We've all seen poorly labeled maps before. In these maps, the wording is either illegible or unpleasant to view due to positioning, color choice or size, or the labels take up so much map space that your map appears "crowded". A poorly labeled map can signal unprofessionalism and averts attention from the message the map is attempting to convey.

What sort of efficient labeling strategies can we as GIS users utilize to make our maps clearer, more efficient and all around better for the end user? Are there any hard-and-fast "do not do this" rules to follow when it comes to labeling your maps?


4 Answers 4


It depends on the map type, style and importance of features:

Fonts are also important. Example:

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Character Spacing can also solve issues:

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Credit and Full Explanation


Don't go over board with using too many typefaces on a map. Use a typeface that has many variations. The National Park Service Maps team uses Frutiger as it contains many weights and variations which help create a typographical hierarchy in their maps. Think about what you want to stand out the most and what should stand out the least on the map. Use font size, weight, style, and kerning to create a hierarchy among your feature labels.

Don't label roads with text left upside down. Remember that in western cultures users read right to left, so a label's text should flow in that direction along a diagonal linear path (whether it's straight or curved). If the line runs vertically, label it top to bottom as that is more readable than bottom to top.

Avoid 'text crashes' where labels run into one another or collide with objects on the map that are dark in color. If you must put a label over a dark color use a halo subtly, 1-2 pixels in diameter. Stick with colors for your labels that are easy to read, when you can print out your maps if they are to be printed or view them on different monitors if they are to remain digital.

Don't forget to anti-alias if your map is going on a digital display.

Read and study typography, it has a very culturally rich history! Hope this helps ;)


Water is best in a serif type-face (font) and italic. Blue is good, but don't be a slave to that. Use splines where possible to follow the feature curvature. S p a c e d characters and words reinforce the suggestion of flow, and can tie a long sinuous water course together. Except when it means turning the map or one's head upside down to read, have the words run in the direction of flow.

Roads, trails, infrastructure are good in a sans-serif type-face, often black. Letters can be closer together (than water) and a little bit of squarish regularity is Ok; we're talking about manufactured features after all.

All things: keep inside the feature where you can. For points, pick an off-set location (e.g. top right) and stick with it as best possible. Use leader arrows very sparingly. Use bold/heavy text for big, important things, light, thin text for stuff that should be there, but in the background.

This isn't text, but important for text: have a unifying neutral background colour or hue to hold everything together. A bright white background makes everything pop and jump and squiggle.

Good labels are the single most labour intensive part of any map composition, and arguably a map's most important feature. What's the point of having a thing in a map if people can't find out what it is? Whatever you do, don't leave them to then end, as an after thought. Automatic label placement, having the software do the work for you, is a starting point, not the end.

Read anything by Edward Tufte and Eduard Imhof and What Makes a Map Beautiful?

caveat: All rules are made to be broken (but knowing when to break them can be dastardly difficult).

  • 4
    This answer is horrible to read. It should be filled with pictures and examples! Commented Sep 23, 2013 at 22:17
  • Did you just critique your own answer? Nice!
    – Conor
    Commented Sep 23, 2013 at 23:18

Cartography is about rules and aesthetics, there are lot of books and material on correct labelling. But these rules are not sacrosanct, they can be changed depending upon map type, terrain, scale and so many other parameters. You can use Maplex in ArcGIS with various settings, like fast, best etc. to see how the placement of the labels changes.

I will try to find some good resource for labelling rules. You can also see on Avenza Mapublisher with Labelpro documentation, which is one of the industry best labelling engine for GIS data driven maps.

  • Please do not use the url of your website as a signature. That can be construed as self promotion and spam. Commented Sep 17, 2013 at 5:49
  • Apologies, I was not aware of this rule of the forum. Other forums do allow, say Cartotalk. Commented Sep 18, 2013 at 14:09
  • I can understand that, given so many forums allows it; But on Stackoverflow and StackExchange, this is generally frowned upon. Please see this: gis.stackexchange.com/help/behavior Commented Sep 18, 2013 at 15:03

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