Using Text on Maps: Typography in Cartography

Typography is the art and methods of arranging type, type design, and modifying type glyphs. In traditional typography, text is composed to create a readable, coherent, and visually satisfying whole that works invisibly, without the awareness of the reader. Even distribution with a minimum of distractions and anomalies are aimed at producing clarity and transparency.  The goal is legibility and readability.

Typography for cartography can be more complex than traditional typography because of complex text placement and potential density of features, visual hierarchy, and overall look and feel. On maps, text often represent features as symbols in their own right. There is often interplay between text and other multi-layered map features such as symbols, background colors, and textures. However, the overall goal of legibility and readability remains the same.

Felix Arnold (2004) lists several ways in which cartography differs from traditional typography:

  • On maps and plans, text competes with the graphics; in books and magazines, they normally work alongside one another
  • Cannot be placed over backgrounds that share the same color as the letters
  • Typically placed over many various types of backgrounds – which are usually dark – instead of a common white background
  • Small text can be difficult to read when placed over complex, textured backgrounds
  • The eye reads text on a map letter-by-letter, instead of through word shapes
  • Single lines of text often run across the page diagonally, or on a curve
  • Type size and style changes quite a lot on maps
  • Much map text is set in quite small point sizes

Understanding Typeface

A typeface (also known as font family) is a group of fonts, designed to be used in combination and exhibiting similarities in design.

map typography font families
Typographic font families

One member of a family may be rendered in italic, another bold, another condensed or using small caps. Each font of a typeface has a specific weight, style, condensation, width, slant, italicization, ornamentation, and designer or foundry (the variants). For example, “ITC Garamond Bold Condensed Italic” means the bold, condensed-width, italic version of ITC Garamond. It is a different font from “ITC Garamond Condensed Italic” and “ITC Garamond Bold Condensed,” but all are fonts within the same font family.

Individual letters, number, punctuation mark, or other symbol, called the type glyphs, are created and modified using a variety of illustration techniques.

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Serifs are semi-structural details on the ends of some of the strokes that make up letters and symbols (also known as Roman).

Serifs, highlighted in red

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A typeface without serifs is called sans-serif, from the French sans, meaning “without” (also known as Gothic). In traditional print, sans-serif fonts are more typically used for headlines than for body text.

Sans-serif

 

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 Weight, Stretch, Size

The font weight refers to the boldness or lightness of the glyphs used to render the text. The font stretch indicates the desired amount of condensing or expansion in the glyphs used to render the text. The font size refers to the size of the font from baseline to baseline.

As cartographic methods became more mechanical in the mid-20th century, the Leroy Lettering System was developed to help cartographers produce consistent, legible text. The Leroy type style is popular on maps of that era.  Today, the font “Sublime” closely mimics the Leroy style.

Leroy Lettering System (1) Phillips, R. J., Noyes, L. and Audley, R. J. (1977). The legibility of type on maps. Ergonomics, 20, 671-682.

Selecting Fonts for Cartography

The following should be considered in your font selection (Arnold, 2004):

  • The typeface must be legible in small sizes
  • Typeface must also be slightly narrow, to avoid line lengths running too long
  • Different styles and weights of the typeface must be clearly differentiated from one another
  • Individual letters must also all appear different from one another, to help minimize misreadings and misunderstandings
  • Typeface must be able to form good word shapes, which will also directly increase legibility

TypeBrewer is a highly recommended place to begin your selection of type for your map. In the TypeBrewer system, “Formal-B” and “Informal-B” are good choices if you are using pre-loaded system fonts. “Formal B” is a good choice for web fonts. Other listed type schemes require that you obtain fonts from external sources. These provide excellent solutions for cartography, though they can sometimes be expensive.

There are many sources of fonts available for free and for purchase via the web. For example, Cisalpin is a contemporary typeface marketed as the ideal typeface for cartography.

Cisalpin commercially available typeface for cartography

Cartographic Lettering Conventions

 

The following table presents the lettering conventions of a few cartography publishing houses:

Cartographic lettering conventions (The Guild Handbook of Scientific Illustration, Second Edition)

Cartographic convention says to pair a Sarif type family and a Sans-sarif type family on your map. Within each family different variants, sizes, and colors are applied. Most professional cartographers have their favorite pairings. For example, on the CartoTalk forum, the following were listed:

  • Frutiger with Meridien
  • Rotis and Univers
  • Myriad (sans) and Kepler (serif) and/or Adobe Jensen (serif) (traditional look)
  • Nueva (serif) and Tekton (sans) (modern look)

Arrangement

The overall arrangement of type involves the selection of typefaces, point size, line length, leading (line spacing), letter-spacing (tracking), style, effects, and kerning.  In typography, kerning is the process of adjusting letter spacing in a proportional font. In a well-kerned font, the two-dimensional blank spaces between each pair of letters all have similar area.

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Role of Sketching in Map Design Layouts

Hand-drawn sketching plays an important role in the digital arts. The larger a project is, and the more concepts a client will need to see, the more sketching will prove its worth in your design process. Consider using rough sketches for composition or layout options in your next project. Or push yourself to do a handful of thumbnail sketches before firing up your cartography software of choice. Create ten well thought out map design options (not seven to make three look good).  Select three and refine each.  Select one for final design.

In Role of Sketching in the Design Process, Sean Hodge discusses sketching for rapid concept development in traditional design.  This same process should be considered in cartography.

Sketch map figure from Slocum 2005

Cartographer as Designer – It’s a Process

Those who design maps for use by others engage in a specialized form of communication.  They create images to represent physical and phenomena in three-dimensional space, but they create them on two-dimensional surfaces. To do this effectively, a cartographer must understand not only the phenomena on which the maps are based, but also how to work with them to communicate information to others.  No amount of skill with computer software can rescue a map that displays a lack of understanding of the cartographic design process.

Example Map by XNR Productions

Cartography is a PROCESS, thus should follow a well thought out sequence of steps from conception to finished product. “So, what exactly are your intentions?” Know how the map is intended to be used at the beginning of your project. What is the presentation media? e.g., print, projected, web. What is the size? Is it interactive? How often does it need updating? Show examples of how you would create the same map differently depending on the presentation format.

PROCESS – A process is a naturally occurring or designed sequence of changes of properties or attributes of an object or system. More precisely, and from the most general systemic perspective, every process is representable as a particular trajectory (or part thereof) in a system’s phase space. (adapted from Wikipedia)

A map must be designed foremost with consideration to the purpose, the audience and its needs. In order to convey the message of the map, the creator must design it in a manner which will aid the reader in the overall understanding of its purpose.

What is your first step when someone asks, “Can you make me a map of…?”  Here are some questions you should ask (of your client and yourself) during the cartographic design process. It is recommended you make your own process list and format it as a form that you can re-use with each new project:

Purpose

  • Why are you making your map?
  • Who is your audience?
  • Primary audience:
  • Secondary audience:
  • Expert or non-expert?
  • Busy or motivated?
  • Able or disabled?
  • Other comments:
  • What should the map assert?
  • What do you want to communicate?

Data

  • What data are needed?
  • Existing or new?
  • Sources?
  • Is field data collection required?
  • Is analysis required?
  • Do you need to convert/geocode data?
  • Are there copyright issues?
  • Age of data?
  • Is there a budget for the data?

Tools

  • What tools will you use?
  • Other comments:

Design

  • What is the geographic framework?
  • Layout?
  • Will it be coordinated with other text? Or stand-alone?
  • Intellectual & visual hierarchies?
  • Map generalization and classification to be used?
  • Map symbolization?
  • Are there existing standards that must be followed?
  • New symbols to be created?
  • Type / font(s) to be used?
  • Use of color or black & white?
  • Existing color scheme?
  • Other comments:

Media

  • What is the final medium? (paper, poster, projected, Internet, interactive, computer monitor, other)
  • Resolution / scale?
  • Viewing distance?
  • Requirements for final file formats?

Evaluation and Acceptance

  • Who will approve the finished map?
  • What are the time constraints?
  • What is the budget?
  • Other comments:

Thanks to john krygier | denis wood, authors of making maps:a visual guide to map design for gis for their inspiring insight in the chapter “Why are you Making your Map?”

ScapeToad Cartogram Software

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ScapeToad is an interesting, free, stand-alone cartogram software for Mac, Windows (and available platform independent). ScapeToad 1.1 is available for download under a GPL license.

Classical thematic mapping displays spatial patterns of theme or series data depicted on familiar reference maps of standard land-area polygons, which are typically distorted only by the selected projection. A cartogram is a map in which some thematic mapping variable – such as travel time or Gross National Product – is substituted for land area. The geometry or space of the map is distorted in order to convey the information of this alternate variable. There are two main types of cartograms: area and distance cartograms. To see examples, WorldMapper.org provides a nice collection of cartograms.

(from the ScapeToad website) “The visualization of social phenomena through classical thematic mapping often leads to unsatisfying representations… Cartograms are a well-known technique used to compensate for this inconvenience by breaking the link between statistical regions and their topographical areas. Consequently, this liberates one visual variable (that of polygon size) for a more relevant use, such as the representation of the relative social importance of these regions (usually measured by the size of their populations), while leaving intact their topological relations.”

Flex Projector for Interactive Creation of Map Projections

Flex Projector is an interesting new program for anyone who has ever been interested in map projections. The program provides a great hands-on interface for understanding more about how map projections work as well as to create your very own. Alpha 0.32 was released 1 April 2008 for Linux, Mac and Windows by Bernhard Jenny, Oregon State University, and Tom Patterson, US National Park Service.

According to their website (http://www.flexprojector.com) Flex Projector is a freeware, cross-platform application for creating custom world map projections. The intuitive interface allows users to easily modify dozens of popular world map projections—the possibilities range from slight adjustments to making completely new projections. Flex Projector is intended as a tool for practicing mapmakers and students of cartography. It took a couple tries to get the shape files to show up in the map window, but once they did I was off and running. Very ingenious application. I think this will become standard material for every introduction to cartography class out there. Its well worth a look for all mapping professionals.