as opposed to point units when creating very large maps intended to be hung on a wall or similar projects. Currently, the most widely used point system is the DTP point or Desktop Publishing Point.

Fonts can vary widely in size due to differing x-heights, even if they have the same point measurement [15]. When picking a point value for your text if is important to always look at a printed sample before determining your final size. The low resolution of your computer monitor does not display type accurately enough. Also because point size does not tell you everything about how a typeface will actually look, select a type size optically. This is especially important when readability is determined by point size.


How the x-height is measured and determined.

x-height is the distance from the baseline to the mean line or midline in the typeface. This is the height of a lowercase x, thus the name x-height.[16] There are lowercase letters who have a height different from x-height. They can have descenders like p and y. They can also have ascenders who rise above the x-height with curves like m and n. Typefaces with very large x-height in relation to the total or Cap height will, by contrast, have smaller ascenders and descenders, and decrease the amount of whitespace between lines of the font. [17] X-height is important as different governments use x-height to regulate the mandatory size of type on different products [18] and web pages use it as a form of measurement. It is important to pay attention to the x-height of the typeface being used.

Effects of Size on Maps

The different size of a typeface can affect the way that the viewer reads the text. Studies have shown that readers will actually read different sizes of texts in different ways. Often times larger typeface will be read at a slower pace. Smaller typeface will sometimes lead to an increased reading speed and increased focus on the individual words [19]. In addition, the larger the size of the typeface, the more that text rises in the visual hierarchy of the map. The purpose of the map is important to keep in mind in order to determine the impact size can make. Size plays a key role in portraying the most important information and distinguishing it from reference data.


Case is another way of emphasizing--whether it be uppercase, lowercase or a combination of the two (or even different size points within the same case). In general, uppercase fonts denote a higher emphasis, but according to Bringhurst (1996), an uppercase initial of a word has the seniority; but the lowercase letters have the control. In other words, the strong boldness of a larger letter draws the audience into its viewpoint. The lowercase letters contain the information needed to convey further. When viewing text on maps, it is still crucial to gain the audience’s attention as a way of informing them of something other than the map(s). As for design, uppercase is much harder to read than mixed-use. In the globe example, mountain ranges should be in uppercase. When showing a larger scale, such as a region of the United States, it is useful to classify different case sizes. States should be in uppercase, with counties in small uppercase, and cities in lowercase.


An example of correct and incorrect color use and how it can affect your map.

Color, in typography, is based on the relation between the value and hue of the type and that of the background on which the text appears. The color of the type can be used to increase the legibility of a map by creating the necessary amount of contrast with the background[20]. Alterations to the hue and value of a type also allow for a further emphasis on certain features. By changing the color of the type to correspond to the feature it is representing, the two ideas become joined in the observer's mind. If the cartographer were to create a label for a river, extra emphasis would be inherent if the type chosen was blue to correspond with the blue feature (arc). However, inherent color choices can detract from the overall quality of the map if the value of the type does not sufficiently contrast the map background color. If the cartographer chose a color of font for an ocean feature (polygon), blue would not be the obvious choice because it would appear to be washed out and not create the desired emphasis. In this case, it is useful to label the feature with a more rich, bolder color (such as black font on blue polygon).


The spacing of the letters on features also gives a more appealing map-—visually speaking. By enlarging the increments between each letter of a word, the word, in turn, becomes more pronounced. In the case for a long arc feature (river), to add more emphasis on the label, the letters would need to be extended or stretched. On the other hand, in some cases, the letters would have to be condensed (shortened increment gaps) to give a more proportional label for a feature.


Examples of Kerning.

Kerning refers to the action of adjusting the amount of space between the letters of type in a word, whether printed or on-screen. Inter-letter spacing may be increased or decreased to achieve the desired visual effect. Typically, only proportional fonts can be kerned, though other non-kerning actions can be employed in various software packages to achieve similar results[21]. Once kerning is used, it is important to determine if the result is legible or not because if the expanded or condensed are used too much, the text could be hard to read[22]. If your letters are too far apart, the word is no longer a word at all. If the letters are too close, you cannot tell what the letters are.


Examples of Tracking.

Tracking is a similar but slightly different technique than Kerning. It is more generalized. Tracking involves changing the spacing between the letters equally within an entire word or range of characters. [23] After deciding the best spacing between two letters of a word using kerning, tracking can be used to get the entire word to the right spacing.[24]


Examples of Leading.

Leading (pronounced like heading) is the space between lines in a multi-line textual element. The name derives from traditional type setting where extra metal (lead) was added between lines of text. Proper leading provides greater readability for blocks of text. A general rule of thumb is for the leading to be equal to 20% of the size of your type [25]. For example, a 10 point font would have 2 points of leading between lines. Leading is also known by the term Line Spacing depending on the word processing software being used however they both mean the spacing between lines of text. [26] Many word processors will automatically determine the leading for you based on the size of the text used, but if you use more than one type size it can lead to inconsistent leading. Closer leading fits more text on the page but decreases legibility. Looser leading spreads text out to fill a page and makes the document easier to read. Leading can also be negative, in which case the lines of text are so close that they overlap or touch.[27] It is best to specify an amount of space that is large enough to fit the largest character or graphic in the line and then if items appear cut off, increase the amount of spacing [28].

See Also


  1. Slocum, McMaster, Kessler, Howard. Thematic Cartography and Geographic Visualization, New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc, 2010, p. 212. ISBN 0130351237
  2. Karssen, A.J., The Artistic Elements in Map design, I.T.C., Enschede, The Netherlands.
  3. Will-Harris, D. (2005). Font or typeface? Esperfonto. Retrieved 18 Sep. 2011. From http://www.esperfonto.com/font_vs_typeface.html.
  4. Tyner, Judith, Principles of Map Design, Guilford Press, 2010, 51; Fonts in ArcGIS Symbols Buckley, Aileen, ESRI, 2012 Accessed 15 September 2012
  5. Shen, Y. (2012). Typeface vs. Font. Retrieved 5 Oct 2015. From http://smad.jmu.edu/shen/webtype/facefontfamily.html
  6. Shen, Y. (2012). Typeface vs. Font. Retrieved 5 Oct 2015. From http://smad.jmu.edu/shen/webtype/facefontfamily.html
  7. http://encyclopedia2.thefreedictionary.com/typeface
  8. Peterson, Gretchen N. GIS Cartography: a Guide to Effective Map Design. CRC Press, 2015.
  9. “Serif and sans-serif fonts.” Scribe consulting: Writing training for business and government. September 2012. 17 September 2012 http://www.scribe.com.au/tip-w017.html
  10. “Italics or Oblique? It’s All Latin to Me!” February 24 2010. 22 September 2013 <http://briancoale.com/graphic-design/italics-or-oblique-its-all-latin-to-me//>.
  11. “Italic vs. Slanted (Oblique)” May 13 2013. 22 September 2013 <http://beranger.org/2013/05/13/italic-vs-slanted-oblique/>.
  12. Point Size. Butterick/s Practical Typography. <http://practicaltypography.com/point-size.html>
  13. Tyner, J. A. (2010). Principles of Map Design. (1st ed., p. 50) New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
  14. [1]
  15. Brewer, C. (2005). Designing better maps. (pp. 50-51). Redlands, California,: ESRI Press.
  16. "PC Magezine,http://www.pcmag.com/encyclopedia_term/0,1237,t=x-height&i=54947,00.asp
  17. http://www.typographydeconstructed.com/x-height/
  18. http://www.irishexporters.ie/section/NewEUFoodLabellingRulesSettledatLastEvershedsODonnellSweeney
  19. Hovde, H. (1929). The relative effects of size of type, leading and context, Journal of applied psychology, 13, 6, 600-629.
  20. Robinson, A. et al. (1995). Elements of Cartography(6th ed.). New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons
  21. https://designschool.canva.com/blog/kerning/
  22. https://www.4over4.com/blog/7067/the-difference-between-leading-kerning-and-tracking//
  23. Felici, Jim. “Design Fundamentals: Kerning and Tracking.” Graphics.com, Graphics, 2011, www.graphics.com/article-old/design-fundamentals-kerning-and-tracking.
  24. Crtvmrkt. “What's the Difference Between Leading, Kerning and Tracking?” Creative Market, 27 May 2016, creativemarket.com/blog/whats-the-difference-between-leading-kerning-and-tracking.
  25. Thomas Christensen, The Typehead Chronicles: On Leading. http://www.rightreading.com/typehead/leading.htm
  26. http://desktoppub.about.com/od/glossary/g/Leading.htm, About.com. Accessed 16 September 2012.
  27. http://www.adobe.com/type/topics/glossary.html, Adobe. Accessed 16 September 2012.
  28. http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/word-help/about-text-alignment-and-spacing-HP005261064.aspx, Microsoft. Accessed 16 September 2012.

Additional Reading

Judith A. Tyner, Principles of Map Design, New York: Guilford Press, 2010.