5 Major Elements of a good map

According to Wikipedia, a map is a symbolic depiction emphasizing spatial relationships between elements of some space or a given area such as objects, regions, or themes. In other words, a map is a two dimensional representation of the earth on a flat surface. The graphics represented on a map are usually facts and features showing a given spot and helping a user to better understand and make sense of the world around us and beyond.

Maps are a very important part of our day to day lives because they help us to navigate, understand and explain the world. In order to have a proper map that will be able to communicate effectively, the following elements ought to be rightly implemented during the map development lifecycle.

Map Title

The title or what you’d refer to as the heading of the map, clearly suggests the the subject of the map. This is the first item usually though not always seen at the top of the map page, written in large fonts for easy identification with descriptive text of the location name, and the purpose of the map. For example, “CONTOUR MAP SHOWING KIBOGA DISTRICT STATIC WATER LEVEL”. Ideally, the title is a sneak peak into what the map is all about.

Map Legend

A map legend or the Key on a map is the definitive list of all featured symbols with their names used in a given map layout. while creating a Legend, we usually make use of symbolic graphics being represents by a feature on a map such as a point to indicate am electric pole, or a blue wavy line to indicate a water stream.

A map without a legend would be hard to understand because of the ambiguity of what each symbol could stand for on a map. The type of symbol chosen to represent a feature on a map, should be visually convey the same relationship with the respective feature on the map. For example, a rectangle representing a house and a star or a dot representing an electric pole. As a rule of thumb, a symbol to be used on a legend, should be easily categorized under the following three groups; a polygon which can really be of any shape, polyline or simply a line, and a point.

Compass direction

A north arrow (also called the compass rose) is a graphic symbol used to show the orientation of the map relative to the direction of north and south. Ideally, when the map moves or rotates, the north arrow moves or rotates along with the map.

By convention, the north arrow is usually placed vertically on the map except if the map was tilted or rotated in some way then the north arrow faces the same direction to indicate the orientation of the map.

One may actually wonder when does one need to use a north arrow? The concept of the North arrow facing up is not an arbitrary one, but to point in the Northern hemisphere. Therefore, in cases where this is not the case, the north arrow comes in handy to save the situation.


In cartography, Scale is the relation between a distance or extent on a map and the equivalent distance or area on the ground, usually expressed in form of a fraction or ratio. For example, the scale of 1:10,000 where 1 centimeter on a map represents 1km in real space on the ground.

The concept of scale on a map has always been a confusing one to me and am sure to so many out there. And am thinking this could be caused by the way scale is read versus how it is implemented. The smaller the map scale, the bigger the map extent. Map scale is usually written on a map in form of a ratio (1:10000), or using a bar scale as shown in the image above and sometimes both.

Apart from helping the map reader to translate the distance represented on a pam to the actual distance on the ground, the Map Scale also helps us to determine the amount of content or features that a map will contain. This is through the function of “zoom in” and “zoom out” of a map. Or simply put, the map scale influences the extent of the map content viewable either on screen or on print.

Map Neatline

Sometimes it can be a little confusing to distinguish between a Neatline and a Frameline and how these relate to a data frame on a map. And depending on the cartographer’s style of map making, the two can be applied interchangeably one in the place of another.

Briefly, a Neatline is the outline boarder delineating and defining the edges of the mapped units on the final map.

A Frameline on the other hand is the line around every other element that appears on a map including the Neatline itself. And within a Frameline, you might or might not have a Neatline that contains the actual mapped area. This is common with wholesome maps like the map of a country or a continent where the Frameline acts also as the Neatline.

Since the map has got numerous items, the Neatline helps to identify exactly where the mapped area stops. This becomes even more important for instance where the map is zoomed in to a smaller scale defining the boundary of the mapped area without extending the map to fill the entire page.

Other Elements found on a map

There are quite a number of elements used to create a map that will communicate effectively and leave a lasting impression to the reader. Besides the 5 major elements, a professional map will also require the following as a standard and emphasis of good practice. The Inset map or the locator map used to identify the mapped area on a lager map with a bigger scale, the Map credits which show additional information about the map like the name of cartographer, data source, and dates among others.

GIS analyst who loves anything techie. https://techtrybe.tech/

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