Map symbols

GeoDataViz: Cartographic symbols | Blog

A map is a graphic visualization of the world around us and is made up of a variety of symbols to help us represent that geography.

The cards use symbols to label real-life features and make the cards clearer. With so many features on a map, there wouldn’t be enough space to label everything with text.

Symbols can be small pictures, letters, lines, or colored areas to show things like campsites, pubs, or bus stations. If you look closely at a card, you will see that it is covered with symbols.

Point data can include telephone poles, wells or trig pillars and can be represented using shapes, symbols or even logos and can sometimes be followed by a text description or a leader line

Line the data can include roads, paths or railroads and can be as simple as a blue line representing a river or more complex as road features where two lines (the road envelope) surround a colored fill.

Polygon the data can include woods, water or sand and is used to represent features of the area which can be filled with colors, patterns or symbols. On a small scale, a forest populated by conifers could be represented by a green polygon while at a large scale, the same forest could be represented with the same green polygon and include a fill pattern using a symbol designating a conifer.

Trees map symbol

When deciding on the choice or design of your symbol, there are many factors to consider before making your final decision.

Max Roberts ( recently said:“People have expectations about the meaning of symbols and styles. The meaning chosen by the designer must be compatible with the expectations of the users ”

Make the right choice or design your symbol and you have met the expectations of your users and produced an easy to use map that is clear in its representation of the world around us.

Entity type

What is the characteristic you are trying to represent? What’s the best way to do this? At one scale, a feature representation may be better suited as a point while at another scale, it may be better represented as a polygon.


A map scale is the size ratio of a feature on the map to that in the real world.
Small scale maps show large areas with less detail and generally use more symbols. We need to simplify the geography because the location of a feature is more generalized.

Large scale maps show small areas but with a lot of detail and therefore require fewer symbols. This is because entities can be displayed on or near their correct position. You can see from this GIF how you can represent the same information differently across a range of scales and different types of maps.

For example, at its smallest scale, the city of Edinburgh is represented by a point, polygon, and label. The size of the point and text is determined by the scale of the map while the polygon, which is used to show urban extent, is generalized to fit the scale. As we move through the scales, the text changes in size, the point disappears, and the urban extent polygon becomes less and less generalized.

GIF Recreation Card


Can your symbol be understood and interpreted clearly? Sometimes you might want to use the same symbol on a range of scales, so you need to make sure that your choice of symbol can be scaled accordingly and doesn’t lose any of its details when you downsize it. .


The color of your symbol can be just as important as the design itself and there are a few things worth considering before making that final decision.

  • Does it work in your chosen map color scheme?
  • Where does your symbol fit in your visual hierarchy? If a particular symbol is important to your map’s message, its color choice should stand out from the color of your other map features.
  • Is your symbol in a particular feature set? For example, on OS maps all tourist features are shown in light blue. This builds familiarity and confidence among your map users to understand what your symbols mean.
  • Be careful, the color you have chosen has no hidden perception. Some people may designate red as a danger or a warning that you may not want to associate with the symbol you have chosen.

Data type

A symbol representation can also be determined by the type of data you are using. If your map information is qualitative then all of your features are equally important, so you shouldn’t make any of your symbols seem more important than the other. You can vary the shape, color or design of the symbols, but they should all appear the same. If your map information is quantitative, all of your features have different importance. Therefore, the size, color, or padding of your symbols is varied so that features appear more or less meaningful than others.

The last thing to consider is the legend or key to your map. The best designed symbols will be those that can be interpreted immediately and do not require the map user to refer to a legend. However, this is not always possible and in this case it is important to include a legend so that your user can easily understand what the symbology of your map represents. When considering the layout of your caption, try to group all of your related features together. For example, all road features should appear together (roads, gas stations, junctions, height differences, etc.) and be sure to represent your symbols on your legend at the same size as they appear on the map. This will ensure that the transition of your map users from the map to the legend is as smooth as possible.

We recently released our GDV Toolkit and here you will find a set of operating system map symbols (in SVG format), information on how to use symbols effectively, and links to other symbol resources. useful maps.
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