Cartographer's Toolkit

Map Making Tips, Tricks, and Inspiration

Labels on Maps: A Before and After

February 18th, 2016

Many people feel that halos (aka outline text) around their map labels will help their map labels stand out better and thereby be more legible. However, in many cases the use of halos ends up obscuring the legibility.

Typeface designers spend a lot of time working out the exact proportions of their letter forms and making sure that the “counters,” the blank space in and around a letter form*, are roomy enough and provide just the right amount of style in just the right places.

Unfortunately, halos run counter to the counters! Especially halos that have a high color contrast with the text. In many cases you can provide the necessary legibility by simply altering your typeface choice, capitalization, text color, and size parameters.

Brian Bancroft, @Brian_Bancroft, provides a great example of this in the before and after maps, below.

With Halos


*Better definition of counter from Webster: an area within the face of a letter wholly or partly enclosed by strokes.

Type Tips

May 22nd, 2013

Note: From time to time old posts will be resurfaced on the blog. This one is from Sept. 2010.

If you are using small caps for your labels (which we should do more of, they look good!), use true-drawn small caps. What this means is to avoid using the “small caps” font changer in your software. (In ArcGIS this is found in the Properties dialog, Change Symbol, Properties, Formatted Text, Text Case.) In the following example, the first Hello There is written in 20 pt Fontin Sans Small Caps and the second Hello There is written in 20 pt Fontin Sans Regular with the Small Case option.

If you are creating a lot of labels in a small amount of space, use light or medium weight condensed typefaces. They are built specifically for small spaces in that the white space in each letter is less apt to disappear and the descenders will be shorter. Furthermore, serif condensed is okay for small type, but once you get to about 8 pt or smaller it’s best to use sans serif condensed.

The following example is taken to the extreme. You can barely read the 3rd Hello There, written in a sans serif condensed font at 7 pt. However, you certainly can’t read the 2nd Hello There, written in a serif condensed font at 7 pt.

Bold text is difficult to read at small sizes because it tends to fill in the white spaces* in the letters.

While many of us simply italicize labels for water features such as rivers, oceans, and lakes, don’t forget that you can use a typeface that specifically has oblique and reverse oblique lettering for these labels.

*A.k.a. “counters”

Halos are Evil*

November 14th, 2012

The general consensus among designers is that halos around text detract considerably from a design. The most common reason that map makers employ the halo technique is to provide added emphasis on text or to make the text legible on highly saturated and complex backgrounds.

However, when a halo—particularly of the “large and lumpy” type—is used, it subverts and obfuscates all the typeface designer’s original work. No longer does the spacing, shape, consistency, x height, vertical stress, apex form, incline, and counter size make sense. In short, it looks bad.

*As with any “rule”, this idea of halos looking bad is more nuanced than I’ve initially let on. Small halos, where the color of the halo matches the map’s background color, can be effective in allowing the text to be more separated from other intervening layers such as roads.

Let’s see this in action. Just to make things interesting, the example is of a very difficult situation involving a complex tree height LiDAR analysis, a riparian corridor, and a creek name label. There will be other cases that will be more simple than this, and in those, simply get rid of the halo or change the font’s size or color to achieve the kind of emphasis and contrast that you need.

Here’s the initial set-up with no halo. It is difficult to read:

To make the creek name stand out more, you might try a mega halo. This results in visual catastrophe:

Another option might be to make a smaller halo. Halos in Arc default to white. Most simply stick with the default, as in this example, which still doesn’t work:

Finally, a solution that does work. Changing the small halo color from white to the same green that makes up most of the color that is behind it, visually separates without drawing undue attention:

In some cases, a halo of this type won’t work if the map reader will be scrutinizing every pixel that lies near the text. In this example, the map reader might misinterpret the light green halo as representing more of the equally colored tree-height pixels, incorrectly thinking there is more of that tree-height category than there is. For a map meant to be read at close-range for visual analysis, such as this one, the light green halo is not the ideal solution. Other maps will not have this problem (for example, if the background was a solid ocean polygon). The solution for this map is to get rid of the halo completely and lighten the saturation of the tree-height layer.

Testing the Use of Openface Fonts for Large Area Labeling

August 23rd, 2012

There is a seminal paper by Eduard Imhof on the correct placement of point, line, and area labels titled Positioning Names on Maps. If you haven’t already read and studied this paper, then this is something to be put at the top of your list if you ever do label positioning.

One brief passage in the paper discusses the idea that spreading a label across a large area may create an unintended heaviness to the label. If your label has a large amount of character spacing and you do not want it to appear as though it is at the top of the labeling hierarchy, he suggests using an openface font. To test this idea, I’ve installed the free font called Cloister Open Face (available here). There aren’t a lot of openface fonts available and they are certainly not widely used.

Testing the font on an existing map yielded the following. Please note that this map shows rough boundaries of the axis and allied powers as they stood at the very beginning of World War II — they are not the current political boundaries. I’m using this map simply for illustrative purposes and because it happened to be at-hand this morning.

Original label in Garamond Bold


 Label changed to Cloister Open Face Regular


Indeed, it does certainly seem as though the open face font allows the type to be spread out across a large area without drawing as much attention to it as with a regular font. This does show that it is a technique that needs to be in your mental file. However, do realize that it is not a commonly seen technique. Much more common is to simply downgrade the font’s color from a bold black to, say, a medium gray. In the examples above, a medium gray produces a cool-on-warm “dizzy” effect so the following example only reduces the black by 20%. However, it still achieves a bit of a lightening of the weight when compared with the first, completely black, example.


Label changed from bold black to bold 80% gray


Relevant label-types for this technique include mountain ranges, national parks, and wilderness areas, to name a few. Remember, if you are working with a map that has a light background (i.e., not like the examples in this post), you may want to try a bold light-gray font color instead of an openface font. As always, experiment yourself and determine what is best for your particular map subject and style.

If you like this post, you might also like Type Tips II.

Avería Font

May 2nd, 2012

Looking for a new typeface to use in print or digital products? The Avería typeface might be just the ticket: it is friendly and easy on the eye. Yesterday @amandahstaub (with hat tip to @jesshartley) pointed out this fairly new typeface so I decided to try it out. It looks quite nice on its website here. But, would it look good on maps? To test this I downloaded and installed the regular flavor–there are many flavors including bold, italic, and even separate sans and serifs–and used it for all the labels on the test map (click for larger version):

The street labels are at 8pt and they don’t look very nice. The Irondale label did turn out pretty well though. From this admittedly brief testing I’d posit that the font looks best at 10-18pt sizes. Any smaller or larger and the ragged edges of the font make it look too rough. In large text-blocks at 10-18pt size, however, it does look quite nice as long as you are okay with an informal style, including extremely varied line weights:

Definitely check out the site, linked to above, to read the story behind how Avería was created. It is basically an amalgam of all the fonts that the designer (“iotic” is all I can get of his/her name) had: 725 for the main font, a different font count for the other flavors. You can read about the various hang-ups that were encountered along the way and the decisions that had to be made. Even if you aren’t much into typefaces, this is worth the read.

The font software is freely available for any type of use, including commercial. Note that it is also available as Avería Libre in Google Web Fonts.

Typographic Cartography

May 17th, 2011

I don’t know much about the field of typographic cartography but its products seem to be made by graphic designers or artists rather than cartographers, for one thing, and often center themselves in London, for another thing. Why London? I have no clue.

Here are some examples, clicking on the pictures sends you to the source:

And we absolutely can’t leave out the amazing work of Axis Maps, a small portion of their Washington DC map shown here:

Cartographer's Toolkit

Map Making Tips, Tricks, and Inspiration