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Cartography Typography for Neophytes

Jokerman font

[dropcap]J[/dropcap]okerman is fun but does it do the job?

Map typography should enhance assimilation and visualisation of the map  content, yet not be noticed. So says one expert opinion I recently read. It does make sense although given the grand cartouches of yesteryear, I do wonder if there is not still a place for some fun in titles – hence Jokerman in the Cyclic Navigator series maps.

Apart from titles, the main typography requirements on a map are for features (streams, roads, legends) and block text (descriptions, warnings).

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]ypeface styles

Large blocks of text such as in reports and books, are usually most readable in [typography font=”Droid Serif” size=”18″ size_format=”px”]serif typefaces[/typography]. With the advent of high resolution screens, serif typefaces are increasingly used for this purpose on computers as well as in print.

However, on our orienteering and topographic maps, we usually see [typography font=”Droid Sans” size=”18″ size_format=”px”]Sans-serif typefaces[/typography]. Typically the ubiquitous Arial on our orienteering maps probably because OCAD has Arial as the default typeface.

Although sans-serif typefaces come into their own when our maps leave limited space for text, sometimes standard sans-serif typefaces simply don’t fit — in a few senses of the word.

Feature text may have to be as small as 6 or 7 points. Selecting such a small size of your standard sans-serif typeface may result in difficult to read text. Some fonts such as Arial do have narrow styles. But does even that have the cartography X-factor?

[dropcap]C[/dropcap]artography’s X-factor in type

This X-factor is known in the type world as x-height. A tall x-height improves readability at small type sizes. Bookman and Georgia are system fonts with tall x-heights.

In simple terms the x-height is the height of the body of the lowercase character ‘x’ in a regular typeface. Below the x-height in the character set are the descenders and above the x-height are the ascenders.

[dropcap]H[/dropcap]ierarchy of map typography

Typically a geographic, topographic, road or trail map will use variants of a sans-serif typeface. Or it will use a serif typeface for titles and natural features with a sans-serif for other features.

Look at such a map and you will almost certainly see this hierarchy of typefaces. This might be along the lines of;

[unordered_list style=”green-dot”]

  • state
  • city
  • town
  • locality
  • features such as street names


Arial, Franklin Gothic, Nueva and Minion are system (WIN or Mac) typefaces with a reasonable range of variants. The variants or typefaces chosen should allow features to be immediately distinguishable.

[dropcap]C[/dropcap]artography specific typefaces

The ultimate, these typefaces are typified by a wide range of variants enabling construction of a smooth hierarchy. Of course suitable x-heights are a key element for feature use. Unfortunately most such fonts are licensed for dollars.

[unordered_list style=”tick”]

  • Cisalpin by Linotype is often referenced as the top typeface developed specifically for cartography. [highlight]$$$[/highlight]
  • I recently acquired CartoGothic Std. It has only 4 variants but is free. [highlight]Free[/highlight]
  • Carnova. The ultimate in a non-presence carto typeface. 12 variants for $12! [highlight]$[/highlight]
  • Quadon is unusual in that it is a serif slab typeface, great for titles yet legible at small sizes. [highlight]$$[/highlight]
  • You might not like to take a look at Cartographer typeface.


[dropcap]F[/dropcap]urther reading

For a more technical discussion of cartography typography, read Map Font Basics on Typography. “gives non-specialist mapmakers a chance to explore typography in a semi-structured environment”. Firstly explore the tool in its numeric sequence, taking every other link as you proceed. That will give you an idea of how to make it work for you.

Vischeck simulates colour blind vision. To use it, OCAD and PDFs need to be exported as image files.

If you are into trail maps or other non-sport maps or simply interested in basic cartographic design, then I recommend a book I recently bought and read in just 2 sessions. Cartographer’s Toolkit : Colors, Typography, Patterns by Gretchen N Peterson. I will be reviewing it soon.

Cartographer's Toolkit book



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