Cartographers’ Preferred Typefaces

“What typeface should I choose for my map?”

It’s a question that cartographers of all skill levels get stuck on, from time to time. Sometimes it’s just a matter of browsing around until you stumble upon the right one, one that looks right to you, in the specific context. And sometimes having a list of inspirations can help. Toward that end, I recently did a survey of some of my fellow cartographers, asking them what typefaces they preferred to use on maps. This list may give you a starting point, or just satisfy your curiosity, as it did mine.

I received 40+ answers, but I’ve simplified things here by only noting the typefaces that were chosen by multiple respondents. I’ve also included some quotes by those who chose to offer them.

(apologies for showing off these typefaces with raster images; I don’t want to pay for the $25/month upgrade that includes SVG support)

Sans Serifs

Avenir is a favorite of mine, and it’s found its way into many of my projects. It’s also the typeface of the Atlas of Design. I think it’s got some character without being too forward. I described it once thusly: “a man in a sharp suit walks up to you and says, ‘let me introduce my friend, the map,’ and then gets out of the way.”

Louis Hill described it as a “very clean, sleek font,” while Joshua Stevens added, “Avenir is legible, crisp, and clean.” All these descriptions are pointing the same way, I think, and perhaps you can get a sense of it.

It’s also versatile. Joshua Stevens pointed out that “it also offers numerous weights for building effective hierarchies overtop a variety of background maps or images.”


Century Gothic is another favorite of mine; I do love a good geometric sans, as do some of my colleagues, it seems. John Nelson’s described it as having “clean mid-century appeal,” and I quite agree. Liam Mason called it “lightweight, modern, and dyslexia-friendly” — I hadn’t heard the latter, but it’s good to know!


Easily the most popular choice on the survey. While some typefaces here received two or three votes, Frutiger got five.

Survey takers commented most on its versatility. Tom Patterson likes its “wide range of weights and styles,” and Dennis McClendon mentioned that “it was designed for readability at very small sizes (on Aéroport Charles DeGaulle signage).” Another respondent added that it has “good contrast on busy background[s].”

Aesthetically, it was described as “clean” (Hans van der Maarel) and “beautifully designed” (Dennis McClendon). Dennis further notes that “it’s not Helvetica, which in the 1980s was sufficient to distinguish a design on its own.” Though I’ll juxtapose that with Tom Patterson’s comment that “Frutiger is the Helvetica of the 21st century.”


Lato is free from Google, unlike some of the proprietary options in this list. One survey taker described it as “bland enough not to call attention to itself, but doesn’t look like a cheap Helvetica (or Arial, for god’s sake).” They “sure do hate the capital W though.”


Another free Google font. Open Sans has, according to Michel Stuyts, “good readability,” and is “good to combine with a contrasting ghosting/halo.” Technically only one person voted for this one, but another one voted for “Open Sand,” and I’m guessing that was a typo.


Adrian Frutiger’s third mention on this list is Univers. I expect he never knew what a world of good he did for cartography.

One respondent wrote that it has “a whole bunch of weights and styles to use,” while another, David, also commented on its “lots of family members.” I’ve likewise appreciated Mr. Frutiger’s various typefaces for this reason — you can create a lot of label distinctions when you have so many options.

David further added that it’s “clean [and] easy to read.” There’s definitely a pattern emerging here with the use of the word “clean” to describe many of these sans serifs.


To my surprise, there were only two serif faces that made the list, versus six sans serifs. And one of the serifs is only here because I voted for it, too.


There are actually a lot of versions of Caslon, but this is the one that I use. I’m not picky or deeply aware enough to really make distinctions between them. Technically one survey respondent answered “Caslon,” and then I also voted for it and bumped it to this version.

Kristian Underwood noted that it has a “large famil[y],” and that’s a big reason I like to use it, too. Not only does it have a couple of weights and styles, but it’s also got small caps, and a fairly decent selection of diacritics. I also think it’s classy while also being unobtrusive.


Finally, we end with Georgia. Brian Lewis noted that “it’s serif and not Times,” which I suppose is like the comment above on Frutiger not being Helvetica. He also noted that it has a “strong vertical to horizontal ratio” and good clarity.

The Rest

So there you have it: a few typeface ideas from a highly informal survey of mapmakers. In addition to these, a number of faces were mentioned only once, so I’ll just add them here without further comment.

Serif: Hightower Text, ITC Souvenir, PT Serif, Surveyor Text
Sans-Serif: Adobe Source Sans Pro, Akzidenz Grotesk, Barlow, Calibri, Candara, Corbel, Gill Sans, Grotesque MT, Maven, Myriad Pro, Raleway, Segoe UI, SST, Trade Gothic, Whitney
Both: DejaVu
Probably a Joke: Comic Sans, Papyrus

Once again, respondents demonstrated a very clear preference for sans-serif faces. That really surprised me, I must admit. I suppose I haven’t paid a great deal of attention to the serif/sans ratio on other maps that I’ve seen, but I feel like I make common use of both in my own work, and I just guessed that everyone else did, too. Then again, the survey just asked about preferences, not frequency of use, so maybe it’s unfair to conflate them. It could be that (this small sample of) cartographers use both of them a lot, but just happen to like sans-serifs the most.


If you’re curious about the survey methodology, I asked

What’s the name of one of your most-preferred typefaces for mapping?


Why do you like to use it? What advantages does it offer? 

and then allowed people to offer their name for a quote attribution, and/or to offer a link to a map using the typeface in question—ultimately, I didn’t end up using the map examples because they weren’t offered for some typefaces, and I wanted to present each one on equal footing. I had 41 replies, though a few of them mentioned multiple typefaces.

Closing Thoughts

As Ken Field rightly noted, “Keeping an open mind and not defaulting to a favourite helps with being flexible and open to the stylistic demands of the specific map.” However, some maps have clearer demands than others, and the style can sometimes be driven by our personal taste (and, therefore, the typefaces that we find most attractive or interesting).

An anonymous respondent provides a different perspective: “In general though I tend to find a font and stick with it for awhile. Spending an hour each project worrying about typefaces is terribly easy to do, so having a go-to font that I know will at the very least be alright keeps me focused on the other million things to worry about.”


An Informal Survey on Typefaces

Today, while one colleague was discussing her thoughts about choosing the right typeface for her maps, I began to wonder: “what sorts of typefaces are cartographically popular?” I have ones that I like to use all the time (mostly Adobe Caslon, Gill Sans, and Mostra Nuova), but many of you do, too. I think it might be enlightening to hear what people like, and compile the results into a quick guide, so that in the future, if someone isn’t sure what typeface to use, they’ve got a ready-made list of options that their peers prefer.

So, toward that end, I hope you’ll help me out by answering a very brief survey:

I’ll keep it open through the rest of the week, and then hopefully this weekend (or sometime in the near future thereafter) I’ll compile the results. It’s not the most formal of surveys, but it should suffice to offer me, and hopefully some of you, some interesting ideas of typefaces to try out in the future.

An Uncomfortable Request

So, I’m going to try doing something new this year; something that makes me uncomfortable. I’m going to put donation buttons on my tutorials and other parts of this site. Technically, there are already fairly-well-hidden ones on my river maps, but people usually don’t notice those.

One of the things I value most about the cartographic community is how willing we all are to share knowledge. We’re generally not proprietary or secretive: we’re happy to give anyone our data, our methods, and our advice. I love giving back to my fellow mapmakers, and I spend a fair bit of my time on contributions outside of my ordinary paid work, including:

  • Putting together tutorials, so that others can copy things that they like about my work.
  • Answering questions on Twitter, (often about those tutorials).
  • Working on free resources for my colleagues, such as Project LineworkA Cartographer’s Story, and some occasional contributions to Natural Earth.
  • Making weird and interesting maps, which hopefully provide some inspiration to those who view them. I almost always offer free PDF versions, so anyone can print them out at home if they’d like.
  • Staying active with NACIS, my professional society. I give talks at their annual conference, and I also have served in a variety of roles in the organization, including as Director of Operations, Atlas of Design Editor, MapLift co-organizer, Student Map & Poster Competition organizer, etc. I usually have an idea for something to do through NACIS.

I don’t expect to be paid for any of this work. But, I’m not exactly making a middle-class living most years, and it turns out that there may be people out there who voluntarily want to offer some compensation for my efforts.  I do the same thing from time to time for creators whose works I enjoy.

So, if you want to give it a go, here are a couple of buttons for you.

I’m not anticipating changing anything. I’m going to keep generating probably-interesting, possibly-useful free stuff at random intervals with no set schedule. If you draw knowledge, inspiration, or other value from my free work, and you have something to spare, then please feel free to contribute. Or not; I’ll keep making stuff either way. I, personally, have lots of people and projects for whom I’m not going to be sparing anything more than kind words. Parting with money is a totally different level.

I feel like I’m somehow slightly publicly embarrassing myself by taking this step, particularly if (as anticipated), it yields very little. I know that’s a bit irrational, but it’s true all the same.

Renaming Michigan

This weekend, on a whim, I pursued a little side project that had been kicking around in my head for a while. Perhaps you’ve seen Marty Elmer’s very fine Laconic History of the World, in which each country is represented by the most common word from the Wikipedia article on its history.


Click for a giant version!

It’s pretty fun, and I wanted to have a look at doing something similar myself. As per usual, I started in Michigan. Here’s a quick map with perfectly ordinary labels.


Perfectly unassuming.

And here’s a version in which every name has been replaced with a word that appears uncommonly often in that feature’s corresponding Wikipedia article.


Rather weirder.

I ran these 38 Wikipedia articles through a Python script that calculated the TF-IDF score for each word in each article: basically, it tells me which words appear with unusual frequency in that particular article. So, if we’re talking about Grand Rapids, the word “furniture” appears a lot in that article, but not so much elsewhere, so it gets a high TF-IDF score. The word “city,” on the other hand, might appear a lot in that article, but it also appears a lot in other articles, so it gets a low score. So, TF-IDF is a neat way to figure out what words are unique in an article.

After running these articles through the TF-IDF script, I picked the highest-scoring word that wasn’t the name of the city/river/etc., or its enclosing county (or state).


Python script output for Saginaw.

Some interesting things to notice in the names that ended up on the map.

  • For many cities, the unique words ended up being the names of various locally important people. Titus Bronson founded Kalamazoo, and there’s a park and hospital named after him, so his name comes up often in the article. Likewise, James Jesse Strang founded a kingdom on Beaver island.
  • In other cases, nearby geographic/political features were the top score, such as the Georgian Bay for Lake Huron, or the nearby city of Saginaw for Bay City.
  • Local industries show up in a couple of cases. Grand Rapids has long been a furniture capital, while there’s many a winery around Traverse City.
  • Wikipedia article idiosyncrasies account for some of these. One dedicated Wikipedian listed all the churches in Ironwood. Sault Ste. Marie’s article lists its various TV/radio stations, many of which happen to offer rebroadcasts of various other stations.
  • Lake Superior, of course, gets renamed for the tragic loss of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

If you’re not as familiar with the names of nearby geographic features, or locally important families in some of these cities, this map might be less interesting. So, let’s make another pass, in which we skip over names of people, ships, or nearby geographic/political features (lakes, cities, counties, etc.).


Fit for popular consumption.

This one is equally interesting, in a different way.

  • A few cities have unfortunately needed emergency financial managers.
  • The Muskegon article lists not only major companies, but what they were formerly called.
  • The river articles contain a lot of generic words that still get high TF-IDF scores because they don’t show up a lot in the other articles for cities and lakes. So, if we skip names of nearby cities/counties, we still end up with words like flows, or downstream sometimes. Though important of logging in the history of the Muskegon River now pops up.

Anyway, this was a fun little project that took me way longer than it should have. Mostly because I was trying to be too perfectionist. I was originally trying to control for word pluralization, parts of speech, etc., and eventually I gave up after a few hours of that and decided that this fun project clearly didn’t need that level of obsession.

Update: I decided to toss in Wisconsin, too!


Just an ordinary Midwest state.


Replaced_Artboard 1.jpg

Now with extra weirdness and fun!



A Collection of Round Islands

Several months ago I happened upon an island in Alaska called “Round Island.” I’d heard of other Round Islands elsewhere in the US, and I began to wonder just how many there were, and exactly how round they were. So, I decided to assemble them into a poster, for better appreciation of their numerousness and roundness (or lack thereof). I also expanded my search to include such islands in Canada, as well.

Round Islands.jpg


If you’re inclined, you can download a PDF, or head over to Zazzle and buy a print from them.

This is an exploration of geographic forms. The forces of nature have constructed a variety of intriguing shapes, the aesthetics of which are just as important to a map’s appearance as the cartographer’s choice of color, typography, etc. I have sometimes browsed (and made) maps mainly to appreciate the particular shape of a coastline, path of a river, or some other geographic form.

I love looking at the variety and contrasts in this collection. Some of the islands are quite smooth, some are undulating and interdigitated. Some are quite round, while others are very poorly named.


This assemblage also highlights how inaccurate humans can be when naming features: many of these 131 islands are not very round. Maybe Long Island would be better for some of them. The lack of toponymic creativity is also noteworthy. In many cases, these identically named islands reside near each other within the same lake or harbor. I would be interested to see native names for these places, and whether they offer more interesting alternatives to the generic “(Sort of) Round Island.”

Each island is labeled with the coordinates of its center, as well as the body of water in which it is found.


As is usual with my side projects, I offer you some notes and observations:

  • I began by grabbing data from the US Geographic Names Information System and from Canada’s CanVec 1:50,000 Toponymic Features file.
  • There are a few places named “Round Island” which do not appear to be islands. Perhaps some of them were at one time, but have since been filled in. Whatever the reason, I only made use of those islands which were actually surrounded by water on all sides.


    Somewhat round, but certainly not an island anymore.

  • I traced these islands from aerial/satellite imagery. Given that we live in a world where coastline shapefiles exist, you may fairly ask why I might spend time doing something like that. The answer is that these islands vary a lot in size and in location, and I would have had to extract them one-by-one from a variety of different data sources. In many instances, the islands were too small to either appear in easily available shapefiles, or were far too simplified. So, it was probably faster to trace them, and it left me with the level of detail needed.
  • The shape and size of these islands varies based on tides. At low tide, more land may pop up out of the water. I had no consistent approach to this problem; I merely traced whatever it looked like whenever the image was taken. So, use this poster with caution if you are sailing in the vicinity of these islands. Shapefiles, I think, would not have helped much, since they’d be patched together from different scales and sources, so I would not have ended up with any consistency in approach.
  • Each of these islands is actually on its own projection, thanks to ArcMap’s Data-Driven Pages. I had it kick out a PDF, with one island per page. Each page was at the same scale, and each page was in a Lambert Azimuthal Equal Area projection with the standard point at the centroid of the island.
  • I did calculate the roundness of the various islands, but given the potential inconsistencies in tracing, tides, etc., I thought it best to avoid putting any such numbers on the map. I will leave it to the reader to judge just how round or not round any given island is.
  • The labels (set in Adobe Caslon) are all on a curve. I like it, but I can’t really say why I was inspired to do it. My colleague Nick Lally suggested that they give a sense of the movement of water around the islands. That explanation works for me, even if I can’t claim that it’s what I originally had in mind.
  • I played around with a different style for a while, involving various colors and hachures. I’m not sure why, but I initially felt like I shouldn’t make this grey. But getting the hachures to line up quite right caused me a bunch of trouble, and a highly scientific Twitter poll suggested that this style was the less-popular option. So, I decided to set them aside for now and go back to my standard grey waterlines.ColorHachure.jpg

This was a fun project to explore, and I hope you enjoy the fruits of my labor. Onward to the next random side project!

While I offer this project as a free PDF, it does take time and effort; if you derive some value from it, you are welcome to make a donation to support my continued work.

Creating Shaded Relief in Blender

Welcome! This is the long-awaited text version of my Blender relief tutorial, following on the video series I did a few years back. If you’ve already seen the videos and are returning for a refresher, note that I use a somewhat different method now, so don’t be surprised if you encounter unfamiliar settings.

This tutorial will take you an hour or two to get through — but I think the results are quite worth it. More importantly, note that your second relief will take much less time than this first one, since most of the work you’ll be doing can be saved and simply reloaded for future relief projects. Once you’ve invested the time to get comfortable with it, this technique can fit within ordinary production timelines.

This tutorial is, and will remain, free, but if you derive some value from it, you are welcome to make a donation to support my continued work.

Version History

Version 1.2 (May 14, 2018) — Added new section in Chapter 7, pointing readers toward the idea of rendering relief on a pre-colored plane. Suggested by Anton van Tetering.

Version 1.1 (Jan 29, 2018) — Changes to Chapter 6: Added section on denoising, and alterered render settings to suggest using Limited Global Illumination. Both of these tips are courtesy of Dunstan Orchard.

Version 1.0 (Nov 16, 2017) — Initial release of text version.


Why Blender? In short: Blender makes better-looking relief. Most of the cartographers I know do their shaded relief in ArcMap or another GIS program, or sometimes they use Photoshop or Natural Scene Designer. All of these programs use basically the same algorithm, and you get a pretty similar results, as seen below. This standard GIS hillshade looks OK, but it’s rather noisy and harsh.


As Leland Brown has put it, this looks sort of like wrinkled tinfoil; full of sharp edges.

Blender, on the other hand, is designed specifically for 3D modeling. People use it for CGI, animations, and plenty more cool stuff. It’s intended to simulate the complexities of how light really works: the way it scatters, the way it reflects from one mountain to the next, and the way its absence creates shadows. Here’s Blender’s version of the same area:


Notice how it’s softer and more natural. The peaks cast shadows, and then those shadowed areas are gently lit by light scattered off of nearby mountain faces. Notice also how the structure of the terrain becomes more apparent. In a standard hillshade, I think you lose the forest for the trees. Here’s a side-by-side comparison of the two methods:


Blender’s result not only looks more attractive and realistic, it’s also more intelligible, I think. Certain features of the landscape become more apparent — look at the valley below, running northeast-southwest. It’s hard to tell how wide it is, or that it’s a valley at all, when looking at the standard hillshade. But the Blender relief makes its structure clear, thanks to the improved modeling of lighting.


Whereas the standard hillshade algorithm makes pixels lighter or darker based solely on which direction they’re facing, Blender looks at the scene’s context, and whether that pixel is in a mountain shadow or is in a position to catch scattered light. The result is a more attractive, more understandable relief.

Table of Contents

This is a fairly long tutorial, as I mentioned, so for your convenience I’ve split it up into multiple chapters.

  1. Getting Set Up: We begin by downloading Blender and preparing a heightmap
  2. Blender Basics: Here, we’ll learn to navigate the software
  3. The Plane: We shall set up a plane mesh and apply a heightmap texture
  4. The Camera: Let us prepare to image the plane correctly
  5. The Sun: In which we cast light upon the plane
  6. Final Adjustments: Here, lingering settings are finally adjusted
  7. Advanced Thoughts: For your consideration on future days

Please enjoy, and if you see any errors (either typographical or of fact), please do let me know. I hope that this tutorial empowers you to produce work you can be proud of!

The Colors of Mars

I can’t quite remember why I started, but for the past several weeks I’ve been thinking on and off about hypsometric tinting schemes for the planet Mars.

There are a wide variety of elevation coloring schemes that exist for the Earth; I won’t get into details here, but most of them start with some sort of green in the low areas and move through some combination of brown/yellow/orange/red until they reach white in high areas. It’s a visual proxy for land cover, though it’s a rather flawed one.


Typical Earth hypsometric tints, from the Patterson & Jenny Cartographic Perspectives article linked above.

But what we use for the Earth doesn’t entirely make sense on Mars: its mountains are not snowy, nor are its valleys green (of course, we often tint desert valleys green on Earth maps). Setting aside the idea of these colors mimicking land cover, Mars is a vastly different place, and so it feels wrong to me if it doesn’t look different than Earth.

Unfortunately, the great majority of Mars maps (that I have seen) use a rainbow scheme for their hypsometric tints, which make a mess of everything (though they do certainly look different). They are garish and confusing, and also problematic for any readers who have color vision impairments.


A rainbow of colors on Mars, by NASA/JPL/USGS

Some Alternatives

Fortunately, there are a (very) few maps out there that take a non-rainbow approach.


Let’s meet our contestants!

Kenneth Field’s (Is There) Life on Mars? starts with deep purple in the basin of the Hellas Planitia, and then proceeds through some nice rusty oranges before settling on a sandy tan (though its context on the map makes it look more yellow).


Kenneth Field

Henrik Hargitai’s Mars map for Country Movers takes an unusual approach, in that it is at its brightest in the low areas, starting with yellow and turning deep red as elevation increases, and finally finishing off with a little dark pink highlight on the tops of Olympus Mons and the Tharsis Montes.


Henrik Hargitai

My own scheme, which I’ve never actually used except for in this very blog post, is inspired by the colors on the surface of Mars. Due to atmospheric effects, the Red Planet is actually mostly red only if you’re looking at it from space. It’s more brown & tan on the surface, at least if the photos from Curiosity are any indication. I did make the low areas a little reddish just to contrast with the yellow highlands.


Daniel Huffman

Finally, Daniel Macháček’s Topographic Map of Mars takes things in another direction; avoiding the Red Planet stereotype, he opts for blue (and a bit of purple) in the lowlands, moving through grey into a cool brown for the higher elevations.


Daniel Macháček

Honorable mention goes to Eleanor Lutz’s Here There Be Robots. It’s a medieval-inspired map, and it uses a a tint scheme that looks to be based on an Earth hypsometric tint scheme. On that account, I didn’t include it above (though it’s a lovely work and you really should check it out).

Other Observations

  • All of these schemes do a good job of highlighting the Martian dichotomy — basically, the northern hemisphere is a few kilometers lower than the southern hemisphere.
  • One good thing about a typical Earth hypsometric scheme is that it includes a wide range of colors (greens, yellows, oranges, greys, etc.), which means it can show more detail. The schemes above all cover a narrower color range. But, if you’re going for a color scheme inspired by the actual look of Mars, which 3 of the 4 of them are, you’re kind of limited. Mars is much more uniform in color than the Earth.
  • Much of the Mars elevation range is taken up by four giant mountains. Notice in Ken Field’s scheme how little of the map area is tan, and yet that tan covers half of the elevation range of the scheme. Likewise, Hargitai uses a deep red to cover a pretty large chunk of the elevation range.

These are the only non-rainbow Mars schemes I’ve found. You might know of some others, but in any case I was a little surprised at A) how rare they were, and B) the degree of variation among them. By collecting them in one place, perhaps I’ve given any future Mars mappers some inspiration for their efforts.