Elements of a Map

Filed in Maps and Cartography by on June 11, 2011


Maps are the primary tools by which spatial relationships are visualized. Maps therefore become important documents. There are several key elements that should be included each time a map is created in order to aid the viewer in understanding the communications of that map and to document the source of the geographic information used.

Numbered below are decriptions of cartographic elements that are commonly found on a map layout.

1. Data Frame

The data frame is the portion of the map that displays the data layers. This section is the most important and central focus of the map document. In the example displayed at the end of this article, the data frame contains fire history for the community of Topanga.

2. Legend

The legend serves as the decoder for the symbology in the data frame. Therefore, it is also commonly known as the key. Descriptions detailing any color schemata, symbology or categorization is explained here. In the legend below, the fire history schemata has been categorized with a graduating color scheme. The legend details which colors refer to which years. Without the legend, the color scheme on the map would make no sense to the viewer. The legend tells the viewer that the lighter the color, the longer the last recorded date of fire has been.

3. Title

The title is important because it instantly gives the viewer a succinct description of the subject matter of the map. The title “Fire History in Topanga, California” quickly tells the viewer the subject matter and location of the data.

4. North Arrow

The purpose of the north arrow is for orientation. This allows the viewer to determine the direction of the map as it relates to due north. Most maps tend to be oriented so that due north faces the top of the page. There are exceptions to this and having the north arrow allows the viewer to know which direction the data is oriented. To learn more about when to use a North Arrow, read “To North Arrow or Not to North Arrow“.

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Comments (3)

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  1. Howard Yamaguchi says:

    I might also suggest adding, in fine print somewhere in or below the map window (“data frame”), the datum and map projection used.

  2. hans steffen says:

    You have established a nice site and a good intorduction in the elements of good maps.

    Enclosed some links to our dynamic maps created interactively with mapresso – an java applet.


    With kind regards,
    Hans Steffen, Scientific collaborator,
    Swiss Federal Office of Statistics, Neuchâtel

  3. Tyler says:

    Thanks this website helped, it might’ve helped me with S+E homework but even if it did i wouldnt mention that :D haha thanks

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