Top tips to create a Martian map symbol

We’ve had lots of interest from those of you wanting to enter The Times Mars map symbol competition to design a map symbol for our new Mars map. Chris Wesson, our cartographer who created the Mars map, advises on how to create the perfect map symbol. 


As Steve Backshall said in a previous post, ‘If you’ve studied or used a paper map before, you’ll be aware of OS map symbols. The symbols help us to understand what appears on the map and gives us a useful guide to what we can expect to see when we’re out and about exploring Britain.’

But map symbols can also depict things you cannot see on the ground such as scientific data or historic sites without remains. Map symbols are commonly used as a method of showing location and in our latest symbol competition we are asking for your ideas to create a symbol to represent the location of landing sites on Mars.

A map symbol is arguably the most efficient representation of a real world feature (or map label).
The very best symbols are immediately understood without reference to a legend and often in symbol design ‘less is more’ – the simpler the symbol then often the easier it is to read and understand. Overly complex symbols generally do not work at a regular map symbol size. Many map symbols are less than 1cm square.

Although texture and orientation are sometimes a part of the cartographer’s toolkit, in this instance we would suggest entrants should concentrate on the best symbolic representation of a landing site and when depicting this in their design should consider primarily colour, shape and size.

For example, on our ‘make do’ symbol we used the shape of a landing craft, which has immediate association to Mars landings, and decided it was clearer without encasing. We used a vibrant red colour because red is strongly associated with Mars and because it stands out well against our backdrop. We also knew that if we added descriptive labels in the same colour as the symbol then they (along with the symbols) would both complement and contrast well with the black text of the place names. But even ours is arguably too detailed for a ‘perfect’ map symbol.

Planetary scientist Dr. Peter Grindrod adds, ‘The symbol is going to have to stand the test of time – space missions and rovers take a long time to plan, launch, and then finally travel to Mars. So a good symbol to me would be one that is not too evocative of a single past mission, or done in a way that is fashionable now but might appear dated in 5 years.’

For more cartographic design tips, visit our website.

The Mars map symbol competition is open until 31 March. The winner will receive a one-off printed version of the map, featuring their symbol. They’ll also get a guided tour of our office in Southampton to see what happens behind the scenes. To enter, visit The Times, or find out more on our website.

You can also see the map in full and download a copy on our Flickr page.

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