The Details Make the Map: Design Principles for Cartography

An online workshop for
TUgis: Maryland's Geospatial Conference
1–4 p.m., August 14, 2020


Decisions about color, type, and representational techniques all shape a map’s readability and effect. In this workshop, we’ll learn about principles of color, typography, and graphic representation. We’ll talk about excellent examples of both reference maps and thematic maps from a range of disciplines. You’ll work through type and color exercises, then apply these principles to a mapping problem in your usual GIS environment.


You can download a PDF copy of the slides.

Workshop schedule

Other online tools for the workshop

Workshop intro



Color picker exercise

  1. Take a look at Colorpicker for data.
  2. Explore what happens when you change the chromaticity 
 (saturation). How does this affect the colors available?
  3. Experiment with the H-L (hue-lightness), 
 C-L (chroma-lightness), and H-C (hue-chroma) modes.
  4. Change the number of classes/swatches. 
 Preview the results on the sample map.

Time: 5 minutes


Recipe exercise

  1. Head over to our Miro board. Go to the “Recipe” section, and find your two squares.
  2. Using the tools on the Miro board, typeset the recipe, aiming 
 to create hierarchy—to explain the relationship 
 between the different types of text.
  3. Do this a second time, on the next square over.
 (Most fundamental design lesson: always experiment.)

Time: 15 minutes

Map typography exercise

  1. Open a project with the sample data in your GIS. The key layers are the names of populated places (populated_1, 
 populated_2, and populated_3), smallest to largest.
  2. Typeset these placenames, using type to explain the relationship. 
 Consider size, case, weight, and font choice. Try more than one solution!
  3. If you have time, start adding other features, and using color.
  4. Take screenshots and add them to our Miro board.

Time: 10 minute break + 30 minutes working

Sample data

You should download a collection of sample data.

The link takes you to Dropbox. You don't need to log in. Download the entire ZIP-compressed folder. There's a download button in the upper-right part of the screen—it looks like this:

screenshot of download button



Following up topics covered in the workshop.


Color pickers


Three top picks

Free/open source fonts

Some freely licensed and open-source fonts can match the best commercial fonts. Often, the best ones are produced by professional type designers, working for companies that then release the fonts to the public.

Here are a few strong choices for map work. They show some combination of technical quality, flexibility (large families with weight and widths, or superfamilies combing serif/sans/monospace), legibility (esp. at small sizes), and large character sets (going beyond English, often non-Latin alphabets).

Also, Kristian Bjørnard has a good list of free/libre fonts.