Esri's super-popular Cartography. massive open online course (MOOC) returns soon and runs from February 16-March 30.This course is completely free and it’s for anyone who wants to learn how to create beautiful, informative maps using ArcGIS Pro. View course details and sign up.
With text written in English we have a pattern of reading, left to right, top to bottom, but with maps we have a different kind of a pattern of reading. The map is presented to the map reader all at once – but it is up to us, the mapmaker, to put the most important information in a place that it will be seen first.
Since cartography is a mix or art and science I think of maps as a piece of art. We can use some cues from the art world when thinking about how our map is read.
The rules differ for a painting versus a photograph; I consider maps to be more similar to a painting so I use the rules that apply to paintings.
When we look at a piece of art, our eyes tend to two places first - either the top-left or top-right of the frame – if you look at paintings we can see a pattern of how artists use a bold splash of color or an absence of color to draw the eye into the painting. Next time you are at an art gallery I encourage you to see what paintings grab your attention and why!
Looking at Vincent van Gogh's Starry Night we can see a fantastic example of how the moon draws our eye to the top-right of the painting...
Our eye then travels – usually – from the point of interest in a clockwise motion around the painting – reading it. We can see in van Gogh's painting we move down from the moon, across the village, our eye follows up the spire, and then the swirls bring us back to the moon. We do this whole process unconsciously in a split second.
Since we are talking about cartography, let's see how it applied to this map!
Kevin Sheehan of Manuscript Maps was kind enough to let me use his hand-drawn map of the Gin Distilleries and Brands of Great Britain and Ireland as an example...
Looking at the map, our eye is drawn towards Scotland and the insets in the top right, naturally our eyes travel down the coastline of the UK until we reach the elaborate compass rose which, along it the inset of London, creates a focal point. Our eyes are drawn up along the coast of Ireland and across the text box of the history of Gin which brings us back around to where we started.
We can use another artistic composition technique....
Rule of Thirds
The rule of thirds is a theory – based on the Golden Ratio – involves drawing lines vertically and horizontally splitting the composition into thirds...
The idea is that we want to balance the composition so that there are no “lines” within our composition that match up with the third line (in red). If a line matches up - like the edge of a box or a north arrow - it can throw off the composition of the map. If your maps looks "not quite right", try drawing these lines to see how it looks.
We can see with Kevin's map that no elements are aligned with those third lines...
I asked him if he uses the rule of thirds in his composition and he said, not intentionally, but since he studied art he is familiar with the concept. We can see that his design instincts mean that none of the inset edges or logo boxes match up with any of the third lines. I have applied this technique to all of Kevin's hand-drawn maps and they all pass the test. Once you practice working with the rule of thirds, it should become natural for you as well!
One more tip... When these third lines cross we also end up with an intersection. As a general rule you do not want map elements to be centered on these intersections. If a map element is centered at these intersections can draw the eye too much and throw the composition off balance.
Again with Kevin's map we can see that the text boxes and insets are offset from dead center of these intersection points. Aligning elements near but not centered on these intersection points creates visual interest.
Give these techniques a try and see if they help make your maps have a better visual balance!
Thanks to Kevin Sheehan of Manuscript Maps!
If you are interested to learn more about eye movement: