GIS Tips – Use Styles in ArcGIS to be consistent

I love using Quantum GIS, though one thing that lets it down (until June 2013) is the cartographic and representation side of it, this is where ArcGIS excels. This may sound…sorry, this is a bit nerdy but I have a “style” when I make my maps, so I need to ensure that all the maps I make have similar symbol colours and shapes from one map to another, of course there is an evolution to the symbols but these are small changes over time.

ArcGIS provides me with a way to not only be consistent but share these styles I have created with other members of my team so that I can ensure my company is consistent too. If you are an ArcGIS user and create maps on a daily basis I strongly recommend you skim through the information on page layouts and styles.

The ArcGIS Style sheet:

Within ArcGIS there is 3 ways (4 if you use ArcInfo/Advanced) to use layer symbology;

  1. Layer packets – Stored as a .lpk file, this is essentially a zipfile with a layer definition in one folder and a shapefile in another. These are portable and are ideal for ensuring recipients use the symbol definition as it was created, this format is not suitable for multiple users within a workplace.Naming convention
  2. Layer files – Stored as a .lyr file, this file is a reference to the source data, therefore if the data is moved or connection is lost, the symbology needs reconnecting to the source data otherwise the symbology doesn’t draw. This format is great for workplaces where there is one data controller and several users as the raw data can be “hidden” and data only added to ArcGIS through the layer file ensuring the users are always using the correct definition.
  3. Stylesheet – Stored as .style format. This is a file which can store many symbology references that can be applied to data, think of it more as a “menu” of styles and colours which you can apply to your raw data. With this you can create a whole set of colour schemes for all your company data and store in within the ArcGIS style folder and simply pick the correct symbol to apply to your data. This is a good method if you have multiple high level users who need to apply a companies symbology consistently but require more flexibility.Image
  4. Representations – Only available in ArcInfo or ArcGIS Advanced, this method allows you to store the symbology within the shapefile/feature class itself, again, ensuring the correct symbology is defined when users are using your data.

So, the question is, which method to use? The answer……well, that depends on you. I wouldn’t recommend using layer packets for day to day work and I wouldn’t recommend layer files if your working in mobile locations away from your colleagues otherwise you will have to keep transferring and reconnecting the layer files.

Personally, I prefer to use stylesheets, this is  a little more time consuming, in that you have to apply the symbol to the data every time you load it but, it means that I can define symbols for a whole project or company at a time and build subdivisions within that again to define subtypes. I have been using ArcGIS for many years and I found that I had started to create multiple versions of layers files all over the company server as I noted that layer files are great when you need to define the symbology for a single data but when you have, for example, 25 projects all needing their own definition for roads, or houses, you find that you need a single definition (stylesheet) which you can apply to each data as you use it.

Now, you are probably sat there (I know I did the first time), thinking how much work that would be, to create a symbology reference for every file you use, Ordnance Survey Vectormap alone took me 3 days (then they released the style file on their website – Grrr!!)

Sit down and equate it – The time it takes to build the symbology (this could be done a map at a time until its all built up) versus the time it takes to apply symbology every time, then the time it takes to adjust it so that it fits the other data in your map, then adjust it so that it matches the other versions you have made and then convey those values across the company.

Using stylesheets, layer files and layer packets can save a lot of time if you invest your time wisely, I’m pretty picky over my map representation and time is always short. So I find that ArcGIS is the only way I can provide the consistency I demand given the short project timescales I work to.

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