Maps are not just tools you had to use during history or geography lessons. They are an important part of your adult life. You need one anytime you go to a new place. You might brush this off and say, “Why do I need a map when I have my smartphone with me at all times?” That’s a valid point, however, a good WiFi connection isn’t going to be found everywhere, and if your phone can’t connect, or dies when you don’t know where you are, you’ll wish you knew how to read a map.
To read a map, you have to know the parts of a map. These parts have special meanings and are used in specific ways.
The map elements we’ve described below are among the most important ones. You will need to know how to decode them every time you read a map. How will you orient yourself without knowing the title, the short description, or the scale of the map? Plus, you’ll need to understand the legend symbols, labels, and grids, too.Without understanding these tools, a map will be nothing but a pretty picture to you.
Learn the meanings of the map elements which appear on the layout and you will always know exactly where you are. We chose ten of the most important things to know about reading maps and thoroughly presented them below in this article created by our team at MapSVG.
1. The Importance of the Title
The title is the first thing you see on a map layout. It should answer your “What,” “Where,”and “When” questions. It is useful to read the map’s title even when you already know its topic because you will avoid any misunderstandings. There are a lot of similar maps, and the title will help you avoid any possible confusion.
The most important thing it depicts is the area covered in the image. Imagine a map of the Wichita Falls city area of Texas, or the entire USA. These are big areas. A map can also represent the area of your backyard. The title is crucial when trying to decipher between them.
2. Read the Scale
This is a basic feature of a map that will help you imagine the distance between you and different points or objects. One cm/inch of the map represents a number of cm/inches in the real world. This is what they mean when a map says 1:10000 ratio, for example.
There is another way to interpret the scale and calculate distances. This applies to when two different units are compared, like in the following example: 1″:100′. 1″ stands for one inch and 100′ represents 100 feet. Decoded, this means that one inch on the map compresses 100 feet from the real world.
The third type of scale representation is the graphic one. It works on the same principles, only that the measurement unit is graphically represented on a bar scale. Once you determine the unit on the map, you will automatically see under the bar its equivalent in the real territory.
3. Orientation. Find Your Pins on the Map
Unlike a virtual map, a traditional one doesn’t have a moving pin on its surface. So, it can’t possibly detect your position and move along as you change it. However, you can imagine and control such a pin on a traditional map.
For this, you will need to learn to use the compass rose. Its main purpose is to help you orient according to the cardinal points. In most cases,the Northernmost part of the map is at the top of the page. However, that’s not for all maps. Sometimes, maps are adapted, transformed, or rotated for more convenience. That’s why the position of the cardinal points may differ.
But, as long as you follow the rose and keep the directions, you will be on the right track.
For more precision, you can also use the grid marks of the maps. By keeping track of the latitude and longitude, you can pin your position more easily.
4. Read and Understand the Map Key Legend Symbols
When figuring out your position, you may have to find different landmarks in the region that have been marked on your map. This is the main purpose of the legend. It defines either colors or certain symbols that represent different landmarks or landmasses. Every type of map has a different legend, but the majority subscribe to some general graphic rules. Some maps don’t even contain the map key legend because they use intuitive and simple symbols.
Yet, complex maps require complex legends. For better usage, you should know what every type of line and every shade of color mean. Without understanding the legend, you won’t be able to properly read the map.
On a climatic map, for example, cold colors (shades of blue) represent cold temperatures and vice versa. On a relief map, green stands for plains, low altitudes, and brown for mountains and high altitudes. The darker the color, the higher the mountain. It’s the same with the blue for the aquatic relief.
5. Borders and Contours
You won’t find this on every map, but it is always good to be informed about this map tool. Borders are bold lines that limit territories with specific characteristics. Neat line contours do a similar thing, but with elevation (height). Contour lines are helpful for seeing the height of a mountain or the depth of a valley.
For small territories, the border emphasizes the end of the map and the area it covers. You can’t miss it because it is the thickest and darkest line on the entire map.
All information represented by the map, including the legend and title, are surrounded by another, smaller. They are thinner and help the viewer restrain their eye movement.
6. Gridlines and Graticules
We’ve already mentioned the crisscrossing parallels and meridian lines that form the gridlines of a map. These map elements usually appear on professional maps, representing big territories on Earth. When talking about graticules, each horizontal and vertical line represents a certain longitude and latitude of the Earth. The geographical position of an object is the intersection between the corresponding lines.
In smaller areas, gridlines can be used differently. You’ve probably noticed that these lines build a network of squares. You can name/number each square and use them as references. Imagine the map of your backyard. Let’s say your cellar is in the C3 square. If you want somebody to find something in your cellar, all you have to do is send him to “C3.”
The graticules aren’t compulsory on most types of maps. Yet, they can be of great help during the orientation process. For experienced map readers, they are of the utmost importance when trying to read latitudes and longitudes.
7. The Visual Path
Image Source: averylavalleygis.blogspot.com
Most graphic objects have a certain visual path established by its creator. Both artistic painting and technical maps have a certain visual hierarchy. This means that there is a sequence of dots, objects, and areas that will successively draw your attention. The authors will emphasize something they want you to see first. Then, they will attract your gaze to another object and so on.
The most important parts of a map have greater prominence – they are on the top of the hierarchy. The not-so-crucial information is smaller, unbold, and de-emphasized. This is one of the map elements that help you efficiently read the map. You discover the information layer by layer and use it according to your needs.
8. Perspective Inset Map
The best inset map example is the representation of Alaska and Hawaii on the USA map. They are used either for spatially discontinuous areas or as a close-up view for a smaller territory. Inset maps are included on a bigger map and must be read with respect to the main map only. It’s essential for certain regions of types of maps.
Another type of inset map is the keymap. This represents wide areas on bigger scales for a better perspective over a certain territory. It helps the viewer understand the extent of the bigger map from a bird’s eye view.
On the other side, some inset maps can focus on small areas to emphasize some special features and properties of an area.
9. Citation and Description
Image Source: hydrosource.ornl.gov
Just like any other information, a map needs to be legitimate. That’s why the source citation is utterly important when making or reading a map. In most cases, the source list is inserted as a footnote. Based on the citation,you can determine whether a map is trustworthy or not.
As part of the citation, map makers can also include a short description of the map. This would depict the criteria they took into account when building the map. Thus, the users know how the map is meant to be used.
Ending thoughts on the map elements you should know
Maps are useful and this is indisputable. Their purpose is clear.
When building maps, cartographers firstly think about peoples’ needs. If a lot of people would like to discover a certain area in a certain way, they will take that into account when making their map. They build a concept, choose the main parts of a map, and set the purpose.
The main requirement for map=making is “keeping it simple.” You want people to look at a map and automatically understand all the meanings and symbols. For complex territories, there’s always the possibility to explain everything in a legend. However, map elements such as title, scale, and grids must be intuitive and well-thought.
If you want to build a map, think about simple, clean design and include as much information as possible on that display. Stylize it, make it easy to depict and decode, and people will be more than grateful for your work.
If you liked this article about map elements, you should also check out this article with map illustration examples.
We also wrote about a few related subjects like map vector, what is a vector map, interactive maps, the choropleth map and how to make one, thematic map examples, statistical maps, and all the types of maps out there.
I take it you like maps as well so make sure to check out MapSVG, a great WordPress maps plugin you should check out.