Developing and Editing Maps for Publication

*UPDATED: with style! See style below.

Deciding what will appear on a map, writing up the requirements, editing the rough art, and approving the final art can be long, long process. Doing it carefully and with a checklist will produce great results and save time. Doing it in a slapdash or haphazard fashion will give poor results and waste both time and money.

Here are some questions to ask. Together, they can become the start of a checklist for map making.

  1. Do you really need one? What is the purpose? What will it help the user do? What knowledge does that user have already?
  2. What is the scope—for example, the world? Europe west from Moscow? northern Africa? Canada north of 50 North latitude? the Riverdale neighbourhood in Toronto?
  3. If the scope is large, what projection is wanted?
  4. What kind of map is needed—for example, a political map?  topographic map? road map? locator map?
  5. What features does it need—a scale? a compass rose? a legend or key?
  6. What geographic information must appear on it? What is significant for the stated needs? What is unnecessary and clutter? What does the user need to know to use the map to meet his or her goals?
  7. What conventions apply to this type of map?
  8. How will it be reproduced and at what size?
  9. Who will create the map?
  10. Is it possible? Is it advisable? Will the result serve the purpose?

The critical starting point is the purpose. For example:
– A map created for someone driving to my office is different from one for someone taking public transit.
– A historical world map that details the voyages of exploration in the 14th and 15th century and the dominant winds and currents is very different from a current world map that documents life expectancy and child mortality rates by country.
– A map showing Temagami Provincial Park has different requirements for a user who only wants to locate it in Ontario versus someone paddling and camping there for two weeks.

Another key matter is convention. Maps have norms—for example, blue for water, italic lettering to label water bodies. If you don’t know them, learn them by buying and studying a school atlas (e.g., the Canadian Oxford World Atlas) and particularly the opening pages (e.g., about standard symbols, projections, latitude vs. longitude). There are times when a particular norm won’t matter to you or you might want to turn it on its head, but bucking the norms might confuse the map user. UPDATE: The National Geographic has published its style guide online, which is a useful starting point for thinking about conventions; see <>

Finally, determine if the map imagined is possible. Suppose you imagine a world political map that names all countries and significant mountain ranges. You have a fixed space in the publication of 3 inches by 1.5 inches. Will it work? (No.) When in doubt (and even when you think there is NO doubt) try sketching the map you have imagined. I dare you. Download a blank map from a handy dandy web site and roughly indicate what you want on it. Or use tracing paper over a map in an atlas. Do your requirements work? Does the map fit? Will it be legible? Will it work in the publication format you have available? For example, can the voyages of 12 explorers be represented and distinguished? If it will work with lines that are distinguished by colour and broken vs. unbroken will it also work in a black and white publication?

For more about maps or if you have mapping needs, feel free to contact me.

© Laura Edlund 2010