Basics of a Map

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A map is a visual representation or depiction of a specific area or region. It is a two-dimensional representation of the Earth’s surface or a portion of it.

Maps can be created at various scales, ranging from global maps that show the entire world to detailed maps of a small neighborhood or indoor space.

Maps can be physical, printed documents, or digital representations that are viewed on electronic devices or accessed through online mapping platforms.

What is the Purpose of a Map?

The purpose of a map is to visually represent and convey spatial information about a specific area or region.

Maps are designed to help people understand and navigate their surroundings, whether it’s a city, a country, a continent, or even the entire globe.

Types of Maps


Maps serve as a primary tool for navigation, allowing individuals to determine their location, plan routes, and find directions to reach their desired destinations.

Communicating spatially

Maps provide a visual representation of the physical features, landmarks, and geographical elements of an area, enabling people to gain a better understanding of the layout and characteristics of the environment.

A map with light green for boreal, dark green for boreal transition zones, and gray for land outside the boreal forests in Canada.  The surrounding ocean is light blue.
A shaded relief map showing the extent of boreal forest in Canada. Map: Caitlin Dempsey.

Maps offer a wealth of information about a location, such as political boundaries, transportation networks, natural features (e.g., rivers, mountains), population density, land use, and cultural landmarks. They are often used as reference tools for research, planning, and decision-making.

Maps facilitate effective communication by presenting complex geographical data in a simplified and visually appealing manner. They can convey information to a wide range of audiences, regardless of language or literacy barriers.

Analysis and Planning:

Maps are essential for analyzing spatial patterns, relationships, and trends. They aid in urban planning, resource management, disaster response, and other fields where understanding the geographic context is crucial.

An aerial map overlaid with maroon dots showing oak tree locations.
Maps can be used for planning purposes such as this map showing the location of oak trees in a Southern California city.


Maps are used in schools and educational settings to teach geography, history, and other subjects. They help students develop spatial awareness, learn about different regions, and comprehend the interconnections between places.

Tourism and Recreation:

Maps are invaluable for travelers, tourists, and outdoor enthusiasts. They provide information about attractions, points of interest, trails, and recreational areas, helping people make the most of their experiences.

Basic map characteristics

The science of making maps is called cartography.

Maps are modeled visualizations of some aspect of an area’s geography. No map details 100% of the geographic characteristics of that area. Instead, maps will have a specific subject and focus that dictates what pieces of information are displayed and how.

A simple map showing the extent of historical grasslands in the United States. The areas not covered by grasslands are a light gray. The areas of the continental United States with grasslands are in shades of yellows, browns, and greens.
A map border helps to visually contain all the map elements. Map: Caitlin Dempsey.

Basic map characteristics to help the reader understand the context of the map are title, legend (or map key), scale, a grid system, and north arrow. Not all maps have all of these map elements.

Scale and orientation: Maps will contain a bar graph, scale bar, or verbal scale which indicates the relationship between the distance on the map and the actual distance on the ground. Some maps, although not all, will have a compass rose or a north arrow to show the map orientation.

Legends or keys: Maps often include a legend or key that explains the symbols, colors, and other representations used on the map. This helps users interpret the information presented.

Grid systems: Many maps have grid lines, such as latitude and longitude lines or a coordinate grid, to provide a reference system for locating specific points on the map.

Spatial features on a map

Maps typically include various elements that convey spatial information, such as:

Geographical features: Maps display physical features like mountains, rivers, lakes, coastlines, and deserts. These features are represented using symbols, colors, or contour lines.

Political boundaries: Maps show political divisions such as country borders, state or provincial boundaries, and administrative regions. These boundaries help define the jurisdictional and administrative areas.

A hexagon map showing the number of GIS jobs by state. Darker blue means more jobs. Light green/yellow means less jobs.
This tile-grid map demonstrates that maps are a modeled visualization of geography and don’t always conform to the actual shape of an area. Map: Caitlin Dempsey.

Landmarks and points of interest: Important landmarks, cultural sites, monuments, tourist attractions, and other points of interest are often marked on maps to provide reference points and aid navigation.

Transportation networks: Maps include roads, highways, railways, airports, ports, and other transportation infrastructure. These elements help people plan routes and understand connectivity.

Spatial Resolution

The spatial resolution of a map refers to the level of detail at which the smallest feature on the map can be accurately represented, without distorting its relative size.

Maps with high resolution contain a greater number of pixels per unit area, enabling more intricate detail.

Precision versus Accuracy
Precision versus Accuracy. Image: Caitlin Dempsey

Accuracy, on the other hand, measures how closely the values on a map align with reality. Precision pertains to the level of refinement in measurements, where a more precise value provides a finer level of detail (e.g., 2,145 kilometers versus 2,100 kilometers). More: GIS Data: A Look at Accuracy, Precision, and Types of Errors

The most commonly used is the Mercator Projection; other popular projections are polar and a variety of equal-area projections.

Cartographic Design Principles

artographic design principles are guidelines that help create effective and visually appealing maps. Here are some key principles:

  1. Simplicity: Keep the map design simple and uncluttered. Use a minimal number of elements, clear symbols, and a clean layout to avoid overwhelming the reader.
  2. Hierarchy: Establish a clear hierarchy of information by using visual cues such as size, color, and typography. Emphasize important features or themes to guide the reader’s attention.
  3. Contrast: Utilize contrast in colors, sizes, and shapes to distinguish between different map elements and highlight important information. This enhances readability and visual impact.
  4. Balance: Achieve visual balance by distributing elements evenly across the map. Balance the placement of text, symbols, and graphics to create a harmonious composition.
  5. Consistency: Maintain consistency in the use of symbols, colors, fonts, and other design elements throughout the map. This enhances clarity and ensures a cohesive visual experience.
  6. Legibility: Prioritize legibility by choosing appropriate font sizes, clear labeling, and sufficient color contrast between text and background. Ensure that labels and other text are readable at the intended map scale.
  7. Generalization: Simplify and generalize complex features to avoid overcrowding the map. Use appropriate levels of detail based on the map scale and purpose.
  8. Visual Hierarchy: Use visual cues, such as size, color, and typography, to establish a clear hierarchy of information. This helps readers understand the relative importance and relationships between different map elements.
  9. Proximity and Grouping: Place related elements close to each other to indicate their connection. Grouping similar features or information helps readers interpret and understand the map more easily.
  10. Intuitive Symbolization: Select symbols and visual representations that are easily recognizable and intuitive to the map’s audience. Ensure that symbols accurately convey the intended meaning.
  11. Purposeful Color Use: Choose colors deliberately to represent different features, emphasize patterns or variations, and create visual harmony. Consider colorblind accessibility and avoid using color as the sole means of conveying information.
  12. Aesthetics: Pay attention to the overall visual appeal of the map. Strive for a pleasing balance of colors, spacing, and composition that engages the reader.

These principles serve as a starting point for creating well-designed and effective maps, but it’s important to adapt them to specific contexts and consider the intended audience and purpose of the map.

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