Ask A Cartographer

Mixing font sizes

June 01 2009 | 0 comments
Categories: Cartographic Design, Labeling

I am creating a map book for our county so I am hand-labeling a lot of the features. Right now I am having a problem labeling all of the streets. Obviously some are much shorter/smaller than others which makes labeling difficult. I was thinking of reducing the size of the labels for the smaller streets, say size 4, and keeping the labels for the longer streets like a size 7. Is mixing font sizes for a feature a bad idea? Also, is it wrong to mix the placement of the labels? For example, some streets I have labeled on the line, others labeled above the line when the label completely covers the street (another reason I was considering reducing the font size). Any help here would be appreciated.

Thanks,

Mapping Center Answer:

First, it's not a bad idea to change font sizes when labeling streets.  Typically major streets get the largest fonts, while minor, particularly residential streets get the smallest font. That said, I would not recommend changing the font size of the largest classes of streets--that becomes confusing.  Also, I would only reduce a given label's size if it were necessary--which happens too frequently (short streets with long names happen everywhere).

But, if you've got to resort to a font size of 4 (I am assuming points), then that's too small--nobody will be able to read it.  Depending on whether your street names are mixed case or all caps, you can get away with something like 5.5 points (which, IMHO, is still too small).  Generally 6.0 to 6.5 points is the smallest you'll see on printed maps, and 8.0 on on-screen maps.  The main point here, is that if the text is too small to read, then don't bother putting it on the map. 

That said, there are a couple of mitigating strategies for when there are just too many labels to fit in a small space. 

  1. If this is a single large format (page size) map, hopefully it is possible to print the map at a slightly larger scale.  For instance, going from 1:36,000 down to 1:30,000 can make a big difference.
  2. If there are just a few pockets of overly clustered clumps of labels, try making insets of those areas. 
  3. More painful than insets, but when there is no room for insets, something has to give, are key lists.  This is where you replace the street name on the map with a number and somewhere off to the side (nearby) you have a numbered list of corresponding street names.
  4. Last, maybe all the streets don't need to be labeled.  Don't bang your head on a wall, print the map without all the hard work, just to show the impossibility of it all to your boss, and hopefully they see the sense in changing to something more manageable.  It's important to print the unrealistic design because seeing is believing.

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