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When you look at a map, what’s the first thing you see? What do you look for, and what do you recognize?

For example, let’s have a look at this image:

World map, with water and land inverted.

Notably, it has no legend, but it’s still quite clear what the map represents, even though it isn’t what we expected. We know these shapes: these are the continents.

However, through the coloring on the map, it becomes clear that this image has the land and water inverted. This is what our world would look like if the continents were water instead of land.

How do we know that? We know that water is blue and land is green or brown on maps, and without being informed, we assume that this is true on this image as well.

This is important in map design. Certain colors and shapes have expectations to the audience that views and uses the map. Blue is generally regarded as water, cold, or government or hospital buildings. Green is often vegetation, safety, health, and other positive ideas (brown may be open land or soil). Red is danger: stay away!

When we see maps that use colors in unexpected ways, it may actually hamper our viewer’s understanding. Even if they read the legend and understand that the colors or symbols have been used in unexpected ways, they may not retain the information well.

This is why understanding convention is important. It may not be necessary to use convention at all times, but understanding what a reader may expect to see versus what you have placed on the map and why helps design better maps.

Other conventions may come through the use of actual map symbols. When we see a small cross on a city map, we might think it means a hospital. If we see symbols that look like a man and woman, we might think it represents toilets. A fork and knife means food. Using these symbols can be very helpful, particularly when viewed by young children, tourists, or others who might struggle with reading. The viewer needn’t be able to read the language accurately to know where he or she wants to go, giving the map a wider audience.

Some symbols are not universally known. For example, some Hindu, Jainist, and Buddhist temples are sometimes marked on maps with a symbol that appears similar to a swastika. For people who are not familiar with the symbol’s ties to religious and cultural traditions, the sight can be rather surprising, as the common Western interpretation has strong ties to the Nazi use of the symbol. Some places, such as Hungary, Poland, and Lithuania, have even banned the swastika, citing it as a hate symbol and associate it with white supremacy.

Symbols are of great importance when it comes to the use of maps. Using the correct combination of colors, symbols, and explanations is key to creating a map that is not only nice to look at, but informative and useful for the reader.

Other references:
1. Cartastrophe’s post on a poorly-designed risk map