Ask A Cartographer

Typographic case

August 22 2008 | 0 comments
Categories: Cartographic Design, Labeling

A colleque at a sister agency (county) across town e-mailed me recently and said the following "In all four of my Cartography classes, I was instructed to only use capital letters when annotating a map."

He was responding to me sending him an annotation layer I was working on for our partition plats, where I use proper case. In my maps, I use a mix of cases, depending on heirarchy, space considerations, and visual appeal, which I understand is subjective; but "all caps, all the time"?
Isn't that going too far?

I was shocked. I was going to respond saying that he should get a refund for his classes, but didn't want to be too flip.

Do you have a comment?

Mapping Center Answer:

Type is like other symbols on a map – it can be used to help the map reader see differences in categories (these are “qualitative” data differences) or magnitudes (which are quantitative variations.) Variation in type on the map helps your map reader to see the variations in the data that you have symbolized.

If your data are qualitative, you can change these properties of type to reinforce your qualitative symbology:

  • font (e.g., Arial, Times New Roman)
  • form – roman (upright) versus italic
  • hue (e.g., red, green, blue)
  • arrangement (along a feature like rivers, curved in a polygon, spread out over the polygon, etc.)

If your data are quantitative, you can change these properties of type to reinforce your magnitude message:

  • point size
  • weight (light, medium, demibold, bold
  • scaling (that is, extended or condensed
  • color lightness
  • case (upper, proper, lower)

You may also want to add some special effects so that the type is more legible and more easily associated with the feature it labels:

  • callout (a leader line back to the feature it labels)
  • shadow (especially for multi-color backgrounds)
  • halo (especially for single color backgrounds)

The most important thing is that the type is legible -- that is, it can be seen AND it can be understood. The second part of the definition of legibility (being understood) means that the map reader can associate the type with the feature it relates to. This can be promoted by using type that is commonly used on maps for certain features (blue, serif, italic font for hydrographic features or brown, sans serif, upright font to contour labels.)

By limiting how you vary type on a map, you severely limit your ability to use type to reinforce your symbology and make map use easier for your readers.

That said, too much type variation is not good either. For some hints on type for maps, check out TypeBrewer ( – an online tool to help you choose good type for your maps.

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