Map Elements

Learn more about color, layout, and map projections.

View the Introduction to Map Elements to learn more about map elements that are found on most maps.


  • Dent B. Cartography: Thematic Map Design. McGraw Hill, 5th Edition; 1999. ISBN: 0697384950.
  • DiBiase D. Nature of Geographic Information—An Open Geospatial Textbook. Pennsylvania State University; 2011.
  • CDC. (2013). Epi Info Resources for Creating Public Health Maps.
  • Koch T. Cartographies of Disease: Maps, Mapping, and Medicine. ESRI Press, 1st Edition; 2005.
  • Krygier J, Wood D. Making Maps: A Visual Guide to Map Design for GIS. The Guilford Press; 2005.
  • Monmonier M. How to Lie with Maps. University of Chicago Press, 2nd Edition; 1996
  • Slocum TA, McMaster RB, Kessler FC, and Howard HH. Thematic Cartography and Geovisualization, 3rd Edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson, Prentice Hall; 2009.


  • Colors may have cultural, personal, or emotional meanings. Consider your audience.
  • Colors display differently based on the presentation medium. Check Cynthia Brewer’s web tool for advice on which colors print or project best.
  • Avoid using green and red in the same map. Approximately 4% of the U.S. population is color vision impaired and cannot distinguish these two colors.
  • If you may need to print or copy your map in black and white as well as color, check ColorBrewer to determine which color schemes will work (sequential schemes are better).


  • Use simple, easy-to-read fonts. Use a mix of capital and lower-case letters. Never use smaller than 5-6 point font.
  • Title of map: indicates map theme – WHAT, WHERE, WHEN
  • Legend title: identifies variables. Every feature (layer) in a map should be represented in the legend.
  • Maps should stand alone. Provide adequate detail to describe the content.


  • Basic elements – neat line, title, scale bar, north arrow, legend, logo, source, classification method.
  • Scale [PDF-1.7M]
  • Visual balance (between map & other elements)
  • Visual hierarchy (appropriate size of font & symbol sizes)
  • Visual contrast (using appropriate colors)
  • Provision of context or reference info (selecting appropriate layers from data layers)

Map Projections

  • Projections transform the curved, three-dimensional surface of the planet into a flat, two-dimensional plane. The proper projection to use for your map will vary depending on the map’s focus area.
  • SADD: all 2D projections distort either Shape, Area, Distance or Direction.
  • The choice of projection may be dictated by the business need of the map. If the map is attempting to show distance from patients to providers, then an equidistant projection may be appropriate to preserve distance. If the map is attempting to show density of cases, or number of cases per unit area, then an equal area projection may be more appropriate.
  • Detailed descriptions of various projections