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I would like to produce some good looking wall maps. I have an excellent data set, but it seems that most GIS packages are geared towards data analysis etc. as opposed to producing an aesthetically pleasing map, especially when it comes to printing.

What is the best solution for producing a good-looking map? I have tried Quantum GIS, but it refuses to print large maps thanks to a bug. I am looking for something A) with a half-decent GUI and B) that doesn't cost the Earth.

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i think ArcGIS Desktop is good to produce good looking wall maps. –  wetland Nov 23 '12 at 12:31
Costs a fortune though. –  ElendilTheTall Nov 23 '12 at 12:59
then GMT is better than ArcGIS –  wetland Nov 23 '12 at 13:11
related - gis.stackexchange.com/questions/7463/… –  Mapperz Nov 23 '12 at 14:42
QGIS can print to a 60 inch plotter via pdf and then have the plotter rasterise the pdf and scale accordingly. Maybe your method is not correct? –  Mapperz Nov 23 '12 at 14:45

7 Answers 7

up vote 7 down vote accepted

Most of the GIS packages I have used have excellent mapping tools. I can produce very good maps with QGIS for instance. So that's an option, if you can't run to the cost of ArcGIS. Yes it is a little more fiddly to get the exact result you want but excellent maps are perfectly possible. I am able to produce large maps with QGIS - but you have to sometimes turn off the option to "print as raster". I create them as PDFs and then print the PDF. I don't print direct from QGIS and I never printed directly from ArcGIS for that matter either.

Alternatively you can try MapNik. Its sole purpose is to create maps rather than analysis. Another, more obscure, product that might be worth a look is MapMaker. Another cheap product is Idrisi. These are just a few suggestions.

Given that some of the most beautiful cartography was done by hand using pens and paint, it is worth remembering that it is NOT any particular tool which produces the beautiful map but the cartographer. Map making is as much about art as it is science so the real limitations are artistry of the Cartographer and their imaginative use of whatever tools are available.

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Thanks, I'll check these out. QGIS just seems to fall over when I try and print a large map (say 1mx1m) using the data set I happen to be using, which is about 20 layers of fairly dense detail. I'm not 'printing to raster'. It is apparently a bug with Windows versions, but the same thing happens in Linux for me. I realise the cartographer has a large input in the quality of the final map, but the tools he uses can make it a lot easier! –  ElendilTheTall Nov 23 '12 at 13:32
Mapmaker appears to be from 1994, and Idrisi has a waiting period for downloading a trial (facepalm). MapNik suffers from that maddening tendency of open source software developers assuming that other people want to download and compile source code. For heaven's sake just give us an installer! –  ElendilTheTall Nov 23 '12 at 13:52
MapMaker was last updated earlier this year. There is also an installer for MapNik 2 on Windows. Unfortunately it is somewhat burried in the site. To find it go here: mapnik.org/news/2011/11/29/windows-binaries-progress –  MappaGnosis Nov 23 '12 at 13:56
Excellent, thank you. I did say MapMaker appeared to be from 1994; in other words, it looks godawful and a PITA to use. :) –  ElendilTheTall Nov 23 '12 at 13:58
Mapnik requires you to write code to get an output, which is fine if you know Python for instance. Another obscure option with free, cheap and pro versions is TNTMips (microimages.com/products/licenseLevels.htm). I Haven't used this one much but if you're in the mood for research it could be worth a look too. If you're really keen, you could trawl this list: cartographersguild.com/software-discussion/… from the Cartographer's Guild forum for free cartography tools –  MappaGnosis Nov 23 '12 at 14:05

GMT is what you are looking for. Good and reliable maps for printing.

Output is Encapsulated PostScript File.

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This appears to be some bizarrely technical command-line based application. I wouldn't know where to start styling a map with some 20 layers of content, let alone producing something decent looking. –  ElendilTheTall Nov 23 '12 at 13:19
@Vladimir Could provide an example of map(s) created using GMT? There are some nice examples but none of it would probably make it to our small hall of fame. –  radek Nov 23 '12 at 13:21
@ElendilTheTall Which is why you need to add more details to your question. You did ask for a GIS package. You did not say that it has to be a GUI program. –  R.K. Nov 23 '12 at 13:52
I have since edited my question to reflect that. Besides that, it seems fairly obvious to me that if you want to design something, it follows that seeing what it looks like while I'm designing it would be desirable. Would you expect Photoshop to be a command-line tool? –  ElendilTheTall Nov 23 '12 at 13:57
Yes, GMT needs some training, it is true. When you have trained enough, you know how the desired map looks like. =) Sometimes, it is just about pure experiment to use features of GMT toolkit. –  Vladimir Nov 23 '12 at 14:55

I would use QGIS with Illustrator or Inkscape. In QGIS you can convert the data into a form that you can load into Illustrator or Inkscape and there you can manually adjust the image to your preference.

In response to the comment about the data size, you can use MapShaper to reduce how large the raw data source is.

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I already have MapPublisher for Illustrator but it can't handle the amount of data in the dataset efficiently (it's an old version). –  ElendilTheTall Nov 23 '12 at 15:09
Add a comment about mapshaper.com/test/MapShaper.swf in my answer. You can reduce your data hugely with a polygon simplification approach. –  djq Nov 23 '12 at 15:14
It appears to the text that causes the problem. I just exported a map without text as an A4 size SVG with no problem. I then turned on the text layer and tried again - boom, crash. –  ElendilTheTall Nov 23 '12 at 15:44

Avenza is by far the most advanced cartographic software out there. Its not free and requires Adobe Illustrator. But if you want to use what professional cartographers use, this is it.

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I have it, albeit an older version. It can't handle the amount of data I'm working with. –  ElendilTheTall Nov 24 '12 at 8:13

try arcGIS Explorer Desktop . it's free and you can download it easily.

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This unfortunately appears a little too basic for my needs –  ElendilTheTall Nov 23 '12 at 14:03

Try Manifold, you get a lot for the price (low hundreds). Check out the help and linked topics for Layouts:


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I would try it, but they don't provide a demo. They only offer ridiculous paid for trial leases or money back schemes. –  ElendilTheTall Nov 24 '12 at 8:17
poor diddums so sad –  mdsumner Nov 27 '12 at 12:37
Not sad, just 15 years out of step with the rest of the world. –  ElendilTheTall Nov 27 '12 at 14:37

This is a riff of Sylvester's answer, which I upvoted for the "compose > export to pdf > print (at size)" workflow. This is exactly what we do with costs-the-earth-Arcgis, and have been for years. Some of our maps are quite complex and/or large (up to 42"x 72" or 105cm x 180cm). More than a few just refuse to print directly. Sometimes it's Arcmap that craps out and sometimes the printer, or something in between. Whatever the reasons, we've found creating PDF and then printing from that to be the most stable and flexible route.

Compose the map at the largest page size that works, then use your favourite pdf-reader's ability to "scale to page" or "fit to page". Depending on the output device, it may be possible to use the print driver's Advanced or Page Layout properties to up-scale the map by a percentage. This is preferred over fit to page as it gives you more control over the scaling. For example an 18"x24" (45cm x 60cm) pdf with a map scale of 1:500,000 up-scaled 200% will yield a hardcopy of 1:250,000, whereas with fit to page you might get something weird like 1:254,350 (and never be quite sure what it actually is).

The "export to pdf" stage can be substituted with "print to pdf" with a virtual pdf printer (pdfcreator highly recommended; just say "no" to installing the dumb browser toolbar).

So, to sum: choose the best map composing package you can afford and are willing to work with, then use other tools for sizing.

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