Visual Clutter and Maps

If you’ve ever attempted to read a geological map, you’ve probably noticed how difficult they are to understand. The traditional way of displaying the topographic base on a geological map involves a lot of detail, color, and clutter.
In recent years, cartographers have attempted to improve the readability of geological maps. It has been found that having a large number of point symbols can greatly hinder the reader’s ability to quickly perform common map-reading tasks. Having a lot of line symbols can also cause problems, but these are not as severe a hindrance.
The importance of color is also difficult to deny. Symbols that are coded by color, or by color and texture, are easier to find than symbols coded by texture alone. For long term recall, texture coding appears to be slightly more effective, but the difficulty in picking up textures on a map outweighs this benefit.
Typography is also important. Bigger text, lower-case lettering, and a sans-serif typeface all contribute to the readability of place names. These design elements are commonly found in illustrated maps, and are now becoming the design elements of choice in street maps and geological maps too.
Geological maps need to be accurate, so the abstraction offered by many illustrated maps would not be helpful. However, geological maps are highly specialist tools, and not something that the average tourist would ever need to make use of, unless they were going hiking, climbing, or orienteering.
Simplifying geological maps so that they serve the purpose of the reader (for example, highlighting only major landmarks and attractions or facilities that the reader would be looking for) is a good idea. In this, cartographers can learn from the designers of illustrated maps. However, going to the next level of abstraction and removing elevation lines and other important information would be a bad idea.

One comment on “Visual Clutter and Maps

  1. Abstraction in geo maps allows people without skills to read real maps to understand and get interested. Talented artists can make real difference!

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