This is usually the final step of a GIS project. Your final map will most likely be one of the most important figures in your research project. A map can  easily represent your final result, or any important spatial features from your project . Do not underestimate the time needed to create a good and effective map at the end of your project. Also, remember that, in order to create an appealing map, a pinch of artistic work might be required.

A good map should be able to convey your message effectively without help from the text and should be designed with regards to the targeted public. In order to do so, simple rules can be followed based on cartography and visual hierarchy.

A map should always have these following elements present: a graphic scale bar, a legend, the data sources, the author name. Depending on the media in which it appears, a title also needs to be associated with the map which may or not be directly on the figure. Be careful to avoid doubling the title by having a title on the map as well as in the figure caption. A north arrow can also be added to the map. The general convention is that the North should be straight at the top of your map; in the case that you choose not to have the north at the top, you need to include the north arrow.

Visual hierarchy is also important to keep in mind as it provides an organization of the elements of your map based on their importance. A good way to design your map is to keep in mind the question that is answered in that figure. The defined question will dictate what elements need to be at the forefront of the map in terms of size, colour scheme and position.

The colour and pictogram associated with the different elements should reflect the meaning they  have in your particular context. For example, if the topic of your map is deforestation, deforested area should be in a bold color such as red or in a appropriate pictogram such as a log rather than a standing tree.

Globaia, a global education organization, created a series of map illustrating the impact of humans on the planet. This map display different ways humans impact the planet. The legend tells us that the white lines are representing air traffic, the green are roads and the red dots are urban areas. Some elements are missing such as a scale bar and a North arrow; however considering that this is a global map, the reader is not lost in his interpretation of the maps. One could question the choice of the green colour for roads, as green is usually associated with “good”, but the author’s position is not clear on this topic. An important element that is missing from the map is the data source.
This is a map of the metro of the city of Montreal. Its goal is to inform the reader of the sequence and relative position of metros stations, more so than their actual positions. The legend is minimal and some of the pictograms used are not represented in it as they refer to symbols commonly used. The authors of this map chose to include a north arrow of the map although it is straight up. Including the north arrow on a minimal map such as this one can seem as a waste of space; however, Montrealers usually call north the direction that is actually more a North East direction, so that the river flows in a West-East directions. The author of the map decided to include the North arrow because of his knowledge of his audience.

Here are some interesting resources if you need more help with you maps.


  • GIS cartography
    • Maps, either printed or digital, can create effective communication with bosses, clients, other scientists, and the public. However, entry level GISers often find that map design was given short shrift in their pre-professional life. It is time for the GIS field, which is maturing in other ways, to improve its skills in this area. Based on the author’s more than ten years of research and practice in map design, GIS Cartography: A Guide to Effective Map Design provides the tools to create truly sophisticated maps. –Abstract
  • How to lie with a map (Hard copy available at the McGill Library)
    • Originally published to wide acclaim, this lively, cleverly illustrated essay on the use and abuse of maps teaches us how to evaluate maps critically and promotes a healthy skepticism about these easy-to-manipulate models of reality. Monmonier shows that, despite their immense value, maps lie. In fact, they must. —Book description


  • Understanding Visual Hierarchy in Web design, Webdesigntut+
    • A very good article about visual hierarchy and its importance in graphic communication  Although this is geared towards web design, the theory and concepts of visual hierarchy are well described and illustrated.