Oct 25, 2017

Designing a Map? Follow the Lines & Rules

We just released our first-ever map. 

The topic? The best places to drink in the Central Eastside. (If you want one, look for it at your favorite drinking establishments across the Central Eastside.) It was a fun, interesting and challenging experience. Here are some takeaways and rules we’d like to share on designing a map that people will want to pick up — and actually read.

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Icons: Keep it Simple

How are people going to use your map? That’s the first question you and your team should ask. For our map we wanted to show things like public transport, bike lanes, major highways, and of course, drinking locations through simple icons. Don’t reinvent the wheel with icons. People know what the walking sign is and what an airplane signifies in any language. Well-designed icons should be understood beyond the boundaries of language. Otherwise, we'd all be stuck in the mazes that are airports. Don’t be too clever in designing icons into obscurity.

Use a Border

Yes, we’re all used to going beyond borders with Google Maps (by zooming out or scrolling beyond the screen) but with a printed map? You’re going to need a border. It tells your reader “this is the specific area you are in and want to explore.”

Scales Help Set the Stage

Ever heard of a smoot? It’s a unit of length created by Oliver Smoot, an MIT student in the late 1950s. He laid down across the Harvard Bridge while his frat brothers used his height to measure the length of the bridge. Hence the smoot was born. Funny anecdote aside, using your finger to measure where you are on a map is similar to what Smoot discovered. Your map needs a scale (for instance one inch equals a fourth of a mile) to help wanderers assess how far their next stop is.

Your Compass: Go North

The golden rule with a compass on a map: it always points north. Always. Design wise, have fun with the style (Old world explorer style? Modern compass?) but make sure it fits your brand’s look and feel. For example, we designed five compasses before choosing the perfect one.

Add a Legend

Think of your legend as a user’s manual for your map. A legend is a way to say, “this is the box where all of the icons live.” It defines what the icons mean in case it's not obvious. If you have to invent an icon to tell a specific story or instruction, make sure it is prominent.

Tell a Good Story

Yes, you should follow the above rules when designing a map. But before you dive in, you need to explore how your map will be used and what kind of experience you want the user to have. Do you want it to be functional or an illustrative experience? Do you want it to encourage exploring? To inspire? Our map tells the story of our neighborhood but also provides a guide to those who want to explore and find new places to drink at. It’s a very specific story and one we think will resonate with locals and visitors alike.

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