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Map Design Explained



Maps must surely count as one of mankind’s earliest examples of two-dimensional design. They have been used for thousands of years, transcending language barriers and allowing us to both locate ourselves and also place ourselves at the centre of our own personal world (however big or small). They allow us to travel without moving anything more than our eyes, faster than physically possible, shrinking geography to a manageable scale and making every single one of us an explorer.

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Just as mankind has been creating maps since our earliest years, scratching lines in the dirt before language had developed fully and then carving images of mountains, rivers and walking routes onto mammoth tusks around 27,000 years ago, at Leap we’ve been designing maps since our business came into being.  For over fifteen years now we’ve been presenting geographical spaces, features and information as beautifully designed bespoke maps for the likes of The National Trust, The Lost Gardens of Heligan, Cornwall Council and numerous tourist boards and holiday accommodation providers. 

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How Maps Can Present Information

Maps take many forms and information can be presented in many different ways. The most obvious is the two flavours that world maps come in: political or geographical. One is subject to the short-term nature of humanity and the lines that we draw in the sand and the other shows what is physically present, but only in a narrowly defined scientific category such as vegetation or elevation. No map can show everything and therefore no map is perfect. In fact, most of the information that we are shown on large-scale maps is presented over a flawed template because it is so difficult to present the surface of a sphere undistorted on a flat surface. Gerardus Mercator produced the best attempt to date in 1569 and that still forms the basis for our view of a flat world map over 450 years later, but there’s no getting around the fact that Greenland just isn’t that big. If a map is conveying information where location is one of the key considerations, then how it is presented is down to the cartographer.

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When Harry Beck sat down at his drafting table in 1931 to produce a new map of the London Underground he took inspiration from an electronic circuit board. He spaced each station more or less equally, showing how stations related to each other across the entire network rather than laying them out geographically. It’s an iconic design that has been printed more than any other map in history and is absolutely fit for purpose, but you couldn’t use it to navigate yourself overland from Hammersmith to Upminster very easily.

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Other maps show such information as GDP per capita, weather patterns, military spending by country, place names sized in relation to population and how many people are currently online. The list of what we can convey using a map goes on and on, and there are many different ways in which we can do it.

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Map Design – Making Form Meet Function

Our task as designers is to understand what the requirements of the end-user are, extract the key information that needs to be shared, and find the best way to illustrate that in a way that fulfills the map’s function whilst maintaining a brand identity. Are users arriving on site for the first time and needing to orient themselves, or find their way to their accommodation or the reception? Are they following a trail or choosing a route around a property? Is the aim of the map to tempt visitors to explore beyond their immediate surroundings? Perhaps the map is the visual vehicle for delivering facts or historical information to a viewer. Some maps need to be spatially accurate, so that users can gauge distance for decision-making and route planning. Others can feature more illustrative elements to draw the viewer in, and can afford to adhere less strictly to the physical relationship between features. Across that entire spectrum it is also important that a visual identity is conveyed, so that any maps match other signs or fit the site-wide aesthetic scheme, or that of the business.

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Finding the right balance of engaging illustration and geographical accuracy is where we as designers put the “art” in cartography and deliver truly fit for purpose maps.

If your organisation needs help with map design to improve how you direct and communicate with visitors, then drop us a line to discuss what we can do for you.

What To Consider When Commissioning A Custom Map

  • Before meeting with your designer, have an idea of what it is that you need and are asking for.  Is the map needed to show a large area and the relationship of different areas to one another, or is it illustrating a route?
  • You know best the particular points or locations that are important to you or your users, and also any areas where clarity is required for route finding.  Make sure to note all of these down (as a bulleted list is fine) so that they are considered from the outset and to reduce the risk of having to address them in a revision.
  • If you have examples of maps that you like or want yours to emulate, or of illustrative styles that you like and that fit your brand, collect them together and share them with your designer.
  • Your brand guidelines and aesthetic (colours, fonts, illustrative style and so on) will be very important to ensure that your designer creates a map that looks as though it belongs.
  • Are you likely to need several maps of locations within a larger area?  If so, you could commission a larger map and then zoom in on specific areas to get the maps that you need.  That way, you commission one large map but you can create lots of maps from it, saving your commissioning more maps down the line and offering better value for money in the long run.
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Featured Maps

  1. The Lost Gardens of Heligan, Cornwall (header image)
  2. Cotehele Mill for the National Trust
  3. The Fowey Estuary for the National Trust
  4. National Trust Car Parks in Cornwall
  5. Bosinver Farm Cottages, Cornwall
  6. The Lost Gardens of Heligan
  7. Bosinver Farm Cottages, Cornwall (header image)
  8. Lake Brienze Paddle Trail (Switzerland)
  9. St Christopher’s Hospice charity fun walk
  10. N26 Bank animated European map
  11. Dennis Cove Campsite, Padstow