When I teach map labeling, I explain how one of the fundamental principles is to create a clear visual relationship between the label, and the thing it’s labeling. We always want it to be plain to our audience which label is meant to connect to which dot, polygon, etc. There are a lot of strategies for this, and I talk about some of them in this video.
So here, for example, are labels that clearly go with certain map symbols, which is made clear by the position of each label on the screen, its path, and its color:
Sometimes, though, labels don’t clearly attach to anything at all, and instead float around with no particular shapes or colors to relate themselves to. As an example, take the Sahara Desert and Atlas Mountains labels here:
I love this use of labels. It lets you show approximately where something is, without needing to be too specific. It offers what I might call a salutary ambiguity. There are times when it’s good to be vague and approximate. There are plenty of things we might want to map, but which don’t have clearly defined edges or locations. What are the boundaries of the Atlas Mountains? There isn’t some hard line that demarcates the end of the highlands and the beginning of flatter terrain. And what of the Sahara? The desert does not abruptly end and turn green. So many geographic boundaries are fuzzy. Or even unknown: when you’re mapping ancient cultures, for example, it may be that archaeologists only have a rough idea of the lands that a prehistoric civilization inhabited.
It can be hard to symbolize an area that has this sort of ambiguity or uncertainty, and using a label, with nothing else, is sometimes an excellent solution. There are others, of course — fuzzy, simplified polygons come to mind. But sometimes even that is too specific. When it’s impossible or at least unimportant to show specifically where the edges of an area are, a label is your friend.
What’s interesting to me is how this highlights two subtly-yet-very different uses of map labeling. In the first example above (with the point/line/polygon labels), the labels are a supplement to the map symbols. But with our North Africa example, the label itself becomes the map symbol.
Map symbols are positioned in a way that they indicate where something is on the Earth (or whatever other realm we’re mapping). Most of the time, though, labels sort of aren’t. If you’re labeling a city dot, the position of that dot is directly related to the actual latitude/longitude of that city on the Earth. The label, though, is not positioned to indicate a location on the Earth, but instead is placed in a way that simply ties it, visually, to the dot. The city dot is basically fixed by geographic reality (though we do occasionally nudge them a bit), but there are several places the label can go. It is, at best, indirectly tied to geographic reality. It floats, tethered, to the map symbol, which is tethered to the reality.
In essence, there’s a sort of geographic layer to our map, with all the points/lines/polygons/relief/etc. indicating where stuff is. In this layer, position is meant to communicate geographic reality. And then “above” that there’s a layout layer full of other clarifying information, with positions that are not as strictly tied to geographic reality. Instead, the position of items on this layer is a bit more meta: they are referenced to the position of symbols on the geographic layer. This layer includes things like labels, annotations, scales, legend, etc.
So, when we instead use the label as a map symbol itself, to show, with appropriate and valuable ambiguity, where something approximately is, then the label now moves down into the geographic layer.
These are still ideas in progress, and I invite others to come along and refine them (or maybe someone already did so and I’m just unaware). I’m sort of making it up as I go. In truth, I started this blog post mainly because I wanted to just say, “it’s fun how labels can let you get away with indicating approximately-but-not-too-exactly where something is.” But then I started thinking about all this other stuff, and so there you have it.