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Map Jargon for Beginners

Posted by Barbara Fordyce on

For many graphic designers, using a Map Resources map is their first foray into cartographic imagery.  It's not a difficult transition though, because most of the important principles of design apply to map design as well.  However, it helps to be familiar with a few map-related terms, so we put together a quick list.

Title - most maps, especially if they are information-based or appear in a published book, include a title.  The title should focus the viewer on the message the map is intended to convey.

Figure-ground - the principle of making the image in the foreground distinctive from the background.

Used properly in a map, figure-ground helps the viewer see the image correctly.  For example, when differentiating between land and water areas, the ocean, in most cases, will be the ground and the continent will be the figure.

The classic question, "Is it a vase or a face?"


Visual contrast - closely related to figure-ground. Visual contrast refers to the contrast between the various features and elements on the map, and the map background. A lot of contrast makes features stand out, while a low contrast makes features appear more muted, with reduced significance.


The correct choice of how to portray the features and elements of the map depends on what message the map is intended to convey.











Legend - common on information-based maps, the legend serves as the decoder for the symbology in the data frame.  Also known as the Key, it's important because it explains the way the map data is organized and displayed.  Legends must be carefully designed with graphics that make sense both on the key and on the map.

Consider the highly nuanced key to hydrology symbols designed by Aileen Buckley at ESRI. The legend relies on line variations that use similar shades of blue to differentiate various waterways.  If each waterway was shown in a contrasting color, the map would appear very discordant and it would be hard to discern the detail.

For an in-depth look at all these map elements, go to "Make Maps People Want to Look At", by Aileen Buckley.

For more information about using Adobe Illustrator with Map Resources maps, see Map Design Tips.

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