Map Font Basics (Article 1): Typography

Font FamiliesTypography is the art and methods of arranging type, type design, and modifying type glyphs. 
Type glyphs are created and modified using a variety of illustration techniques. The arrangement of type involves the selection of typefaces, point size, line length, leading (line spacing), letter-spacing (tracking), style, effects, and kerning.  In typography, kerning is the process of adjusting letter spacing in a proportional font. In a well-kerned font, the two-dimensional blank spaces between each pair of letters all have similar area.

Unaware Readers = Happy Maps

In traditional typography, text is composed to create a readable, coherent, and visually satisfying whole that works invisibly, without the awareness of the reader. Even distribution with a minimum of distractions and anomalies are aimed at producing clarity and transparency.  The goal is legibility and readability. Typography for Cartography can be more complex than traditional typography because of complex text placement and potential density of features, visual hierarchy, overall look and feel, the fact that text often represent features as symbols in their own right, and the interplay between text and other multi-layered map features such as symbols, background colors, and textures. However, the overall goal of legibility and readability remains the same.
Felix Arnold (2004) lists several ways in which cartography differs from traditional typography: 


  • On maps and plans, text competes with the graphics. In books and magazines, they normally work alongside one another.
  • Cannot be placed over backgrounds that share the same color as the letters.
  • Typically placed over many various types of backgrounds – which are usually dark – instead of a common white background
  • Small text can be difficult to read when placed over complex, textured backgrounds.
  • The eye reads text on a map letter-by-letter, instead of through word shapes.
  • Single lines of text often run across the page diagonally, or on a curve.
  • Type size and style changes quite a lot on maps.
  • Much map text is set in quite small point sizes.

Legibility of Type on Maps

Legibility is the quality of the typeface design and readability with the design of the printed page. Place names should be set in a typeface of normal weight in lower case with an initial capital. However, very difficult names need to be copied accurately, capitals are recommended(1).  As cartographic methods became more mechanical in the mid-20th century, the Leroy Lettering System was developed to help cartographers produce consistent, legible text. The Leroy type style is popular on maps of that era.  Today, the font “Sublime” closely mimics the Leroy style. 


(1) Phillips, R. J., Noyes, L. and Audley, R. J. (1977). The legibility of type on maps. Ergonomics, 20, 671-682.

Type Basics



Serifs are semi-structural details on the ends of some of the strokes that make up letters and symbols (also known as Roman). 



A typeface without serifs is called sans-serif, from the French sans, meaning “without” (also known as Gothic). In traditional print, sans-serif fonts are more typically used for headlines than for body text. Sans-serif fonts have become the de facto standard for body text on-screen, especially online. 


Font Families

A font family is a group of fonts, designed to be used in combination and exhibiting similarities in design. One member of the family may be italic, another bold, another condensed or using small caps.

Font Variants

The font variant specifies whether the text is to be rendered using a normal, bold, italic, or oblique face.

Weight, Stretch, Size

The font weight refers to the boldness or lightness of the glyphs used to render the text. The font stretch indicates the desired amount of condensing or expansion in the glyphs used to render the text. The font size refers to the size of the font from baseline to baseline.

How to Font

Digital fonts are created using specialized software.  A basic understanding of how fonts are created can help the cartographer in their understanding of typography. While font creation is beyond the scope of this lesson, an excellent tutorial is available from [Divide By Zero] Fonts and the Tom 7 Institute of Computer Knowledge (TICK).  Divide By Zero is my favorite site for free and very fun fonts.

Map Font Selection

Cartographic convention says to pair a Sarif type family and a Sans-sarif type family on your map. Within each family different variants, sizes, and colors are applied.  Most professional cartographers have their favorite pairings.  For example, on the CartoTalk forum, the following were listed:

Frutiger with Meridien
Rotis and Univers
Myriad (sans) and Kepler (serif) and/or Adobe Jensen (serif) (traditional look)
Nueva (serif) and Tekton (sans) (modern look)


The following cartographic conventions should be considered in your font selection (Arnold, 2004):
  • The typeface must be legible in small sizes
  • Typeface must also be slightly narrow, to avoid line lengths running too long
  • Different styles and weights of the typeface must be clearly differentiated from one another
  • Individual letters must also all appear different from one another, to help minimize misreadings and misunderstandings
  • Typeface must be able to form good word shapes, which will also directly increase legibility

TypeBrewer is a highly recommended place to begin your selection of type for your map.  In the TypeBrewer system, “Formal-B” and “Informal-B” are good choices if you are using pre-loaded system fonts.  “Formal B” is a good choice for web fonts.  Other listed type schemes require that you obtain fonts from external sources. These provide excellent solutions for cartography, though they can sometimes be expensive.
There are many sources of fonts available for free and for purchase via the web. Some designed specifically for cartography are: and Cisalpin (the “ideal typeface” for cartography). 


The following table presents the lettering conventions of a few cartography publishing houses (The Guild Handbook of Scientific Illustration, Second Edition): 

The next article in this series “Map Fonts” deals with the conventions of text placement in cartography.

Role of Sketching in Map Design Layouts

Sketch map figure from Slocum 2005

Hand-drawn sketching plays an important role in the digital arts. The larger a project is, and the more concepts a client will need to see, the more sketching will prove its worth in your design process. Consider using rough sketches for composition or layout options in your next project. Or push yourself to do a handful of thumbnail sketches before firing up your cartography software of choice. Create ten well thought out map design options (not seven to make three look good).  Select three and refine each.  Select one for final design.

In Role of Sketching in the Design Process, Sean Hodge discusses sketching for rapid concept development in traditional design.  This same process should be considered in cartography.

Cartographer as Designer – It’s a Process

Example Map by XNR Productions

Those who design maps for use by others engage in a specialized form of communication.  They create images to represent physical and phenomena in three-dimensional space, but they create them on two-dimensional surfaces. To do this effectively, a cartographer must understand not only the phenomena on which the maps are based, but also how to work with them to communicate information to others.  No amount of skill with computer software can rescue a map that displays a lack of understanding of the cartographic design process. Read more

ScapeToad Cartogram Software

ScapeToad is an interesting, free, stand-alone cartogram software for Mac, Windows (and available platform independent). ScapeToad 1.1 is available for download under a GPL license.

Classical thematic mapping displays spatial patterns of theme or series data depicted on familiar reference maps of standard land-area polygons, which are typically distorted only by the selected projection. A cartogram is a map in which some thematic mapping variable – such as travel time or Gross National Product – is substituted for land area. The geometry or space of the map is distorted in order to convey the information of this alternate variable. There are two main types of cartograms: area and distance cartograms. To see examples, provides a nice collection of cartograms.

(from the ScapeToad website) “The visualization of social phenomena through classical thematic mapping often leads to unsatisfying representations… Cartograms are a well-known technique used to compensate for this inconvenience by breaking the link between statistical regions and their topographical areas. Consequently, this liberates one visual variable (that of polygon size) for a more relevant use, such as the representation of the relative social importance of these regions (usually measured by the size of their populations), while leaving intact their topological relations.”

Flex Projector for Interactive Creation of Map Projections

Flex Projector is an interesting new program for anyone who has ever been interested in map projections. The program provides a great hands-on interface for understanding more about how map projections work as well as to create your very own. Alpha 0.32 was released 1 April 2008 for Linux, Mac and Windows by Bernhard Jenny, Oregon State University, and Tom Patterson, US National Park Service.

According to their website ( Flex Projector is a freeware, cross-platform application for creating custom world map projections. The intuitive interface allows users to easily modify dozens of popular world map projections—the possibilities range from slight adjustments to making completely new projections. Flex Projector is intended as a tool for practicing mapmakers and students of cartography. It took a couple tries to get the shape files to show up in the map window, but once they did I was off and running. Very ingenious application. I think this will become standard material for every introduction to cartography class out there. Its well worth a look for all mapping professionals.