© 2019, Sea Lion Press.

  • facebook-square
  • Twitter Square

So You Want to Make A Map: Part VII

By Alex Richards


If you've been following along with this series, by this point you'll have what could be described as a full colour outline map- potentially quite aesthetic, but requiring external explanation in order to fully understand. As such, in this last part I'll be discussing the easiest way to add information: the incorporation of text into your map.

Text and Style

Text can be one of the key ways to indicate style and period for your map, and is the design element that has shown perhaps the most change over the last centuries as the creation of maps for commercial purposes has moved from woodblock through engraving and lithoprinting and into the digital age, always reflecting the changing tastes of the day.

As a general rule, however, maps from before the 19th Century have an aversion to blank space. The earliest woodblocks, as much for practical reasons as anything else, use large bold lettering to name nations, regions or continents, and fill the gaps with towns or monsters as appropriate. Later engravers took great care to ensure that almost every square millimetre was filled with rivers, mountains, forests, cities, towns, bishoprics, points of historic interest, strategic forts and major lordships. Regional maps will frequently depict every named settlement with only a rough indication of relative scale. Two goals drove this- to make the map look as complex as possible and so justify a higher pricetag for the end product, and the fact that in the era before scientific mapping depicting absolute locations was often an impossibility, thus leading to the use of more towns in the correct relative positions to help delineate borders.

The 19th Century saw two big changes. The first was the dawn of scientific cartography through the work of the Cassini family in France and the Ordnance Survey in Britain in the late 18th Century, and the resulting availability of highly detailed and accurate local area maps. At the same time, the increasing push to educate the lower classes created a need for printed material that could be mass produced cheaply and convey a desired message in an easy to understand format.

For maps, this led both to the number of cities being depicted on continental or regional scale maps being cut down, and to the increasing use of infographics to highlight key points of interest, trends that continued into the 20th Century and meshed with the streamlined design aesthetic of the 60s to reach their pinnacle in the standard 'five-colour' wall maps many of you will probably be familiar with from the classroom. While more detailed 'busy' maps can are still sold commercially today, many of these are deliberately archaic in style to appeal to the collector's market.

Choosing a Font

The style of font you use also plays into the aesthetics. As a general rule, san-serif fonts such as Arial, Calibri or Verdana give a clean, modern look, while serif fonts such as Constantia, Book Antiqua or Times New Roman will give you a more archaic pre-WWII look. Certain fonts in particular can evoke certain moods or styles. Euphemia has a slightly Art-Deco look to it that complements any 30s-era map. Century Gothic has a similar mid-century feel but tending more to the 50s, while Batang and Monospace look somewhat like they've been written on a typewriter. Cloister Black can also serve as an acceptable stand in for Fraktur if a pre-WWII German map style is desired, though its more common use as an 'Olde English' font hinders legibility when used outside of title headings.

Fancier font effects should, as a general rule, be used sparingly if at all. While Monotype Corsiva is legible and has a degree of fluidity that lends itself to an 18th Century 'engraved' look, most 'handwriting' fonts are illegible at smaller font sizes and look unprofessional when this isn't the case- the once ubiquitous Lucinda Handwriting in particular. There are a number of other fonts which produce a similar effect- slightly 'off' looking to the average reader, and immediately cringe inducing to students of graphic design- papyrus, mistral and the much maligned comic sans being among these. Most fonts marketed as being 'Wild West', 'Art Deco' or 'Olde Worlde' work best when only used as headings, while the ubiquitous faux-Cyrillic fonts used by many for maps and cover art depicting the Soviet Union are both overused and an absolute headache for anyone who can read Russian due to the habit of using completely different Cyrillic characters to substitute for English ones.

It's also always worth remembering that additional fonts can be downloaded online, including specific ones with keyboard mapping for Greek, Cyrillic, Arabic and other non-Latin fonts. In addition, secondary keyboard mapping can be set up to allow for ease of inserting diacritic marks and accents- for a windows computer this can be found under the text menu of the control panel, and is something I will be happy to give more detailed assistance with in the forum thread accompanying this article.

The final point to consider is legibility. This is something that can easily be missed when working at large magnification on a computer, and as such it can be a good idea to periodically zoom out to a 1:1 view in order to check how easy it is to read your labels. I've found that point-8 font is about the lower limit that remains legible when producing maps for publication as ebooks or in print, with point-12 or 14 being a convenient standard font size, increasing the size or adding bold effects as desired for indicating things of greater importance such as country names, national capitals or points of interest. Label-dense areas will usually be less legible when zoomed out, and while curved text can help fill in a large area of blank space, it can increase the risk of a map appearing cluttered, especially if the individual letters are widely spaced with smaller labels between.


Discuss this article