Ask A Cartographer

readable fonts

June 22 2009 | 2 comments
Categories: Labeling, Symbology

I am working on an ArcServer app that has many layers including orthos. I have shaded my streets layer as white or yellow and used a reference scale to get the line width to approximate the width of the roads when the user is zoomed in close.

I have tried a drop shadow as suggested with the .4/-.4 offset. I have tried different colors for the text and the offset. I have tried halos as well.

Nothing really works. I have attached a small image that illustrates my problem.

I am wondering if a specific font would help. I know that serif fonts are easier for the eye to figure out. But it appears that sans serif fonts like Arial are the default on most sites like Google etc.

Have you experimented with fonts focusing on 'readability' against a complex background?

Mapping Center Answer:

The statement that "serif fonts are easier for the eye to figure out" is true -- but mostly for large blocks of text which is not what is usually used on maps.  Also, serif fonts require more ink on the page (or pixels on the screen as the case may be).

The important thing to consider for maps viewed on computer screens is the counter, or the enclosed or partially enclosed circular or curved negative space (white space) of some letters such as d, o, as well as the spacing between letters ("kerning") and the spacing between lines of type ("leading").

There are some type fonts that were specifically designed and engineered for the screen (e.g., Verdana and Georgia, for example.)  The important thing is to use a font that has simple letter forms and in which the letters are spaced well.  Other san serif fonts that you will often find used on the web include, for Microsoft, Trebuchet MS, and for Apple, Lucida Grande and Geneva. Arial, Helvetica and Times are used for both, but they were not designed with on-screen readability as a priority.

There was a book and a web site published some years ago for web cartography -- while slightly dated there are still some gems of advice in there for anyone working on online maps:  Web Cartography, edited by Menno-Jan Kraak and Allan Brown. London: Taylor & Francis. http://kartoweb.itc.nl/webcartography/webbook/.

Also, this seems like something a topic for CartoTalk!

Blog post posted by Mamata Akella on Jun 23 2009 11:08AM
There is also a Mapping Center blog post on text, imagery, and design considerations for mixing the two that you may find useful.

http://blogs.esri.com/Support/blogs/mappingcenter/archive/2008/04/08/can-you-read-me-now.aspx
Serif vs. Sans-serif posted by Rick Ingle on Jun 25 2009 1:14PM
As the Mapping Center has noted, the statement that "serif fonts are easier for the eye to figure out" is true, but only for certain uses. On a map with a lot of detail, serifs actually clutter up the map and make the text harder to read (especially if it is at an acute angle). I never put a serif font on my maps for just that reason. We use Trebuchet MS on our 9-1-1 dispatch maps for readability.

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