Map Fonts Basics

I was looking at different fonts and how they worked with my current templates when I came across this great little article from 4 years ago which briefly discusses the issue of using the correct fonts, something all too often overlooked and something very close to my heart.

Source: January 2, 2009

Map Font Basics: Typography

Font Families
Typography is the art and methods of arranging type, type design, and modifying type glyphs.
Type glyphs are created and modified using a variety of illustration techniques. The arrangement of type involves the selection of typefaces, point size, line length, leading (line spacing), letter-spacing (tracking), style, effects, and kerning.  In typography, kerning is the process of adjusting letter spacing in a proportional font. In a well-kerned font, the two-dimensional blank spaces between each pair of letters all have similar area.

Unaware Readers = Happy Maps

In traditional typography, text is composed to create a readable, coherent, and visually satisfying whole that works invisibly, without the awareness of the reader. Even distribution with a minimum of distractions and anomalies are aimed at producing clarity and transparency.  The goal is legibility and readability. Typography for Cartography can be more complex than traditional typography because of complex text placement and potential density of features, visual hierarchy, overall look and feel, the fact that text often represent features as symbols in their own right, and the interplay between text and other multi-layered map features such as symbols, background colors, and textures. However, the overall goal of legibility and readability remains the same.
Felix Arnold (2004) lists several ways in which cartography differs from traditional typography:
  • On maps and plans, text competes with the graphics. In books and magazines, they normally work alongside one another.
  • Cannot be placed over backgrounds that share the same color as the letters.
  • Typically placed over many various types of backgrounds – which are usually dark – instead of a common white background
  • Small text can be difficult to read when placed over complex, textured backgrounds.
  • The eye reads text on a map letter-by-letter, instead of through word shapes.
  • Single lines of text often run across the page diagonally, or on a curve.
  • Type size and style changes quite a lot on maps.
  • Much map text is set in quite small point sizes.

Legibility of Type on Maps

Legibility is the quality of the typeface design and readability with the design of the printed page. Place names should be set in a typeface of normal weight in lower case with an initial capital. However, very difficult names need to be copied accurately, capitals are recommended(1).  As cartographic methods became more mechanical in the mid-20th century, the Leroy Lettering System was developed to help cartographers produce consistent, legible text. The Leroy type style is popular on maps of that era.  Today, the font “Sublime” closely mimics the Leroy style.
(1) Phillips, R. J., Noyes, L. and Audley, R. J. (1977). The legibility of type on maps. Ergonomics, 20, 671-682.

Type Basics


Serifs are semi-structural details on the ends of some of the strokes that make up letters and symbols (also known as Roman).


A typeface without serifs is called sans-serif, from the French sans, meaning “without” (also known as Gothic). In traditional print, sans-serif fonts are more typically used for headlines than for body text. Sans-serif fonts have become the de facto standard for body text on-screen, especially online.

Font Families

A font family is a group of fonts, designed to be used in combination and exhibiting similarities in design. One member of the family may be italic, another bold, another condensed or using small caps.

Font Variants

The font variant specifies whether the text is to be rendered using a normal, bold, italic, or oblique face.

Weight, Stretch, Size

The font weight refers to the boldness or lightness of the glyphs used to render the text. The font stretch indicates the desired amount of condensing or expansion in the glyphs used to render the text. The font size refers to the size of the font from baseline to baseline.

How to Font

Digital fonts are created using specialized software.  A basic understanding of how fonts are created can help the cartographer in their understanding of typography. While font creation is beyond the scope of this lesson, an excellent tutorial is available from [Divide By Zero] Fonts and the Tom 7 Institute of Computer Knowledge (TICK).  Divide By Zero is my favorite site for free and very fun fonts.

Map Font Selection

Cartographic convention says to pair a Sarif type family and a Sans-sarif type family on your map. Within each family different variants, sizes, and colors are applied.  Most professional cartographers have their favorite pairings.  For example, on the CartoTalk forum, the following were listed:
•Frutiger with Meridien
•Rotis and Univers
•Myriad (sans) and Kepler (serif) and/or Adobe Jensen (serif) (traditional look)
•Nueva (serif) and Tekton (sans) (modern look)
The following cartographic conventions should be considered in your font selection (Arnold, 2004):
  • The typeface must be legible in small sizes
  • Typeface must also be slightly narrow, to avoid line lengths running too long
  • Different styles and weights of the typeface must be clearly differentiated from one another
  • Individual letters must also all appear different from one another, to help minimize misreadings and misunderstandings
  • Typeface must be able to form good word shapes, which will also directly increase legibility
TypeBrewer is a highly recommended place to begin your selection of type for your map.  In the TypeBrewer system, “Formal-B” and “Informal-B” are good choices if you are using pre-loaded system fonts.  ”Formal B” is a good choice for web fonts.  Other listed type schemes require that you obtain fonts from external sources. These provide excellent solutions for cartography, though they can sometimes be expensive.
There are many sources of fonts available for free and for purchase via the web. Some designed specifically for cartography are: and Cisalpin (the “ideal typeface” for cartography).
The following table presents the lettering conventions of a few cartography publishing houses (The Guild Handbook of Scientific Illustration, Second Edition):

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