Map layout

Map layout (sometimes referred to as map composition) is the term used for how a map and all its marginal elements are arranged on a page or screen. The marginal elements may include, but are not limited to, a scale bar, north arrow, locator map, legend, source information and title. There is much more to a map than just the map figure itself. Indeed, it is the marginal elements that will help users to understand and use the map and thought needs to be paid to their design and placement on the page. Getting the map layout correct will not only make the map more aesthetically pleasing (appear balanced) but will help ensure effective communication of the map subject to its audience.

A good page layout will appear visually balanced when viewed as a whole; balancing the map and marginal information with white space so that the page does not feel top heavy (for example) or the marginal information jump to the forefront of the image unnecessarily.

Which marginal elements you want (or need) to include on your map will depend on the purpose of your map and the user’s requirements. These may include:

  • Main map figure

  • Title (and subtitle)

  • Legend

  • Locator map

  • Inset map(s)

  • Graphs, illustrative graphics or photos

  • Scale bar or statement of scale

  • North arrow

  • Grid numbers or graticule markings

  • Explanatory text

  • Copyright statement

  • Source information

  • Author information

  • Technical information such as details of the coordinate system, projection details, publication date and revision information

Each of these should be placed carefully on your map to achieve visual balance. Before placing the elements on the page, they should be ordered and sized appropriately to achieve an appropriate visual hierarchy as the order in which these map elements are read by the user is important to the overall efficiency of communication to the user. The user should therefore see the main map figure first and then perhaps the title, locator map/illustrative graphics and the legend. The final items the user should see (and therefore often the smallest text on the page) are items such as the source information and copyright statement. This visual hierarchy can be achieved by changing the size, position, line weight and colours of the elements.

How to achieve visual balance?

Designing a map layout which appears balanced, with all map elements working in harmony with each other can be a more time-consuming task than you’d first think. It’s worth spending the time playing with it and trialling different options to get it right though as a map which is visually appealing is often more engaging to the user and more effective at communicating.

Some top tips:

  • The visual centre of a piece of paper is actually just above the centre.

  • Items placed at the top of the page will have more visual weight than those further down the page i.e. they will be seen quicker.

  • Smaller, darker items can be used to balance out larger, lighter items.

  • Keep related items together e.g. the scale bar and north arrow located near the map figure.

  • Keep straight edges together and irregular edges together where possible.

  • Align items both vertically and horizontally – use rulers and guides in GIS software and graphic design software to help achieve this.

Our recommended process:

  • First, think about the shape of your map figure and pick a paper size and orientation that reflects it. If your map extends more in a North-South Orientation, a portrait page might be more appropriate, whereas an area which extends more in an East-West would better suit a landscape page.

  • Place your map figure on the page – you’ll likely want to maximise the extent of this and place the visual centre of your map figure at the visual centre of the page.

  • Once your map figure has been placed on the page, consider the blank space around the map and what additional items you need to include.

  • Place your marginal elements on the page carefully so all elements, and white space, balance each other. This does not mean you need to fill all the white space!

  • Stand back and squint at your page – does it appear balanced? If not, you may need to adjust the placement of some elements. This may include adjusting the size or position of some elements such as placing a small, darker item further away from the visual centre to balance a larger item closer to the visual centre of the map.

Additional advice for marginal information


A map title is normally the largest text in the layout and should appear towards the top of the visual hierarchy. The title should quickly and succinctly inform the user what the subject of the map is, the location of the map and also the date (if relevant). There is no need to use the phrase β€˜A map of…’ as this should already be clear to the user. Subtitles and explanatory text can be used to provide the user with additional information about the map but these should be of a smaller text size and located lower in the overall visual hierarchy of the map layout. A poorly worded or overly long title can confuse the user and detract from the message of the visualisation.

In terms of its design, the title must be easy to read and the type style (font) in keeping with the overall map design. Overly ornate or bold text or text with drop shadows should generally be avoided.

Locator and inset maps

Locator maps are commonly used for showing the location of the map figure in relation to a wider geographical area and help users to orientate themselves. A locator map will have a smaller scale than the main map and thus should be designed to reflect this – removing features (and generalising if required) to maintain legibility. Ensure you keep the style of the locator map consistent with the main map figure.

Inset maps can are used for a variety of reasons. They can provide an extension of the main map at the same scale, for example, showing locations related to the main mapped area that are geographically distant e.g. Hawaii in relation to the USA. Inset maps can also be used to show additional information related to the main map theme, such as data from a different date. Commonly, inset maps are used to provide an enlargement of important or congested areas. With this latter use case, the inset map(s) should be designed to reflect their larger scale, rather than just showing an enlargement of the main map. Inset maps should also be designed so that their style is in keeping with that of the main map. If including an inset map as an enlargement of an area on the main map, the area covered by the inset should be indicated on the main map figure using a bounding box or a set of lines.


An important part of most maps is a legend (or key) which provides an explanation of the symbols on the map and helps the map user to understand and interpret the map. A lot of thought should be put into their design in order to make them effective tools of communication. Legends can either be placed in a separate box on the map or can be strategically placed within white space, without a bounding box. More information about legend design and arrangement can be found here.

Scale indicator

A scale bar may not be required or appropriate and if it is, its design should reflect the overall style and complexity of the map figure. Scale bars should appear relatively low in the visual hierarchy of your map but should be easy to find if required by the user. More information about map scale and scale bars can be found here.

North arrow

Like scale bars, a north arrow may not be required or be appropriate. At a continental scale, a graticule might be more appropriate for the depiction of North. If you do include a north arrow, it should generally be small and simple rather than overly ornate and should reflect the style and complexity of the main map figure. It should appear relatively low in the visual hierarchy but should be easy to find and use if required. More information about north arrows and orientation can be found here.

Source and technical information

Amongst the smallest text on the map will likely be the source information and details about datums, coordinate reference systems and projections (if required). It is important to attribute the data source and any copyrights – as this allows users to understand where the data is from and any relevant licence information. Datums, coordinate systems and projection information are likely to be important on maps used for navigation, so that users can relate their position in real life to the map and vice versa.

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