Cartographic Reference

Whether making a wall-sized map or a small map for a report or web page. The following guidelines should be followed.

In General

Answer these questions as you refine the elements that constitute your map:

After creating your map, ask yourself these questions:

Before turning in any map:


Keep visual hierarchy in mind when designing your layout (i.e., the most important things in your map should be the most prominent things in your map). Your map layout should be well balanced and make good use of space, including white (empty) space. Align the content of your map along imaginary lines.

Remember to give your map some structure. In other words, since Humboldt County is not an island, the coast line should extend beyond Humboldt County and the land around the county should be a different color from the ocean.



Neat Lines

Neat lines help to delineate a map on a page and should be included with most maps. However, it is often difficult to have a GIS application handle them correctly so you may have to add them in the application you are using to create the final product.

To make nice neat lines, either add them as a rectangle in the GIS application or as a border around the map in the final layout application.

Map Elements

Common map elements include: titles, north arrows, legends, scale bars, locator map, sources, author, date, and spatial reference system/coordinate reference system.


Include a title unless your map has a caption such as in a report. Choose a title that is concise and informative (include subject, place, & time if appropriate). In many cases, the title acts as a gateway to accessing the map and figures prominently in the visual hierarchy.

North Arrows

Include a north arrow if it is not obvious which direction north is such as when showing the entire world. A north arrow should always be included if north is not "up" on the page.

Scale Bars

Scale bars should be included in maps of smaller regions but not on maps of the world or continents.

Good Scale Bar The numbers
and divisions are easy to understand and use.
Poor Scale Bar In this example, the labels are running together and the
units are not rounded in a way that is easy to use. This is a
poor example of a scale bar. In this example, the scale bar is easy to read.



Use a legend when it is needed. If your map is about "cities" and only cities are shown on the map, you probably do not need a legend. If the cities are symbolized based on their size, you do need a legend.

The word "Legend" should NOT appear in the legend. Your legend title should help your map reader understand what is being shown on the map; sometimes it is not necessary to include a legend title at all. Legend titles and labels should not include underscores or layer names. Include only necessary information/layers in your legend, appropriate to your map's purpose and audience. Legend symbols should match size and color to their counterparts on the map.

Make sure your legend is easy to read. If necessary, include a background color to make the text and symbols more legible. Make sure you add a background color and border and then then adjust the gap around the border so the legend items do not run up against the border.

Note: When adding a background in ArcGIS, you also have to add a "gap" to the "background" and the "frame".

Date, Author, Sources, Spatial Reference System/Coordinate Reference System

This is "an ciliary" text and should be relatively small (but still readable, never below 9 points) and toward the bottom of the page.


by: Jim
Source: HSU


Author: Jim Graham
Date: September 14th, 2014
Coordinate Reference System: World Geodetic System 1984, Universal Transverse Mercator, Zone 10 North
Source: Humboldt State University, Arcata, California



What's wrong with this map (see how many you can guess before checking below)?

Image of map with poor cartography


How about this one?

Good Map

Map of the natural resources areas within Humboldt County (by Jim Graham, 9/7/2014, source: Humboldt County).