Functional design for maps

Good map design means that your information will be communicated quickly and accurately. By carefully designing the components of your map, you can ensure that the map is easy to understand.

This section covers guidance to:

Reduce clutter

Maps should be as simple as possible – do not use satellite imaging if a simple line drawing would do. Maps should contain only as much cartographic or other information as required for accurate reading and understanding. Too much or irrelevant detail can slow down a reader’s comprehension or make the map difficult to decipher.

For example, not all maps require a coordinate system, but consider using an inset showing a larger region to give context to a specific location (eg inset the whole of Australia, with New South Wales shaded, on top of a more detailed map of New South Wales, or vice versa).

Tip. Consider how many landmarks are really required (eg capital cities, country or state borders, mountain ranges, major roads or infrastructure), and only include those that help readers comprehend the information.

The examples show the effect of reducing clutter and repositioning map elements for publication:

A map containing visual clutter

Map on weed spread and management showing clutter.

The same map with visual clutter cleared

Map on weed spread and management – clutter has been reduced.

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Use colour appropriately, and edit for consistency

If possible, edit the colours of maps to match the colour palette of the publication, but check first whether colour has specific meaning, such as in some weather maps.

If the sea is not relevant, leave it white (rather than blue) so that it does not distract the reader. Choose a neutral beige or pale grey for land if this needs to be coloured.

Delete irrelevant symbols, and edit those that can be edited so that they are legible (not too small or large) and consistent with the document colour scheme (again, check for meaning first).

Include a legend in the bottom left corner that explains the colour scheme. List the items in a logical order (eg diminishing size or importance, or alphabetically).

If a map uses shades of the same colour, limit the number of shades to a maximum of 5. Using more shades of one colour will make them very difficult to distinguish (see example below). Other factors that affect perceptible differences between shade intervals include the size of the reproduction and the chosen hue (such as yellow). If you have more than 5 categories within your data, use a colour scheme or introduce hatching patterns.

A map that uses more than a dozen different shades of green, which are largely indistinguishable and difficult to associate with the gradient scale

Map with too many colours.

The same map with the colour graded into 5 distinct shades that are clearly defined by the scale in the legend

Map with good use of colour.

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