I have no skills in GIS, "map-making," or any other map program. Been a county planner for 25 yrs, where there was always a "drafting" staff. I'm in another agency now and need to be able to produce basic and attractive site plans and area maps. Is QGIS the right tool? I saw on a planners' website that it's free to download, along with GIMP and SketchUP.

I need some genuine advice on this, not something impossibly technical for my situation, nor a smug brush-off.

  • 4
    What are you trying to produce? Do you know what data is available to make your maps/plans? What software does the agency already have?... QGIS is a pretty great tool on top of being free, in any case :)
    – Erica
    Commented Mar 29, 2013 at 0:47

8 Answers 8


Making attractive maps is always a challenge, and a bit of art. You need to serve the information in such way that it is easily understood and not tiresome. Too much information and you've lost the reader. Too little information and you cannot communicate you point.

QGIS comes with its own cartographic composer which enables you to do many-many wonderful compositions, which has nothing to envy when compared to other expensive products. But as everything, one needs to put down time and effort to learn it. The end result WILL be beautiful well-composed maps which serve the information just right.

Above all, you need to put your imagination to work.

If you have specific questions please don't hesitate to ask.


The suite of FOSS tools in many cartographers' toolchests include:

QGIS can handle the majority of vector and raster operations and most of the cartographic work. From a cartographic perspective, Inkscape and GIMP are primarily used to finish maps created within a GIS. Inkscape handles vector data, while GIMP is best suited for raster data. People often use GIMP to fine-tune coloration of a map. Inkscape is often used to add, for example, custom arrows to maps or add shadows to lines and polygons. To handle complex page layouts, use Scribus. R is a statistical programming language that rounds out the toolchest. With R you can further extend your capabilities by performing a variety of spatial statistics for cartographic purposes (e.g. interpolation and KDEs).


  1. Tutorial: Making maps for print using QGIS
  2. Basic cartographic techniques using Inkscape
  3. Natural Earth: Free vector and raster basemap data used for almost any cartographic endeavor

I have taught myself the basics of QGIS with the occasional help with people in this forum. I'd never used mapping software before, so it was all new. I found that the tutorials and stuff on-line went too far too quickly, but I persevered and got there in the end. I am an amateur archaeologist and this was needed for our projects and other people to needed to know how to use it, so in the end I wrote a very basic beginners guide to it. If it is of interest, I would be quite happy to pass a copy on to you. It is only the basics to get you going and there is tons more to learn, but it may get you going. It covers where to get it, how to install it and how to set it up for first time use as well as getting some data into it. It is UK based, but would not need to be changed much for anywhere else.


If you have never used a GIS before, I recommend starting with A Gentle Introduction to GIS.

Afterwards, check out QGIS Map Design for more examples focused on map making, such as:

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(Disclosure: I'm one of the authors).


In addition I would strongly recommend that you create an account and use the forums on Carto Talk which is a site run by the North American Cartographic Information Society (NACIS) and has very useful information on best practices and how-to's in cartography using the above mentioned software: http://www.cartotalk.com/

  • Step 1: you should read the manual english manual (if you read it once per month you can always discover new info)
  • Step 2: you should try solve the exercises from the manual
  • Step 3: take a look to your aim and start with it
  • Step 4: ask in this forum for any doubt that you can not solve from the manual

There will be a bit of a learning curve as with any new software. I don't see the free QGIS training from FOSS4G listed and thought I would add it to the resources here. Cartographic design is part of the curriculum. Some libraries also provide e-resources that offer QGIS training.


I often find inspiring what other cartographers created in QGIS. There is a Map examples section + QGIS map gallery on Flickr. Of course, not all of them are good examples. But some of the maps are just fantastic, they are worth to learn something from them.

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