The elements that go into making a beautiful and functional map are simple to outline, but difficult to follow. The goal of most cartographers is to create a blend of form and function that is balanced, attractive, and contains exactly the right amount of data.
1. Focus on purpose
Since maps tell a story, the cartographer must understand what that story is before beginning to create the map. The story told in antique maps is quite different from that of a modern demographic map. Every feature and line of a map should support the story. Maps are about spatial relationships, but it is the elements being related that tell the story. A map may tell a political, historical, military, cultural, economic, or geographical story. The relationships being depicted will strongly influence every other design choice.
2.Projection and orientation are key
Good maps have a projection that supports the map’s purpose, neither too large nor too small. While most maps are orientated with north at the top, some maps need a different orientation in order to better tell their story.
Master cartographers understand how to use color for both contrasting and complementing various elements in a map. There are some universal color codes, but it is more important that the colors of a map work in harmony to support the map’s purpose than that they follow convention. Likewise the font style, size and weight should enhance and support the map’s design rather than detract from it.
4. Feature the features
Natural features such as rivers, lakes, mountains, and deserts should only be included if they are part of the story being told. Likewise, cities, railroads, and other man-made features should support the map’s purpose or be left out. There needs to be a clear and consistent format for each type of feature. This will make the map easier to read and ensure that it is balanced to the eye.
Whether you are purchasing a map for its function or as an item to display, it is important to make sure that it follows all these rules of design. A badly designed map will be neither functional nor attractive.