The message in the map: New edition of cartography design book released

by Angela Rogers
February 19, 2016

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Cynthia A. Brewer, head of Penn State’s Department of Geography, has released a new edition of “Designing Better Maps: A Guide for GIS Users.” Published by Esri Press, the book guides mapmakers through the process of designing visually pleasing and easily understandable maps.

The second edition covers the basics of good cartography, including layout design; publishing and sharing maps; legends, scale, and projections; colors and labeling; and customizing symbols. In this second edition, Brewer has added a chapter on working with basemaps and adds guidance on mapping multiple variables together. She devotes a section to her ColorBrewer application, an online color selection tool that any mapmaker can use. ColorBrewer is now part of the new Esri ArcGIS Pro application.

“With this second edition, new mapmakers can learn the basics of good symbols and labels, and experienced mappers are invited to think systematically about mapping two data distributions together and anchoring that complexity with background location information,” Brewer said.

Example map

A map example from “Designing Better Maps: A Guide for GIS Users” shows how data can be represented visually. Circle size shows the number of students and circle color shows the expenditures per student. 

IMAGE: Penn State

What’s changed in cartography since the first edition came out 10 years ago? Three main things, Brewer explained, the rise of user-contributed information, continual updating, and user expectations for a dynamic interface.

“In general, the rise of user-contributed or volunteered geographic information means that databases and other map resources are continually changing. A map now provides the best available information versus the authoritative-and-fixed information. Users expect that, and any mapping platform developer must also anticipate that demand. Users also expect to be able to move seamlessly from large scale to small scale, zooming in or out. Each of those scale views has to be designed. Mapmakers must decide what to show and what to hide at each level, and design rules need to apply to this ever-changing context,” Brewer said.

“As a professor of geography, I teach introductory cartography and map design courses, and I advise graduate students researching cartography. Every fall, I revisit my course content and rework it to better reflect the software and tools students use. My work with the U.S. Geological Survey on The National Map over the last eight years has influenced my approach to landscape representation and automation as well. But I continue to question page layout and custom placement topics," Brewer said.

“Visual design is one of the main areas where all of the many mapping platforms, like Google, Bing, ArcGIS, OpenStreetMap, CartoDB, Mapbox and others, compete. It’s why you choose one over another. It’s a big part of capturing your loyalty to the platform. Going beyond basic navigation with more data-intensive mapping, that attention to design makes you able to see the patterns in the content — the message in the data,” Brewer said.

Several students contributed to the second edition. “The students created new graphics and reworked old graphics for the new edition. They drafted new written sections and did a good job hunting down data and fact-checking,” Brewer said.

“Elaine Guidero worked on typography and labeling. Bill Limpisathian updated the census data examples and prepared graphics included in the new basemaps chapter. Paulo Raposo selected basemap sites, collected the data, and improved the projections section. Aaron Dennis prepared thematic maps to illustrate topics in earlier sections, created the new multivariate examples, and also conducted the research for the new section on intellectual property,” Brewer said. “We had a great group from the Peter R. Gould Center for Geography Education and Outreach working on this project, and we were funded through my E. Willard Miller and Ruby S. Miller endowed professorship.”

A video about the book is available to watch at

"Designing Better Maps: A Guide for GIS Users" is available in print or as an e-book. 

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated February 19, 2016