All Good Static Maps

What All Good STATIC Maps "Should" Have

(Bach & Freelan, from ENVS-418 Computer Cartography)

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See also What All Good INTERACTIVE - ONLINE Maps Should Have


Regardless of the cartographic style or content, most maps have the following common elements. These are the "Golden Rules of Cartography" - at least for Intro to Computer Cartography (though in truth there are no 'rules' in cartography). 



The title should be in a large font, easily identifiable as the title of the map and should include descriptive text as to the location and purpose of the map. If the map is thematic, the theme should be included in the title. For example: Corn Production in Washington, 1990. The title is usually the largest font size of all lettering on the layout and is typically a dark color, however, it should not dominate the map graphic itself. The title may or may not be in a box and does not need to be at the top of the page (though it often is). For published materials (e.g., books or articles) the title may be included in a figure caption instead.


The scale of the map is typically indicated by a graphic bar scale, a representative fraction or a verbal scale. The reader must be able to determine the relationship between a unit of measure on the map and a unit of measure in the real world. For small scale (global) maps where the scale varies across the map it is better to indicate scale by showing lines of latitude and longitude or by use of a variable scale indicator.


A map should indicate which way is north (and/or south, east and west). Commonly this is done by a north arrow or compass rose. Orientation may also be shown by grid / tic marks or a graticule (e.g. lines of latitude and longitude). By convention north is towards the top of the page (thus some maps do not have north arrows), but the orientation must still be explicit for a 'proper' map. North does not have to be at the top of the page and a north arrow (or indicator) is essential for maps where north is not at the top of the page.

4. MAP AND PAGE BORDERS (or Neatlines)

A MAP border identifies exactly where the mapped area stops. The border is often the thickest line on the map and should be close to the edges of the mapped area. The distance between the mapped area and the map border should be the same on all sides (balanced).

A PAGE border surrounds around the entire map layout (enclosing and grouping the map and the map elements: title, legend, text boxes, etc.). 

Both of these borders are sometimes referred to as a 'neatline.' In addition, there is sometimes a thin additional line just inside or just outside of a map border or a page border (accentuating the border and ideally making it more visually appealing) that may also be referred to as a neatline.


A legend defines the symbols or colors (including shades of gray and patterns) used on the map. Maps (and/or certain map features) do not need legends if the symbology is so common or simple as to be easily understood by the reader. However, it must be clear what each marker or line type, weight and pattern represents. The legend does not need to be labeled "Legend." The more complicated the symbology on a map the more important the legend becomes.


       - SOURCE OF DATA (especially on thematic maps)

       - NAME of the cartographer  

       - DATE of the map creation/publication 

       - DATE of the map data 

       - Optional: PROJECTION of the map (especially for small-scale maps)


A Locator inset map is needed if the area of the map is not easily recognizable or is of large scale. For example, for a map of Whatcom County, there should be an inset map of Washington, showing the location of Whatcom County. Locator maps are smaller scale maps (as compared to the map they are used with), and have simpler symbology and less detail, text, etc. Within the Locator map there should be an indication of where the main map is located (an extent indicator, a label, etc.).

OPTIONAL: An Inset map can also be used for a DETAIL map. Detail maps are larger scale (as compared to the they map they are used with) and show a sub-set area of the main map in greater detail.


Layout design refers to the planning and decision making processes involved in the visual display of the spatial data. You can achieve balance by rearranging the size, shape and location of the map elements (north arrow, legend, scale, title, etc.) and changing size of the text, border. etc. The map and map elements should be:

       - Neat and clear

       - Appropriately and consistently generalized

       - Symmetrically balanced (avoid crowding or large blank areas)

       - Without unnecessary clutter (keep it simple, be wary of 'artistic' details)


A hierarchy of symbology should be used for the lettering, line weights and shading. More important features are typically larger and/or darker, less important/background information should be smaller and/or lighter. At the same time, do not "over weight" or "under weight" features.


All maps have a purpose which should influence every element of the map and the map layout. A cartographer should be able to clearly articulate the purpose of their map and should keep the audience (who the map is going to be used by) and the client (who the maps is being produced for) in mind.



     Any, or all, of the above 'rules' can be (and frequently have been) violated at the discretion of the cartographer. This is fine IF doing so produces a better map (better serving its purpose and audience). For the purposes of ENVS-418 (Cartography) each of these items will be required on all static maps unless otherwise specified. If you opt not to include any of these elements, be sure to make note of this so we don't think you just forgot something...