Elements of a Map

Elements of a map

When discussing the fundamental elements of a map we are more often than not referring to the visual presentation, or composition, of the map. What is needed to use that space and communicate the map’s theme effectively? A problem of graphic design.

Every map we generate will sit in a ‘window’ of some kind, whether online or in print. Taking print as an example (image above), the fundamental elements that should be considered are made up of:

  1. Publication space
    This is the area of the publication assigned to the map.
  2. Map frame
    This is the full extents of the developed mapping, which can exceed the publication space. Exceeding the publication space can be useful as it provides scope to move, rotate and reframe the mapping in a way that accommodates the other elements and/or enables you to use the same mapping to (re)focus on a particular area.
  3. Title block
    This should clearly and economically state the essence of the map’s theme. Sometimes the title is forsaken for a caption, which affords more opportunity to expand upon the description of the map. Needless to say, it’s nearly always unnecessary to state the obvious that it is a “Map of…”.
  4. Key/legend
    This may describe the symbols and styles employed on the map to visualise different themes (e.g. facilities or amenity types), but may may also have a title itself and explore just one theme (e.g. population density). As per the title block, there is no need to use the self-evident term key or legend as a title.
  5. Scale
    This can be a stated verbal scale (e.g. one inch equals 10 miles), a ratio or representative fraction (e.g. 1:25,000 or 1/63,360) or a scale bar, or mixed combination. Note that only the graphic method (scale bar) continues to apply if the map is scaled away from that which it was compiled at.
  6. North arrow
    If it’s not necessary to conform to the ‘north is always up’ convention, a north arrow is helpful, if not necessary. If a map frame needs rotating within the publication frame to create a better layout, then the north arrow will be necessary to demonstrate this.
  7. Inset map
    This refers to a small framed map, which is often used to provide wider locational context. These are not always needed, but there are circumstances where they help clarify context. Sometimes they are also used to present an enlargement of an area, where the larger scale provides more clarity for an important location.
  8. Explanatory notes
    Often it is necessary to provide further clarification and qualification for the theme (data) shown. This may include information on the source, the statistical technique applied or a date. In fact, anything that helps the viewer/reader understand the map.
  9. Copyright notice
    This may not be necessary if the map is of your origination, but most likely you may have based the mapping on some source, such OpenStreetMap, so acknowledgement or attribution will be necessary. Wherever you sourced either the map or data should have an advisory note on what form that should take.

With the above, you can test different layouts of elements, and also of the map scale, to see what works best for the required ‘stage’. There can be multiple possibilities, but ensure that there is a clearly defined visual hierarchy.

The elements required for print also apply to online applications. However, the layout of the map frame works to different principles. Whereas a map developed for print has to be optimised for the real physical space it occupies, the interactive element of online mapping allows different rules to apply dependent upon factors such as ‘zoom’ level. These are added complications, but also opportunities to reveal more.

There are other articles on cartography here that may be of interest, including Cartography and Map Communication.

May, 2019

Map Communication

Map communication model

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Elements of a Map

Elements of a map

When discussing the fundamental elements of a map we are more often than not referring to the visual presentation, or composition, of the map. [ … ]

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Google Earth

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National Geographic

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Heightfield 3D Model

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