Visual Design and Composition Lessons from 30 Beautiful Maps

Effective design can often be found in unlikely places, both past and present.

Unsurprising because the essentials of good visual communication have been around since time immemorial. Up to now we are still learning some valuable lessons from even the oldest manifestations of graphic design.

Cartography is one great example because it balances information, color, and crucial measurement. In this article we’ll take a look at lessons we can learn from the age-old art of map-making.

From maps rendered in watercolour to 3D, we’ve gathered 30 of the most beautiful maps around the web and derived the most valuable graphic design lessons we can learn from them.

01. Create Emphasis With Negative Space

By definition, negative space is the space surrounding the focal point/s of a design. It’s an element of artistic composition used to create or emphasise the main object’s form or silhouette.

Neutral or contrasting shades are usually used to draw attention to the main subject (a.k.a. the positive space). This principle of design is crucial to leading the viewer’s eyes to the main points of the design in the order that best communicates its content.

Negative space also gives the viewer’s eye a “place to rest” within the composition. It allows the viewer to take in the visuals without being bombarded with information.

On maps, elements such as oceans and lakes are represented as negative space.

Our example above shows an excellent watercolour map by Lauren Wargo in which she uses the body of water to emphasise and draw the eye to the land. This is a much more effective design than a plain land map because the neutral space lends it ample breathing space.

The next is a simplistic geographical map which conveys the represented cities’ complexities with vibrant colors balanced by white.

Lastly we have a beautiful design of the African continent by Tang Yau Hoong. It cleverly uses animal silhouettes to offset and form the contours of the map. The map is also infused with the colors of the iconic African sunset, adding depth of meaning to the positive space and balancing it with the illustrative features of the negative space.

02. Use Colour Association for Quick Connections

Colour is one of the most powerful tools in a designer’s arsenal because of the universal meanings we associate with them.

Through the use of familiar colours, the associations and connections we make are near instant. This makes for a very convenient mode of communication without resorting to clutters of labels.

On maps, for example, there’s usually no mistaking that the blue areas are water and the green areas are land. Take a look at the map of a park below — the classic blue and green tones create an instant understanding of the terrain while sprinkles of red stand out from the classic combination, drawing attention to important areas.

Next up, this more detailed map and colour palette. We also see the colour red used, which is commonly associated with importance, to mark certain buildings and areas.

Pastel green dominates this map of the fictional town in the television series, Twin Peaks. In here, the land area is the negative space because of its monochromatic tones, blending in the road, trees and mountain peaks with an understated color scheme.

In effect, the eyes are almost magnetized to the most prominent element on the map — the black lake — a crucial location in the show.

03. Add Character to Your Design With Thoughtful Typography

As you may already know, typography can add heaps of character to your design. Type can even make or break a design — it has the power to make an otherwise good composition feel off, just because of a mismatched font.

Typography is especially crucial in a map because the details have to be both highly legible (when detailing locations). In more illustrative maps, the right decorative font elevates the design and can add character and context to what would have been a plain map.

In this example of a map from the extremely popular book/television show Game of Thrones the designer has used a typical Middle Earth script style to add authenticity to the visual representation of the show’s iconic locations.

This map of Wisconsin uses typography with whimsical Mid Western stylings to add context to the design. The use of negative space and typography within the lake is also a great example of maximizing the available space.

Lastly, we have this incredible map of Japan made completely out of typography. This typeface makes use of a classical calligraphic style — a nod to the culture and history of Japan.

04. Use Minimalist Elements to Make Your Designs Contemporary and Easily Digestible

Because maps contain crucial details for guiding people in real life, there is often a lot of factual information that needs to be conveyed accurately — and still be visually interesting.

This is where simple/minimal design can do wonders. By synthesizing aesthetics into the core function of the map, powerful designs that are both beautiful and easy to digest can be created.

This design from a postcard shows a sleek and simple map of the Spitalfields area in Central London. Through negative space and minimally contoured shapes the viewer able to easily direct themselves to the important locations marked in the map — the Canteen restaurant and the Liverpool Street Station.

This next map of New York utilises simple shapes and a minimal colour palette, applied to alternate blocks. Negative space to represent the body of water and roads to keep the minimal theme.

It’d be a tough challenge to find a world map as abstracted as the piece below. By using large blocks and only four different colours this illustrative map mostly relies on our banked knowledge to make the association.

05. Bring Your Designs to Life With Perspective

There are various ways to break free of this and breath some fresh air into your work. One of these is by flipping the perspective on your design.

Maps are usually done in 2D (or flat) as this has often been the norm. However, a simple flip of perspective can take what would’ve been a stock standard design and turn it into something special.

This map uses a colourful and glossy design along with a 3D approach, making it pop and giving off the rich look and feel this campaign was going for.

This hybrid map is pretty genius and almost gives me vertigo just looking at it.

This next one combines some of the traditional colors of maps — those particular shades of blue and green almost makes it look like it came straight out of an atlas. With its detailed rendition, it gives off an interesting vibe.

06. Use Scale to Your Advantage

Scale plays an important role on visually guiding your audience’s eyes to certain points in the design. By using scale, you can highlight crucial points and minimise others.

With maps it’s a little more difficult seeing as the location have to be accurately represented to scale. However, scale can be used in this case to emphasise certain locations or spots on the map.

In the map below, the size of Thailand is emphasized, because it is set against the hulking Indian ocean and the rest of South East Asia. There’s also a “worldview” map on the upper left hand side showing where Thailand sits on the vast planet earth.

This map of Cape Town below illustrates the scale of various establishments and natural features such as the stadium arenas and Table Mountain.

Much like the Cape Town map, this Vietnam map uses scale to highlight iconic locations.

07. Make the Bare Necessities Stand out With Stunning Linework

Linework is a fundamental aspect of design, and is one of the most important aspects in cartography — especially with maps showing particular details such as transit lines or pathways.

This stark representation of the Tokyo transit system is one of the finest examples you could look at when it comes to strong linework.

This map uses its bare-bones linework as the main aesthetic of the design, but provides us with many different points of information with just this one technique — the diagonal and dotted lines are used to differentiated certain areas and hiking trails.

With minimalism and bold use of negative space, both this piece below and the previous Tokyo poster are able to show abstract beauty in the chaos that is transit.

08. A Consistent Illustration Style Provides Context for Your Design

Using a consistent illustration style lends overall consistency to a map as it is on of the biggest parts of its aesthetic whole. By keeping the illustration within the guidelines of the look and feel you’re shooting for, the final product will be in harmony with all the other design elements and in line with it’s original intent.

In this piece the icons, typeface, and even the circle enclosing all these elements, all play a role in keeping the style consistent.

Consistent with the map of London above, this illustration of Amsterdam also uses a quirky illustration style.

Aside from following a similar whimsical path as the examples above, this map also uses a limited colour palette to complement the illustration.

09. Add Texture to Create Depth and a New Sense of Feeling

Texture can convey a lot of information and can lend energy and dynamism to a design. Layering in texture also allows the designer to add details without painstakingly having to draw them in. 

For example, the texture in the map below adds in instant terrain to the map in an interesting, unpredictable way.

A much simpler example, this map of the California wine routes uses subtle gradients and lines to create depth and texture.

The grungy texture adds a lot of personality and energy to this Hunger Games map.

10. Connect With Your Audience by Using Imagery They’re Familiar With

Iconography is the most effective way to get your audience into the context of your design simply by playing off common knowledge. Iconic imagery such as a London phone booth or Egyptian pyramids helps audience make instant connections and evoke connotations that fleshes out the viewer’s understanding of an image.

This map of Bali shows us features they’re known for the world over such as yoga and the monkey forest.

This map of Britain is a masterclass in iconography, packed to the brim with every widely known reference about the island from the Beatles to the London Red Buses, and even the English Bulldog.

This unconventional map of Salzburg is illustrated with dynamic perspectives and showcases some of the things Austria is known for, such as the Kapuzinerberg Mountain.

Conclusion

Now that we’ve taken a look at some awesome maps and what we can learn from them, always remember that there are some really insightful design and composition lessons all around us, and not just from the obvious places that we’re used to looking.

If you know of any notable maps we missed or you’re familiar with any virtuoso mapmakers out there, let us know in the comments section!

Prasanthan is a Freelance Creative Strategist, Writer and Social Media Guy with an eye for design. He resides in the City of Gold — Johannesburg — and is currently finishing his Bachelor of Arts in Marketing, Advertising and Branding. In his spare time, he runs an online thrift/vintage clothing store with a few friends.