GEOG 486
Cartography and Visualization

Type in Maps


We find type in several different places on maps. It is used within data frames as labels, in legends to interpret symbols, and also in other map elements, like titles, headings, and captions. Maps that are integrated into larger documents, such as posters, reports, or books, may also have accompanying text. In all of these functions, type plays a primary role in constructing the visual hierarchy of the page, directing readers how to scan the layout and the map, and what to read first. 

Type influences design at three different scales, through the individual letterforms, the shape and flow of the text, and the spatial organization of all the type on the page (Lupton, 2010). Letterforms refer to the shape of the type, which are usually determined through the typefaces used. Typefaces, and variation in type size, style (e.g. italics, boldface, capitalization, etc.), color, and other characteristics, communicate aspects of map data and help create visual hierarchy within a map. The shape and flow of the text, the second way type influences design, more specifically amounts to the way the letters and words are positioned in relation to each other, (and in cartography in relation to symbols). Letter spacing, line spacing, alignment, and positioning of text are some examples of how the flow of text can be varied. For example, well-spaced curved text on a map may represent nicely the flow of a river, or tight spacing within a block of text may convey density and detailed information. The third way type affects design is through overall spatial organization. Grids are used in graphic design to establish a system for arranging content on a page. For example a newspaper uses a multi-column grid to organize text and photos, often with text occupying the columns singly and photos spanning several. All three of these scales of influence are relevant to creating good maps. Within this concept gallery, we will discuss type roughly within those categories, although they overlap. We will first focus on characteristics of type and look at their application primarily within labeling. Next, we will discuss the characteristics of text (as opposed to type) that affect design, and focus specifically on positioning of text (in terms of labeling). Third, we will take the opportunity to discuss spatial organization in terms of legends and marginalia, since they relate to, and influence, the spatial organization and visual hierarchy of a map.

Type Characteristics

Type can serve several different functions within a map. The most familiar is its literal function, i.e., conveying information through the words the type contains. However, characteristics of the type can also communicate information about the subject the type refers to. The type itself can become a map symbol that carries meaning. When using type within a data frame, often type characteristics will be used to reinforce the message being conveyed to the map reader through other types of symbolization. This reinforcement can be particularly useful when replicated in the map legend by focusing the user's attention on a subset of labels and thereby reducing the amount of time a user spends searching for particular features (Phillips et al. 1978). The variation between type characteristics can indicate either differences in kind, i.e nominal differences, or differences in rank or amount, i.e. ordinal differences. In this concept gallery section, we categorize various type characteristics as useful for providing nominal or ordinal information within maps, even though these are not firm categories always used for the type characteristics.

Nominal Type Characteristics
Nominal type characteristics are used to indicate differences in kind rather than differences in rank or amount. For example, if you need to label two linear features (e.g., rivers and roads), you might use a nominal type characteristic such as color hue to indicate that there are qualitative differences between them (e.g., blue type for the river labels and black type for road labels). Using type characteristics like this can improve the readability of your map. For example, in the figures below, it would be hard for the map reader to tell (at a glance) that two different types of features are labeled in the map on the left. But it is much more clear in the map on the right.

An example of a map without differentiated text to label different types of features.An example of using different type hues to label different kinds of map features
Figure The map on the left does not use any type characteristics to differentiate between map feature type labels. The map on the right uses color hue to show the qualitative difference between the two kinds of features.

There are three primary type characteristics that work well for showing nominal differences between map features: typeface, style and hue. Above is an example of using hue to distinguish text in a nominal, or qualitative, way. Below we discuss typefaces and their styles in a bit more depth.

Typeface is the term we use to describe the design of the letterforms (i.e., all the letters in the alphabet, numbers and other punctuation characters). You are probably familiar with several common typefaces simply from your experience working with word-processing software (e.g., Times New Roman, Helvetica or Arial).


Do you know the difference between the terms typeface and font? The typeface is what you see, it is the design or the look of the type. The font is the delivery mechanism, or the physical collection of all the glyphs. One analogy is to music: If you hear a tune, you refer to it as a song, not as an MP3. Similarly, when referring to the design of the type the proper term is typeface, rather than font. Today our digital typefaces are nearly inseparable from the fonts we use to produce them. Despite this, typographers insist on the distinction, so it may be one you want to consider. The FontFeed, a site dedicated to all things typography, has a more complete discussion of this distinction.

Using a particular typeface can give your map a certain look or feel. They are often used as signature components of map design. For example, part of the reason National Geographic maps have a common recognizable look is because they consistently use a particular typeface (in addition to numerous other stylistic consistencies). In order to discuss typefaces it is useful to classify them based on some of their design characteristics. Though there are several ways of classifying type, a primary division is made between serif and sans serif typefaces. The individual letters of serif typefaces have finishing strokes at the end of most letters, (like in the Georgia typeface being used within these parentheses). Sans serif fonts, on the other hand, do not have these finishing strokes, (like the Verdana typeface being used within these parentheses). Beyond serifs or lack thereof, classifications of type are based on the contrast of the stroke weight, the axis of the type, the shape and size of the serifs, and/or the shape of the characters. Serif typefaces are most commonly classed into Humanist or Old Style, Transitional, Modern, and Slab Serif typefaces. Similarly, san serif typefaces are placed into Humanist, Transitional, and Geometric classes. See figures below for examples.

Examples of humanist, transitional and modern typefacesEnter image and alt text here. No sizes!
Figure  Sabon, at left, is a humanist (or old style) typeface. These typefaces are related to movement of the hand (with axes of curved characters inclined to the left) and moderate contrasts in stroke. Baskerville, second from left, is a transitional typeface, which have straighter vertical axes, higher contrasts in stroke, and are more abstract. Modern typefaces, like Bodoni, use even more extreme contrasts in stroke, and are very abstract with straight axes and thin serifs. Slab serifs, like Clarendon above, use bold heavy serifs, and are often used for larger decorative purposes since the serifs look poor at smaller point sizes.
Examples of humanist, transitional and geometric sans serif classes of type
Figure Sans serif typefaces also have a humanist class that use some contrast in stroke and less abstract shapes, like Gill Sans above left. Helvetica is a transitional sans serif typeface, that is more abstract in shape with a more vertical axis and has a uniform stroke. Geometric sans serif typefaces, like Futura, at right, are based on geometric forms.

These type classifications fit roughly with time periods they were first created within. This clever animation by Ben Barrett-Forrest, The History of Typography, reviews these classifications and provides a bit of history on their evolution.


When choosing a typeface it is best to consider not only the formal qualities of the type (e.g., serif or san-serif, humanist or modern) in order to fit with the content of the text, but also the history and current connotations of the typeface. If you are familiar with discussions on typefaces at all, you may have heard of the almost universal disgust of the Papyrus or Comic Sans typefaces from graphic designers. This has a lot to do with their abundant casual use by non-designers (often for purposes the fonts weren't meant for), but it is also due in part to neither of them being considered high quality typefaces. More professional, well-respected typefaces are designed for use in various situations (or reserved for particular instances), and are usually parts of families of related typefaces with different styles. Styles of type include roman, italic, bold, small capitals, and more. Type families consist of several versions of the typeface, usually in roman, italic and bold versions, but also sometimes in light, condensed, small capitals and/or combined versions of those options (e.g. bold italic), among others.

As mentioned above, typefaces and styles can be used in addition to hue to show qualitative differences between type. In cartography, especially with more referential maps that contain more labeling, it is often the case that we need many different ways to distinguish labels from each other. Maps can utilize many of these differences in type characteristics together in order to create nominal (and ordinal) differences among labels and areas of text. It is important that differences in text are clear and meaningful, but at the same time not compete for attention. We will discuss creating a hierarchy among labeling and text in maps in the next section on ordinal type characteristics, but let us first discuss mixing typefaces and styles here.  Then, after reviewing type characteristics that can communicate order or rank, and contribute to creating a hierarchy, we can look at some examples of typography in maps.

Mixing typefaces

If you have a complex map with a lot of labeling, a layout with multiple frames, information graphics, boxes of text, or even use a title and/or headings in addition to your text within your data frame(s), there will likely be times where you want to use multiple typefaces. As Ellen Lupton describes in her book, and website of the same name, Thinking with Type, mixing typefaces should be similar to making a salad. "Start with a small number of elements representing different colors, tastes and textures. Strive for contrast rather than harmony, looking for emphatic differences rather than mushy transitions." And so it is with type in maps. If you use two different typefaces within a map, you want your readers to be able to distinguish those typefaces and understand their uses, rather than look like a mistake. This is why you may have heard of the recommendation to use a serif with a sans serif when combining two typefaces (outside of a type family). Serifs and sans serifs are fairly easy to distinguish. Using two serifs together or sans serif typefaces together may be too vague of a difference unless further style differences are used. And if you use more than two typefaces (without differences in style) it is likely your reader won't understand the various meanings. So it is a good rule of thumb to use as few different type families as possible. If one family of typefaces is enough (one with a variety of weights and styles) then use just one, otherwise try to limit yourself to two type families that are not too similar (e.g. a serif and sans serif). When designing for the web it is common to use serif for headlines and sans serif for bodies of text (e.g. look at the main section headings and body copy of this web page). But, when designing for print the opposite is more common: Serif fonts are used in larger blocks of text and sans serifs are used for headings (look through books with heavy text). 

Try This!

Enter image and alt text here. No sizes!

Type Connection is a creative and informative online game about mixing - or matching up - typefaces. After choosing from five given typefaces, you get to play matchmaker and find another typeface that it would work well with. The game is not only interesting, but provides examples, descriptions of the typefaces, and reasons why two typefaces may or may not work well together. Type Connection is the MFA thesis project of Aura Seltzer.

Learn more about mixing typefaces

If you would like to read more about combining typefaces, read Adobe's Inspire magazine article, 8 Type Tips, Smashing magazine's Best Practices of Combining Typefaces, or for type selection and pairing primarily for the web, Jason Santa Maria's article On Web Typography.

Ordinal Type Characteristics
Ordinal type characteristics are usually used to indicate differences in the amount or importance of something rather than differences in kind. For example, you might choose to make the labels of larger cities larger and smaller cities smaller, especially if the amount of space on the map that is available for labels is limited (which it often is). There are four type characteristics that work well for showing ordinal differences: type size, type weight, type value and type case.

Type size is often used to denote the relative sizes of features. Note that the type sizes are not proportional to any data values, as symbols that use size may be. Rather, type sizes are often used to show differences in rank between a relatively small number of size classes. Typically, in design for print, you should not use type that is smaller than 5 points, running blocks of text usually use 9 to 11 point size text, and captions 6 to 8 point size. Of course size of type for map labeling will depend on many factors, including the size of the map, space in the map, number of labels and levels of labels in the hierarchy, the audience, medium in which it will be viewed, and typeface used. Point size for type refers to the distance from the baseline to the top of a capital. Two different typefaces, both viewed at the same point size, may look different in size because their x-heights differ. The x-height is the height of the main body of the lowercase letters in a given typeface, or specifically, the height of the lowercase x. When you are choosing type sizes for different feature classes, a good rule of thumb is to use a difference of at least 2 points for different classes (when other type characteristics are not being varied). Readers will generally not be able to tell smaller differences apart, and barely noticeable or arbitrary size differences will make a design look tentative or unclear.

Type weight refers to the thickness of the stroke in the type, and is expressed with terms like bold, semibold, light, ultralight, etc. Heavier type of the same point size will appear larger than lighter weight type. Type weight can be used to emphasize or de-emphasize more or less important features aiding the creation of a visual hierarchy within a set of labels.

Type value can also be used for indicating ordinal differences. Value refers to the lightness or darkness of the type, regardless of the color hue you are working with. (Refer back to the Concept Gallery for Lesson 2 if you want to read more about the three perceptual dimensions of color: hue, saturation, and value.) Higher value type is lighter type, and lower value type is darker type. Whether you choose higher or lower value type for features that are larger or are more important will depend on what the background color of your map is. Higher value type will stand out more on darker backgrounds, while lower value type will stand out more on lighter backgrounds. The higher the contrast between the type and its background the higher in the visual hierarchy the type will be. Value can be useful to emphasize features as more important, or de-emphasize type you would like to sit further back in the visual hierarchy. Value can be of use when size is already being used among labels, or when using size may confuse readers (e.g. when labeling large background areas that don't need emphasis, smaller sizes may make the labels appear to be labeling a smaller feature. Larger but lower contrast labels may be more appropriate for larger features that are not important for emphasis).

Cartographers can also use type case to make a distinction between different features, e.g. capital cities vs. other cities). Labels that are set only in uppercase letters stand out visually from mixed case labels. However, uppercase text is more difficult to read than mixed case type (because they have fewer distinguishing characteristics than lowercase letters), so it is generally a good idea to use this type characteristic sparingly. Some type families have a small caps version of the typeface where the capitals are sized to match the x-height of the lowercase letters, and integrate more seamlessly with lowercase lettering. Small capitals are also a type characteristic that can be used for nominal differences in type.

An example of different type sizes applied to a mapAn example of type case used as an ordinal type characteristics in a map
Figure Examples of some ordinal type characteristics: At left, larger type size is used for cities with populations of more than 200,000 and a smaller type size for the smaller city labels. At right, type case is used to differentiate capital city labels from other city labels.

Now that we have reviewed a number of the ways to distinguish type for different features both nominally and ordinally, let us look at some examples of typography in maps. The first two are reference maps that contain labels for several different levels of geographic features, the third is a thematic map with a lot of labeling, and the fourth map is a typographic map, using only type to create an artistic reference map. The map below, showing oyster appellations in Northern Puget Sound, provides an example of labeling various areas (and points) with both nominal and ordinal differences.

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Figure Detailed portion of the map Oyster Appellations of the Pacific Northwest. Several type characteristics, including hue, case, weight, size, style and typeface, are being used in combination to differentiate labels, both nominally and ordinally, and create a hierarchy of clearly labeled features. Color hue and saturation, and type size, are used to emphasize the name of the oyster varieties since they are the subject of the map. Small caps, hue, italics, weight, size and typeface are used to nominally distinguish the features in the base map.
Image credit: Adam Wilbert, CartoGaia

The reference map below shows labeling for a hierarchy of roads, and also labels for points and areas.

Detail view of The Asheville Map showing variation in type characteristics
Figure Detailed portion of The Asheville Map. Variation in type value, size, case, style and typeface are used to label a diverse set of reference map features. Notice how a higher value (or transparency) is being used to de-emphasize the neighborhood labels, while their larger size and spacing suggest a larger general area is being labeled.
Image credit: Bruce and Nora Daniel, Best Local Map

Many thematic maps do not require much labeling because it is often not necessary to label the enumeration units or symbols the data is represented within. For example, a choropleth of the United States, for an audience in the U.S., would not require labels of the states. But there are times labels are useful or, like in the example below, additional reference-like features are also part of the map that require labeling.

Portion of Submarine Cable map showing thematic map using one type family for all type on map.
Figure Detailed portion of Submarine Cable Map 2014. This thematic map uses one type family, PT Sans, through the entire map. Type characteristics used to show variation among features include size, case, weight, and style. See the link for the full size zoomable map showing the map in a layout with information graphics and accompying text (in another typeface).
Image credit: TeleGeography

Typography, when very well done, cannot only communicate the name of the features being labeled, but also the shape, size, location and importance of those features in respect to each other. Typographic maps demonstrate this by only using type to communicate the map's data. Like the figure below, typographic maps are usually reference maps, but they can also be thematic. See a thematic typographic map of surnames in the U.S. at National Geographic, where the size of the type represents the number of people in that state with that name, and the color symbolizes its origin.

Detail of London typographic map
Figure Detailed portion of London Typographic Map. This typographic map uses only type with varying characteristics to construct the physical features of this London reference map. Two type families are used, a sans serif with a narrow style for the streets (with various colors and sizes for hierarchy), and a serif typeface is used for water and areal features.
Image credit: Axis Maps

Recommended Readings

If you are interested in investigating typography, in general, further, Thinking with Type: A Critical Guide for Designers, Writers, Editors, & Students, 2nd ed. by Ellen Lupton is a straightforward text with many examples and tips. Lupton's website of the same name contains much of the book's content (minus the more contextual essays).

If you are interested in more examples of well-designed maps (typographically and otherwise), consider The Atlas of Design, Volume One and/or Volume Two, in which several of the above examples are featured.

Also, have you seen the feature-length movie, Helvetica? It is a suprisingly interesting documentary about the proliferation of the use of the Helvetica typeface, with commentary on modern culture and graphic design.