GIS Best Practices: Mapping Rules to Engage Your Audience

GIS Best Practices: Mapping Rules to Engage Your Audience

GIS best practices and mapping rules for telling a data story without any words.

You’ll find them tucked away in your car, archived in museums, and downloaded on your phone. Maps are everywhere.

Mapping has been key to growing the human understanding between time and space. Originating as paper guides, resting in the pockets of great explorers, maps are now accessible anywhere that the internet resides. Maps continue to provide direction and spatial awareness to viewers. When designed purposefully, maps are effective, interactive tools for solving problems.

To put it simply: maps have an impact. 

Digital mapping — also known as cartography, visual design, spatial analysis, and GIS — is a form of artistic consideration and scientific application.

When designing your visualization, creators must start with the end goal in mind. Creators must consider how their map can reflect the story of the data being presented without words.

There are multiple components of map design that can add to a more intuitive look and feel of your design. 


The audience is the most imperative aspect of your design to consider. This is the entire purpose of starting your project in the first place.

When designing a visualization, consider the message you are trying to convey to your audience. Keep in mind what viewers will find compelling from your research and data collection. Bring those to life in your digital map.

The audience is likely visiting or using your map to answer some kind of question. Keep those questions at the top of your mind as you design each component of your cartography.

Urban SDK's Studio is a visualization tool that was designed with the audience in mind, providing multiple features to tailor your cartography to the needs of your audience.


As components of a map, colors can prove useful tools in designing an intuitive digital map. They can quickly send distinct messages to viewers.

Culturally, we have designated certain colors to bring about specific moods, intuitions, or messages based on the psychological schema formed by society.

The color red is typically associated with a warning to stop, or alert. Yellow is often attributed to a warning, whereas blue tends to represent water.

Psychological schemas can be complex, as some colors like green, can be attributed to vastly different messages depending on the context. Green might indicate a specific landscape, or be representative of financial data.

Selecting colors that are appropriate for the context of your map design will help to create a map that impacts. 

Studio offers pre-set color options making color selection easy. Simply select the color you wish to use on your map to apply it to your point, line, or polygon. Cartographers can change the color fill color and outline color of map layers.

In addition to color-coding, a designer might want to consider the marketing and cohesion of their map with their organization's web design.

Consider the look and feel of the website or space that your map will occupy. If there is a specific color combination utilized on the website displaying the map, opting to use complementary colors to the web design will create a well-integrated web map.

Integrating the web design into the cartographic color display will ensure colors are working  in harmony. 

For more detailed design, cartographers can input color hex codes. This allows for specific colors to be used when designing maps. Any color can be used while designing a map on the Urban SDK platform.

Another component of digital map design is the integration of mapping accessibility.

In some instances, mapping accessibility is imperative to the intended audience.

Map accessibility is the consideration of viewers who may have vision impairments; maps can be designed with the ADA in mind.

This can be achieved by using single color combinations with high contrast. The high contrast allows for easier reading for individuals who might have color-deficient vision.

Creating a map with appropriate colors will result in a strong design, effective for the intended audience. 


Shapes can also be used to impact map design.

Shapes add visual interest to the map, and help to guide viewers through the design.

Shape symbolism, such as a set of wavy lines or triangles, might be useful for depicting water or mountain tops.

Generic shapes can help convey intuitive messages in your design.

Symbologies can be designated to represent geological, environmental, or infrastructure-based components across your geography.

Clean, and simple shapes often work the best when applying shape-based symbologies. 

In the map above, the Hexbin feature is used to model the locations of food pantries. The taller the hexagonal cylinder represents the higher count of food pantries residing in that geographic area.

The Urban SDK Studio enables users to map using different shapes on your map design.

For example, in the map above, the Urban SDK Studio Hexbin feature has been applied. The Hexbin feature uses hexagons to add visual interest to the map. The three-dimensionality of the shapes diversifies perception and highlights the locational data. 

The Hexbin feature can be applied to geographic point data. Simply upload your print data to the Studio, and select Hexbin for the map type. The size and height of the Hexbin cylinders can be tailored to design preferences.


The size of features on a map can be tailored to each map layer. These features impact the juxtaposition and flow of your map design.

At times, it is most logical to keep features relative to their size in real life. For instance, a polygon of a neighborhood would not be larger than the size of the city it resides.

This is a good rule of thumb for geological cartography. However, there are times when exaggerating the size of map features makes sense.

Data reflecting socioeconomics is often hidden within its geographical location. The socioeconomic story is not evident solely by its geological location.

When mapping “invisible data” — such as county-wide counts or events — exaggerating the size of data becomes important. 

The map above visualizes Florida Counties and their counts of school incidents. Indexing the incident count by height sends a quick message that certain areas of Florida have greater school incidents.

To create impactful sizing, Urban SDK's Studio offers polygon height adjustment.

Users of the Urban SDK Studio can create visualizations that emphasize the geographic locations based on an attribute of their dataset.

Grandiose size scaling can help to emphasize high densities or larger counts of a specific data.

Playing with shape in an unexpected way can quickly draw an audience in. 

The locations of citizens enrolled in health care (blue circles) overlaid atop areas with a high population (red circles). Setting the bottom (population layer) wider than the counts of people enrolled in health care coverage allows both data to be plotted on the same map at the same time.

Sizing can also be used for data organization.

As map layers are added to a design, the look of the map can become cluttered, distracting, or in disarray. To mitigate this, apply the power of size.

Size can be used to naturally guide the eye through a visualization.  


Labeling on a map can provide context to your audience, and allow maps to stand on their own.

The most important label that every map should have is a title! This is the first place a reader will go.

Titles must relate to the context of the map

The map above utilizes labels to rank how popular pay for parking kiosks at the beach are. The most utilized parking kiosk is ranked number one.

Any additional labels added to your map design should coincide with the map title. 

Adding labeling can help the audience understand the key theme of your map through labels that rank, classify, or add important notes to map features. 

Map labels can be edited in the label menu. The menu allows for customization of the labels applied. Through the tool, users can add a single, or multiple labels to their map.

A labeling feature was added to the latest release of the Urban SDK Studio. You can see how easy they are to make here.

In the new version, users can apply numerical or text labels to their maps. The labels pull from the data table associated with the map layer.

In the Urban SDK Studio labels can be applied to point-based data. Through the new feature, labels can be offset, centered, enlarged, and tailored to fit each designer's needs. 

The map above depicts the locations of food pantries. Turning the label feature on, allows the audience to understand what type of service each food pantry location provides.

 Audience (AGAIN!)

Once again: audience is the most important aspect to consider when designing an impactful map.

It is so important that it's worth noting twice! 

When the audience cascades down into the design of each map component, an impactful map is created.

To create a map that impacts, try altering the size, shape, color, and labels to cut down on map layers, clutter, and noise.

Just like any good realtor will tell you "location location location", GIS experts and cartographers know the most successful maps come down to "audience audience audience."

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