Cartographic labeling

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Cartographic labeling is a form of typography and strongly deals with form, style, weight and size of type on a map. Essentially, labeling denotes the correct way to label features (points, arcs, or polygons).


In type, form describes anything from lengths between letters to the case and color of the font. Form works well for both nominal (qualitative) and ordered (quantitative) data.


Italics describe the sloping of letters setting it apart from non-italicized words (or vice versa). Using italics on a map also slightly decreases the size of the font as it shapely squeezes it around features. When introduced, the idea was to condense the text by italicizing it, thus creating more text on the pages. The slope in the font was created to mimic the flow of cursive handwriting and thus, the angles of italic letters range anywhere from 11 to 30 degree and consequently, serifs are absent.

As a general rule on maps, the smaller the point size of a font, the more condensed and difficult it becomes to read. In an example of labeling a globe, ocean features are generally italicized to give an obvious discernment. In cartographic conventions, natural features are adequate in italics such as the aforementioned hydrographic features.


Case is another way of emphasizing—whether it be uppercase, lowercase or a combination of the two (or even different size points within the same case). In general, uppercase fonts denote a higher emphasis, but according to Bringhurst (1996), an uppercase initial of a word has the seniority; but the lowercase letters have the control. In other words, the strong boldness of a larger letter draws the audience into its viewpoint. The lowercase letters contain the information needed to convey further. When viewing text on maps, it is still crucial to grain the audience’s attention as a way of informing them of something other than the map(s). As for design, uppercase is much harder to read than mixed-use. In the globe example, mountain ranges should be in uppercase. When showing a larger scale, such as a region of the United States, it is useful to classify different case sizes. States should be in uppercase, with counties in small uppercase, and cities in lowercase.


Color (value and hue) alterations also allow for a further emphasis on certain features. By changing the color of the font to correspond to the feature it is representing, the two become joined. If the cartographer were to label a river, the extra emphasis would be inherent if the font chosen was blue, to correspond with the blue feature (arc). On the contrary though, this is not always necessarily the case. If the cartographer chose a color of font for an ocean feature (polygon), blue would not be the obvious choice because it would appear to be washed out and thus, no emphasis. In this case, it is useful to label the feature with a more rich, bolder color (such as black font on blue polygon).


The spacing of the letters on features also gives a more appealing map-—visually speaking. By enlarging the increments between each letter of a word, the word in turn, becomes more pronounced. In the case for a long arc feature (river), to add more emphasis on the label, the letters would need to be extended or stretched. On the other hand, in some cases, the letters would have to be condensed (shortened increment gaps) to give a more proportional label for a feature.



Main article: Serif

The type style affects to overall look of the map and is adequately used to symbolize nominal (qualitative) data within the map. In general, style amounts to the use of serifs versus sans serifs. A serif is, by definition, a cross-line at the end of a stroke along a letter. On a map, the text that is chosen should be consistent. Generally, serif fonts are utilized to give a more regimented block body of text—similar to those used in traditional printing. Serifs are more widely used for historical information or a historical map.

Sans serifs[edit]

Main article: Sans-serif

The serif counterpart is sans serifs (meaning without serifs). Sans serif fonts are the more modern of the two fonts. But choosing one over the other requires that the audience will be able to read the text without strain. Generally, sans serifs are not for large bodies of text in print but instead, are ideal for the internet. On the same facet, sans serifs are optimal for a more-clean appearance in such places like a header, title, or legend. In map design, it’s useful to also use sans serifs for natural features.


The type weight provides a substantial amount of emphasis of the cartographer’s choosing. Weight is important because it involves the difference between bold and regular contrast. The degree of power that is increased with weight, must be proportional to the size of the letter. If not, a letter can be too intense and thus more difficult to read. Similarly, the spacing between the letters must be extended to provide adequate to read smoothly. Bold text creates direct attention to the eyes of the audience to pronounce certain information from cartographer.


The type size of fonts stresses the importance and emphasis of the intended map. Size is expressed in points through the American point system with 1 point equaling 1/72" of vertical height. Furthermore, points also show the spacing between letters, words and lines. A larger size implies more importance or a greater relative quantity; smaller denotes less importance or less quantity. For design purposes, text using a size of less than 6 point is difficult to read. On the contraire, text that is larger than 26 point is too cumbersome for a standard-size paper format. For titles, a font larger than 10 point generally allows for a good working title. Also, it is important to use at least a 2 point difference between type sizes to allow the audience to see subtle changes.


With all of the type in order and adequately designed, the final step is the correct placement of labels. Placement describes each feature and its subsequent label(s). For area features, it is important to curve and extend the spaces to properly fill in the areas enough that the audience can discern different areas. As a cartographic convention, labels are usually as horizontal as possible with no upside-down labels. For line features, it is useful to allow the label to conform to the line pattern. Similar to a river (e.g. geographic features), the label should flow around the edges along the line being careful not to have the letters too extended. For point patterns, the minor patterns to follow include keeping labels on/in their respective features (e.g. coastal cities with labels on the land and not ocean). The major pattern for points is the placement along the point itself. The most widely accepted pattern is to start at the center and work outward towards the northeast quadrant from the point. Many studies have been researched to address the correct strategy for the placements. The point feature cartographic label placement (PFCLP) problem offers the solutions when point boxes overlap. Many software features automatically choose label placements for the cartographer, but these are not always a fail-safe option. The use of good judgment and cartographic conventions are important to gain the best placement.

See also[edit]


  • Bringhurst, Robert. 1996. The Elements of Typographic Style. 2nd ed. Hartley & Marks, Publishers, Point Roberts, WA. p.p. 351.
  • Evans, Poppy. 2004. Forms Folds Sizes:. Rockport Publishers, Inc., Gloucester, Massachusetts. p.p. 264.
  • Kameda, T. and K. Imai. 2003. Map label placement for points and curves. IEICE Transactions of Fundamentals of Electronics Communications and Computer Sciences. E86A(4):835-840.
  • Krygier, John and Denis Wood. 2005. Making Maps. The Guilford Press, New York, NY and London. p.p. 303.
  • Lai, Poh-Chin and Anthony Gar-On Yeh. 2004. Assessing the Effectiveness of Dynamic Symbols in Cartographic Communication. The Cartographic Journal. 41(3):229-244.
  • McClean, Ruari. 1997. Jan Tschichold: a life in typography. Princeton Architectural Press, New York, New York. p.p. 128.
  • Morison, Stanley. 1967. First Principles of Typography. Cambridge University Press, London. p.p. 24.
  • Ribeiro Glaydston and Luiz Lorena. 2006. Heuristics for cartographic label placement problems. Computers & Geosciences. 32:739-748.
  • Rosen, Ben. 1976. Type and Typography: The Designer’s Type Book. Van Nostrand Reinhold Co., New York, NY. p.p. 406.
  • Slocum, Terry A. 1999. Thematic Cartography and Visualization. Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, NJ. p.p. 293.
  • Solomon, Martin. 2004. The Art of Typography: an introduction to Typo.icon.ography. Art Direction Book Company, New York, NY. p.p. 256.
  • Wagner, F., A. Wolff, V. Kapoor, and T. Strijk. 2001. Three Rules Suffice for Good Label Placement. Algorithmica. 30:334-349.