Ask A Cartographer

Is there a collection of universal cartographic symbols?

April 29 2009 | 4 comments
Categories: Symbology

Is there a globally valid 'universal' set of cartographic symbols? Who defined it? Do we provide it? Can it be downloaded? Especially I'm looking for:
- power doors
- non-power doors
- elevators
- lifts
- ramps
- curb cuts
- curb without a curb cut
- accessible (handicapped) parking

Thanks a lot!

Mapping Center Answer:

There are certainly commonly accepted cartographic conventions (like using blue lines for rivers and green colors for vegetation), and certain mapping agencies will adopt a set of cartographic symbols for their maps (like the symbols on a USGS topographic map, as shown in Parts 5 and 6 on this web site:, but there is NO ONE SET of universally accepted cartographic symbols.  And for us cartographers that is actually a good thing!  Different maps will require different symbology for all sorts of reasons that relate to the use and the audience of the maps.

That said, there ARE sets of symbols that many map makers use and therefore many map readers are familiar with. Many of these are sets of symbols are found in the ArcGIS styles.  For the types of features you are trying to map, there are no standard symbol sets.

If you are making a 2D map, you can check out the Public Signs style. This style contains marker symbols that have the kinds of signs you might find in public buildings to indicate such things as elevators, escalators, and stairs. The Hazmat style has things like stairs (of various types), escalators, elevators (or various types), and handicapped accessible emergency exits.  The Transportation style contains symbols for handicapped reserved parking and access for the handicapped. Other styles will contain other symbols.  You can either use these symbols as they are, use them to create your own symbols, or create you own symbols using other input (e.g., graphic image files).

Standardization Within a Discipline posted by Barry Conner on May 7 2009 2:04PM
The information I have been seeking SHOULD be readily available - but I spent four hours doing exhaustive searches via every conceivable search criteria, from a simple query for, quote: civil engineering symbols - unquote - to nightmare arguments of Boolean complexity, using compound inclusions and exclusions, and limiting urls to target schools which specialize in training civil engineers, and containing graphics in predominantly black & white, and featuring linear designs.

It was my understanding that ANSI or ISO had developed systematic symbologies for representational schematics in this field, but apart from some very pricey book advertisements (which may not even help if I were to buy them), I'm finding practically NOTHING. Particularly when it comes to any kind of a standard.

What I am needing especially are a key to the standard symbol set to represent the many various feature types designating our nodes in the mapping of our water and sewer pipe networks. Stormwater features and fiber optic symbologies would also be extremely helpful.

As to pipe node symbologies, those I do find are geared to hydraulics and to mechanical engineering gedgetry - not to the mapping of an underground potable water supply network.

I'm reduced to hoping to find a concensus of symbologies among the plats and plan & profile drawings submitted to our office by a some of our area engineers - but even this wouldn't provide a complete set of symbols for reference.

I was glad to find the ESRI AMFM Water font, among others in the character symbol sets. I haven't yet find a key to their typical use or definitions.

It seems that it ought to be so simple to find - for example - an ANSI, ASCE, APWA, or AWWA resource providing a list or key to typical or COMMON symbologies, if not to a STANDARD - something ideal in mapping nodes according to the most common symbolic language of the target audience.

This has all been a frustrating and fairly fruitless effort. Please pardon my rant. I do hope that someone out there can offer direction to a resource which would provide a thorough set of these sort of symbols and their definitions.
I think the real issue is scale posted by Aileen Buckley on May 8 2009 10:47AM
I think the real issue right now is that the scale at which you are creating your maps is larger than that for most GIS applications. You are essentially working at a building scale which traditionally has been mapped using CAD software and architectural specifications. For example, Building Information Modeling and the “Architectural Graphic Standards” book might actually give you more guidance.

With the increased use of GIS to model 3D and larger scale environments, I think you will begin to see some increased attention to standardization of symbols for GIS applications that relate to mapping building-scale or street level-scale environments. ISO-TC211 does have a standard on Portrayal but I did not see anything like what you need. You may jsut ahve to make something up or look into the architectural/building literature for more guidance.
Geospatial and CAD community integration posted by David Danko on May 12 2009 3:11PM
The OGC 3D Information Management (3DIM) Working Group is hosting a 3D Fusion Summit sponsored by OGC, MIT, and Mitre ( for these communities to find out what’s happening in the various areas of interest.
A couple of other leads posted by Aileen Buckley on May 13 2009 11:15AM
You might check the Human Factors symbols that ANSI has been working on. I found this link online to some symbols – this might help:

You might also check out the Handbook of Human Factors in Web Design:,M1

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