Outside Readings

While I’ve not been posting here this summer, neither have I let my writing faculties lie idle. The newest issue of Cartographic Perspectives, which is the free & open journal of NACIS, came out today and it happens to have two pieces that I wrote, along with a third one that’s connected to my work. I hope you’ll check them (and the whole issue) out.

  1. The Power of Appearances” is a combination and re-working of two tutorials I’ve previously put together here: Even Fancier Type Knockouts in Illustrator and The Power of Appearances. I reworked some figures and hopefully presented everything in a cleaner, more coherent package.
  2. A Freelancer’s Approach to Teaching Cartography” involves me musing about how I bring my experiences as a practicing mapmaker into the classroom. I teach introductory cartography occasionally, and I continue to alter the structure, expectations, and content of my course in order to make the experience of my students more like my own as a freelancer.
  3. While I didn’t write it, you can also check out Daniel Cole’s “Review of the Ecological Atlas of the Bering, Chukchi, and Beaufort Seas.” I made 130+ maps for the Ecological Atlas, which was published last year. You can also see the whole atlas for free, online.

Before I leave off, I’ll also immodestly drop in those donation buttons you’ve probably seen me adding everywhere. In the mapmaking community, practitioners both inside and outside academia come together to share knowledge through journals or conferences. Academics build their CVs and get tenure based partly on this sort of work, and are highly incentivized to do so. But many of the rest of us have no such incentive (in fact, some people’s companies would prefer that their employees not spend work time writing tutorials or presentations). It’s an ongoing challenge with a journal like Cartographic Perspectives, which relies on getting content from non-academics. If you’re outside academia, I hope you’ll consider being a part of the journal sometime, if you’re in a position where you have the time and resources to share your knowledge.


On Airline Mapping

A couple of months ago, I had the opportunity to redesign the route map for a major airline, to be printed in their in-flight magazine.


Click for a larger version. Also: yes, I know, I put the wrong Rostov on the map.

This is not the final product that I ended up creating for the client, but it’s my favorite iteration, and the one that I want to talk about today. I just want to break down a few elements of how and why this came together the way it did: a little behind-the-scenes of my work and thought processes.


As I began exploring layout options for the project, I started with a simple Gall Stereographic projection.


Antarctica has been removed in order to leave space for some logos and other information that the client wanted on the page.

But I quickly ran into a couple of challenges, due to the demands of the two-page print spread that I needed to fit this map into.

  1. Gutter: There’s a fairly wide gutter in the middle of the spread, where the pages are bound together. No cities or labels or other important stuff can fall within that zone. That leaves me with very few ways to non-awkwardly divide the map into two pages. The above image is one of the only options. In fact, I had to widen the Atlantic Ocean a little bit just to make it work — Iceland and Greenland are much closer together in reality. The end result is that the whole thing is kind of unbalanced. The vast majority of the routes are on the right side.
  2. Scale: The whole map has to fit within 398 × 270mm (15.7 × 10.6in). That seems like a fair amount of space, but, because of the distribution of the airline’s flights, some areas, such as Europe, are very densely packed. Far too crowded to label.

So, I decided to take a different approach. Instead of being beholden to reality, and the true size and shape of the Earth’s landmasses, I made a cartogram. By resizing and reshaping different areas, I could both alleviate overcrowding and better distribute the world on either side of the gutter.


I widened a portion of Asia, just west of India, in order to make space for the gutter. I shrank areas where there were fewer destination cities, and expanded those that had more. But despite all the distortions, it looks (to me) still reasonably familiar. Cartograms tread a fine line between reshaping the world and keeping it recognizable, and I think that I did OK here. The extent of the distortions becomes much more apparent when you run it through Bernie Jenny’s MapAnalyst.

Undistortion Grid.jpg


The white grid in the top map corresponds to the white grid on the bottom, showing how warped the original Gall Stereographic has become. As the land is distorted, so is the grid. You can see, for example, how all the grid squares in the Pacific have been compressed as the Americas have been moved closer to Asia. Click the bottom image to enlarge it.

To make the cartogram, I started with the Gall Stereographic map in Illustrator. Then I simply selected chunks of land and resized/moved them until I was happy. I made heavy use of the Lasso tool.


Let’s just put that right over there.

I would shrink an area here, expand or shift one there. It was an iterative process over the course of an hour or two, changing a piece at a time and seeing the effect it had on the other pieces. The end result looked terrible and jagged, due to the way it was constructed, but it had everything in approximately the location that I wanted it.


To clean up all that roughness, I then redrew a new, tidier set of linework on top of the distorted map. I built mine out of straight lines and circular arcs, much like the Geo-Metro set I did for Project Linework. It gives things a modern, urban feel. I think it keeps enough detail to make places seem familiar, while smoothing over a lot of details that had to be distorted.


Finally, I nudged around some of the city dots. Since the linework I drew didn’t exactly match the (now-distorted) coastline, some coastal cities had moved a bit far from the sea. In other cases, I shifted them a little bit just to make more room for labels.

Root and Branch Lines

I began the project determined to avoid the clutter that characterizes so many flight maps. Major airlines have a lot of connections, and drawing each possible route can lead to a tangled mass of impossible-to-follow lines.


I expect that designing the flight map for United Airlines is a pretty tough job.

That’s an extreme example, but you get the idea. These things can get out of control quickly, and the map ends up not really being useful as an informational tool.

My client had far fewer flights than United, and fortunately almost all of them originated in Dubai. But, even then, showing every line could lead to chaos (if a lesser degree of it). So, instead, I created a root-and-branch structure. Lines to each city were bundled together (as though with cable ties) and routed through empty spaces. I also gave everything an elegant, flowing curvature. It’s sort of plant-like.


This was another iterative process. I’d draw a root, then start to add branches to it, then figure out a better routing and start that section over, or I’d decide another root was needed to keep things tidy, etc. It took quite some time. As a starting point, I mostly just looked for open spaces that had a good balance of cities on each side.


Smooth Line Joins

Getting the lines to join smoothly also took a some work. I couldn’t just quickly connect the city lines to the bundled lines — I wanted them to flow into each other. This meant adjusting the curvature on each line carefully until things looked right. Basically, I had to set the bezier handle of the thinner line to be tangent to the curvature of the thicker line at the point where it joins. To explain this, I’ve put together some diagrams that approximate (a nicer version of) Outline Mode in Illustrator, which shows you just the bare vector paths, with no styling.


Left: one line carelessly jammed into the other. Right: the branch line has been curved to flow into the root line more smoothly.

That looks much better. But, there’s still one issue. These paths are styled with strokes, and those strokes have widths to them. So, in reality, it’s more like this:


Now things don’t look quite so smooth. There’s a little bit of a non-organic-seeming corner on one side where the lines come together. When I did my manual smooth join, I didn’t really account for the fact that the edges of the stroke are a short distance away from the center of the stroke.

So, instead of connecting the branch straight to the root, I need to connect the branch a short distance away from the root, so that the right edge of each of those two strokes will be in alignment with each other. The roots have a stroke width of 3pt, and the branches are 1pt, so if I do a little math, it turns out that I want to connect the branch to something that’s 1 pt away from the center of the root, and it’ll all work out.


By shifting the branch up a little bit, now its right edge is in alignment with the right edge of the root, and they flow together well. How did I place it exactly? I used the Offset Path tool to make a new version of the root line, 1 point away from the old line. This is a little different than just shifting the line left or right by 1 points. It’s more like creating a buffer around the line, 1 point wide. Offset Path is great, and I use it a lot (often to make waterlines).


The end result is a nice smooth set of flowing lines. It’s a really little touch. But, so much of good mapmaking inheres in the small details, doesn’t it?

Gradients on Strokes

You may have noticed that some cities are red and some blue — the former are the client’s flight destinations, and the latter are those of one of their major codeshare partners. I wanted to show the flights to the codeshare cities in a matching blue, but it would have looked awkward to just join a blue line straight into a red trunk.


So, instead, I applied a gradient stroke to each of the codeshare lines, so that they were blue near the dot, and red near the root. I had to adjust each gradient manually; since each line was a different length, I couldn’t simply say, “make it red for the first 10% of the line.”


Make sure to choose the second Stoke option: apply the gradient along the stroke.

The end result gives us a fairly-smooth transition between roots and branches when we need to use blue.

Fun fact: one alternate version of the map that we looked at also used gradients, but this time for opacity. Each city had a separate arc line running toward Dubai, but the lines became invisible shortly after leaving the city, to hint at their destination while avoiding a lot of overlap and clutter. I used the same gradient panel in Illustrator to do this, keeping the color constant but changing the opacity for the middle portion of the line. It was a fun idea, though ultimately we decided not to use it.


I’m pretty pleased by the overall result of the root and branch style. It both shows the extensiveness of the network, and allows the reader to easily figure out which cities connect to which other cities. It’s relatively clutter-free. Again, I had a little bit of an easier job than the designer of that United Airlines map I showed above — I have fewer cities to deal with, and most of them connect to the same place. But I suspect that this style would still yield some benefits on a more crowded network; even if it might not make everything 100% clear, it would probably still help a lot.


My initial draft of the map started out with a much brighter color scheme for the basemap, and bolder lines.


Fortunately, I solicited the ever-valuable advice of my colleague Tanya Buckingham. She said it felt a little childlike to her, which I started to agree with as I looked at it. Over the course of about twenty minutes, we slowly adjusted the palette to look a little more mature and refined. Mostly this was driven by her; she had a particular shade in her mind and we kept trying to match it.

I also gave the route lines some transparency. This was actually done out of necessity on a later draft of the map, one that was much more crowded and which needed the lines to fit comfortably underneath the labels, rather than dodging around them. But I liked the look of it, and so I went back at the end and applied the change to the cartogram, long after we’d abandoned it, and I think it helps. It makes the route network seem much less vascular.

Odds and Ends

I tried to avoid crossing lines, but there were a couple of places where it was necessary. In those cases, I added little breaks to help make it clearer that these did not connect.


Given the distortions in the cartogram, I threw in a couple of ocean labels to help remind people of the geography they were looking at. If I’d done another draft, I might have also included some continent labels, as well. Just little context clues.


Finally, I wanted to show you a couple of the other maps in this project. Besides making a world map, I was also tasked with making a series of half-page regional maps, as well. Here, I took a page from the work of folks like Erwin Raisz and Richard Edes Harrison and did a series of perspective views.


I did not make these.


But I did make these.

I used both Orthographic and Vertical Perspective projections to create five regional maps. It’s an immersive viewpoint that I find very powerful. These kinds of projections always suggest the concept of distance and travel to me, by showing the far-ness of some place on the horizon. It also feels like flying, positioning the reader high above the Earth (though the eye is more at space travel height than airline height).

Concluding Thoughts

In the end, the client eventually preferred a more traditional representation, including a non-cartogram world map, and non-bundled flight lines, though we did keep the perspective views. That’s the nature of this business: there’s often a lot of stuff that gets discarded as drafts are done and different visions explored. Sometimes the artist’s favorite versions don’t make it to print; that’s something I find challenging about being a creative professional. But, this blog gives me a place to show off and talk about something that might not otherwise have had an outlet. I hope you found it interesting or useful!

This project walkthrough 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.

Cartographic Freelancer Survey Results

A few weeks ago, Aly Ollivierre and I had an email conversation about freelancing, and whether or not the rates we charged were “normal.” Freelancing can be an opaque world, and I’ve tried to bring a little transparency to it in my own way. To help shed a little more light on the cartographic freelance world, we conducted a survey, asking people about their rates and freelancing practices, as well as a few demographic questions. You can see the specific questions we asked by clicking here.

Rather than a straightforward run-down of the results in a blog post, we decided to present them in the context of a conversation with each other, FiveThirtyEight style. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation. All graphics are by Aly.

Daniel Huffman: I think the bottom-line thing that most people would want to know about the survey is: how much money are people charging on average? That was sort of the impetus for creating this thing. 81 people were kind enough to tell us what their average hourly rate (or equivalent) was, and the average of those numbers was $65/hr.


Which means I really need to start charging more.

Aly Ollivierre: That’s definitely good to figure out, I also split out the numbers by women vs. men. It looks like women are definitely not asking for enough!

Average Rates Resize.png

People’s average years in the business wasn’t a big difference either to explain that big of a gap: 10.4 for women and 11.7 for the men who answered.

Daniel: When I looked at these data, a voice in the back of my mind said “hey, remember you took a stats class nearly 10 years ago?” I remembered that there are t tests, by which we can demonstrate the statistical significance of these differences. I found an online t-test calculator, and the p-value for the men vs. women average pay was 0.0272, so it’s definitely real, not just due to sample sizes.

I preemptively apologize to Jim Burt, my stats instructor, for everything I have forgotten.

Aly: When asked if they thought they were paid fairly, women’s average answer was 3.1 out of 5 (with 5 being the best), while the average of men was 3.6, so both aren’t super confident that they are being paid fairly.

Paid Fairly-01.png

Daniel: Speaking of fair pay, I did notice a trend in pay rate vs. perceived fairness. I compared perceived pay fairness against how a respondent charged on average. There’s a definite trend, even if it’s not a strong one.


Aly: That’s really interesting to see.

Daniel: Unsurprisingly, people who charged more were generally more likely to say they were paid fairly. Though the numbers are all over the place. There are plenty of people who are unsatisfied, yet charging much more than satisfied people.

Aly: People seem to be all over the board. I looked at education, but didn’t compare it to pricing. Not much of a trend here either, but interesting to visualize.


Daniel: That’s cool to see like that. There are actually lots more folks out there practicing with a degree/certification than I might have expected. I think of cartography as something that a lot of people are self-taught in, but our respondents seem to have a lot of formal training.

Aly: I thought there would be more bachelor’s degrees at least, but I’m not particularly surprised master’s degrees were so high, there’s a lot of pressure these days to get a master’s in order to get paid fairly.

Daniel: And yet, for freelancers at least, it didn’t seem to have a big effect on rates. I created a quick education score (1 point for a Bachelor’s or certificate, 2 for a Master’s, and 3 for Ph.D.) and correlated it with the average pay rate. The correlation was 0.00009, so nothing going on there. I’d be curious if that’s true in the salaried sector.

We also asked people about how long they’d been mapping. I didn’t find a correlation between average charge rates and years of experience. The R-squared was 0.02, so basically nothing. Likewise with age; the R-squared was 0.04.

There’s a surprising (to me) disconnect between age/education/experience and rate. It doesn’t seem to have a big effect whether you’re brand new and self-taught, or whether you’ve got 30 years experience and a master’s degree. Any thoughts as to why that might be?

Aly: That is hard … I feel like my prices have gone steadily up since undergrad as I got additional degrees, certifications, awards, and years of experience. But maybe more experienced folks are not realizing they can or should be charging more?

Daniel: I imagine there can be a hesitancy to raise your rate if you depend a lot on existing clients, so if you set a rate that seemed reasonable 10 years ago, you might get uncomfortable having to tell them you’re increasing it.

Aly: My dad (who owns his own business) checked me on that the other day, saying that my rates should be going up every year, even with the same client, as the cost of living goes up every year.

Daniel: If I were a salaried employee, I’d expect annual cost of living raises from my boss.

One theory I have about the relative immunity of hourly rates to skills/experience/etc. is that I think it’s predicated on the assumption that our clients can assess our resumes. If I got a salaried job, I’d expect an employer to look at my background and pay me with an understanding of my abilities. But I think most freelance clients don’t think that deeply about it. I’m not sure most of my clients know, when they hire me, whether I’m good at my job or not.

Aly: That’s a good point, I do make sure that my LinkedIn is up to date and try to remember to get recommendations for my freelance work on there as I can.

Daniel: That’s a good thought. I imagine hearing from another person, “Oh, she’s very good and thought of all these things we didn’t” would be helpful.

Aly: I agree, but it feels weird to put it on my website, so I just try and link people back to my LinkedIn.

Did you look at all at rates based on full time or part time?

Daniel: I did. 32% of our respondents indicated they were full-timers, so part-timers are the majority, if our sample is any fair indication. Part timers indicated an average rate of $68/hr, while full-timers said they charged $61. The p-value was 0.38, though, so this difference isn’t really statistically significant. This is something I’ve heard people wonder about — whether part-timers have the flexibility to charge more because they can “afford” to lose out on projects. Which kind of ignores the fact that part timers often still rely quite strongly on the mapping income even if it’s not their only gig. I also looked at gender and part-time.

Part-time vs Full-time-01.png

Aly: I’m not particularly surprised that there were more part-timers, I think it’s still hard to find enough work to fill up a full-time schedule and be able to afford insurance/rent/etc.

The part-time vs. full-time conversation is interesting. A lot of the comments reiterated my feelings that you have to accept projects on a sliding scale based on the client and that being full-time vs part-time doesn’t necessarily mean you can charge more … who your clients are is more important.

Daniel: A lot of people gave feedback along those lines. Some comments that respondents said we could share:

“I change my rate based on my client. If it’s a nonprofit or NGO, I typically work for less”

“If i’m working for a non-profit that I support the mission of, i’m willing to take a lower rate.”

“Sometimes I charge more based on willingness/ability to pay rather than the difficulty of the work”

Aly: There were some other helpful comments in there as well: like,

“I always have a clause in the contract that extensive revision or modifications to the scope work will be billed separately at a rate of X per hour.”

This is advice that I should take myself as extensive revisions is what tends to hurt me on flat rate projects.Flat Rate vs Hourly-01.jpg

Daniel: I have also gotten hammered on some of those flat rate pieces. I sometimes come back and ask for more, but I’m one of those people who doesn’t work with a contract very often. And our survey suggests that folks are pretty split on this, so I guess I’m not alone in not having one.


Any contracts I sign are usually ones offered by large organizations that have boilerplate ones.

Aly: I was surprised how many people said they do! I’m lucky that most of my clients are personally recommended to me or small-scale so I haven’t felt the need to write up a contract, but I definitely think I should put more thought into that. I wonder if anyone who always uses one might be willing to share a copy. I wouldn’t even know where to start to make sure it covers everything that it should.

Daniel: I think that would be helpful. I’ve looked online for various bits of legal language before, but it always ends up getting adapted to be more map-and-illustration specific. Oftentimes it feels like too big of a hassle for the small bits of work that I do. If someone’s paying me $250 for some small greyscale pieces for their short-run university press book, I start to weigh up in my head the amount of time it will cost me just to get a contract set up, vs. the amount I’m being paid.

One piece of advice on contracts that I’ve received from Tanya Buckingham (who is my mentor in so many ways): add kill fees. So that if the work gets cancelled part way through, it’s clear how much money will be owed to you, even if it’s not the full amount.

Aly: I also liked the comment:

“I usually charge a flat rate with an additional line in the estimate for changes beyond the first (or sometimes second) round of revision. Additional client revisions are billed at $100/hour.”

I never would have thought about charging a higher flat rate for revisions, but I definitely see the appeal, oftentimes I spend more time on revisions than on making the map itself.

Because as another respondent noted:

“Maps are more of an analytical domain than the typical graphic design project involves. As such it can be really difficult to safely arrive at a mutual understanding without essentially making, then iterating, maps to show as a “mockup” while simple “changes” are full re-builds with variable effort. External examples were helpful, but I found the customers’ mind’s eyes were frequently quite different from cited examples in critical (and time-consuming) ways.”

Daniel: Absolutely. I think a lot of clients don’t quite know what it’s going to look like when they hire me, or they don’t quite know what they want. The various drafts are an exploration process.

And this ties in with the previous quote about contracts allowing a set number of revisions. Locking that down early is good. I have occasionally done that (verbally, by email), but perhaps not as often as I should.

Along those lines, though, I do tend to raise my rate if I’m already busy with other work and sort of don’t feel like taking something else on. I factor my mental stress into the rate a bit, so that it will be compensated monetarily, or they’ll just say no and I won’t need to deal with them.

Aly: It’s really important to take your own mental stress into account when assessing whether or not to take on a project, especially when this work is alongside a full-time job. As one of the respondents noted:

“I require a $100/hour minimum because I have a full time job and I don’t want or need to add extra stress unless the client is serious and the project is worthwhile.”

Daniel: The last bit of statistical analysis I did on the survey was to compare countries a bit. Most of our respondents were from the United States (79%) which, given the language of the survey and our professional networks, was not surprising. But we had a fair number of folks from Europe answer, as well (12%). I lumped them all together so that we had enough to compare. In the US, the average hourly rate was $64, and it was $65 in Europe, so not much going on there.

Also: my apologies to folks in other countries. We had few enough responses from some places that I couldn’t break those out separately, but your answers were still valuable for the other numbers we calculated above!

Aly: There’s not much of a market for freelance cartography-specific work in the other parts of the world I’ve lived in.

Daniel: That’s an interesting thought: is the market actually mostly US-centered? I thought maybe it was just a bias in our sample, but maybe if we could count every mapmaking freelancer, we’d actually find that a lot of them are in the US?

In your time in the Caribbean did you encounter other freelancers there? Or in other countries you may have lived in?

Aly: I haven’t, not in the countries that I have lived in while I was at the point in my career that I was freelancing (and paying attention to others that did as well). I worked with a fellow student subcontracting on a project from a professor in Trinidad, so a few of my professors from my master’s program did take on some side work.

Daniel: I’d be curious for our readers in other countries to comment on the robustness of their freelance cartographic scenes.

Any other things you saw in the survey that interested you, or surprised you? I think that’s mostly what I’ve extracted from it.

Aly: That’s mostly what I gathered from it as well, I hope we can get a discussion of the results started with the carto-audience, I’d be interested to hear other people’s thoughts.

Daniel: Absolutely. I think people will be excited. Even just the bottom-line understanding that the average going rate is about $65/hr is extremely useful for all of us floating, disconnected out there who don’t know where to begin valuing our services.

I’m also beginning to learn from the survey how undifferentiated the market is as far as skills and experience, and I think it’s useful for all of us to think about ways to educate clients as to how much we’re worth. If they can’t judge our resumes, maybe we (or testimonials from other clients) can help them understand.

Aly: I’d also be interested to break that down even more into a price range for small-scale orgs or NGOs vs a price range for larger or corporate clients as well as how that average rate changes more clearly based on experience (which didn’t show up with much of a trend in the survey)

Daniel: Sounds like we have some thoughts for future surveys. Perhaps down the line, especially after we see what new questions this one prompts in people’s’ minds, we can do some more.

Thanks to everyone who took our survey! Aly and I hope that you will all find this enlightening, and that it will lead all freelancers to feel more comfortable and confident in setting rates.

Another Survey!

It’s time for another survey! Apparently instead of making random maps in my spare time, my new current hobby is asking questions of my colleagues.

As you may know, I’m keen to make the money side of freelancing more transparent. Toward that end, Aly Ollivierre and I are collaborating on an anonymous survey of freelancers, asking them how much they charge, as well as a few other details about their practices. If you do any freelance mapmaking (whether occasional, part-time, or full-time), I hope you’ll take a few minutes to answer. The survey is open to you no matter what country you live in, as well.

Take the survey here: https://goo.gl/forms/0y5RALVW0tQ4QFZ72

Finally, please help us spread the word! We’d like to get a robust data set with lots of respondents. Stay tuned to this space for a writeup of our results later on.

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 WordPress.com 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: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLScp4WuxeoCR6TgUYydJVsfzdI4jrU4khQkd_n94zM1VL-kcjA/viewform?usp=sf_link

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.