German industrial designer, Dieter Rams, once asked himself a question, 'Is my design good design?' The answer formed the basis for his renowned ‘ten principles of good design’.
Inspired by this we have put together our own list of cartographic design principles to promote good map design.
They are ‘what works best for us’ but are also intended as a useful guide for anybody making a map, from Ordnance Survey customers to budding neo-cartographers.
It is certainly not our intention to lecture others on what is right or wrong. The purpose of our principles is to offer some useful guidelines that we believe are relevant to map design and in many cases will stimulate better cartography.
It is important to remember that these are principles and not rules; there are no rules as such. Anything goes, but the final distinction is between a map that works well and a map that doesn’t.
Each principle is supported by a real example of how we have applied it to one of our own maps.
Through the correct application of cartography a well-designed map communicates its message clearly and provides a pleasing user experience. We believe that the following eight principles are fundamental to successful map design:
This is absolutely vital to the success of any map! An effectively designed map is one in which the intended message is clearly communicated to the map user. This is only possible by fully understanding what that message is and how the map is intended to be used.
To achieve maximum clarity a map should be designed from the very beginning with its final display medium in mind. There are numerous output formats for maps and various types of media on which they can be disseminated. Each has its own merits and its own limitations so there needs to be sound consideration and a valid reason for the choice that is made.
The aim here is to draw attention to certain elements of the map and push those of less importance further down the visual plane - although certain features are less important they may still be required, if not then they should be removed. This helps the user differentiate between map features and helps them comprehend the map's message effectively.
Cartography aims to portray spatial information in an appropriate way in order to transform information into knowledge. The inclusion of unnecessary information makes this process less effective and one should always assess that information’s value to the user against map clutter and confusion.
All map elements need to be legible, meaning that they are readable, understandable and recognisable. All need to be large enough and clear enough relative to the viewing scale and the media on which the final map will be displayed.
Consistency provides a map with balance. It enables features to be perceived as being organised into groups and it allows maps themselves to belong to a family of products through a shared identity.
Making maps and making geographic data and accompanying stylesheets easily obtainable and usable is imperative to successful use. Accessibility factors to consider in the design process include distribution formats, user disabilities, cost and intuitiveness in use.
Composition concerns the arrangement of all the different visual elements, from the map’s title to the scale bar. It is both how the map is structured and positioned, and how the map works alongside any additional information. All elements of the map should work together to provide a clear and complete understanding to the user. Their style should also be harmonious or complementary.